Many of the works have strong intimations of the sublime — things so large and terrifying that one feels a paradoxical sense of power to see them contained in a room, on canvas, their violent energies constrained by the hand and mind of man. The small-scale rooms of the Phillips Collection emphasize both the scale and ambition of Kirkeby’s efforts to domesticate wildness.
Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips, says she has been interested in Kirkeby for years and had hoped to be involved in a major show of his work mounted at the Tate Modern in 2009. But the economy was dodgy in the run-up to that exhibition, and it was hard to see how the Tate show could be scaled down to fit the Phillips. So the Phillips has now mounted its own Kirkeby exhibition, smaller and more focused, covering five decades of his career, focused on painting and sculpture, and with only a nod to his early work and its more subversive, worldly sense of humor.
The first impression is scale. Upon entry, visitors confront a canvas almost 13 feet long, titled “Erdbeben,” or “Earthquake,” painted in 1983, from roughly the middle of the career arc on display. A bright patch of white placed strategically to the right of center suggests a bright light pouring in through some chink in the rocks, perhaps a window or portal. Strong horizontal lines give the impression of a horizon, but the title compels one to think of other possibilities, perhaps a fault line, or the meeting tectonic plates. The paint is moved in rough, forceful strokes, though it is often spread thin, giving a sense of both motion and layers.
Kirkeby studied natural history and geology before devoting himself to art in the 1960s. In his extensive writings about art, geology is a recurring theme: To paint simply and directly, Kirkeby has written, “demands a deep understanding of that fundamental normalcy that goes beyond any culture, a kind of ‘geological’ understanding of all things.” Geology does a lot of work in the intellectual apparatus Kirkeby has constructed and which critics use to make sense of him. Perhaps too much work. But it is hard to avoid the sense that layers play a far more important role in his painting than mere accumulations of color or density.
Painting, it seems, isn’t just about representing the visible or tangible effects of geological forces — mountains or valleys or earthquakes — it also is a form of geology itself, subject to the same forces, contained within, and part of a world that is made by erosion, abrasion and the sedimentary accumulation of stuff.