Per Kirkeby, Painter Inspired by Nature, Is Dead at 79

The Danish artist Per Kirkeby. Though best known for his painting, he also worked in sculpture, drawing and printmaking; wrote and directed films; and constructed outdoor installations from brick.

Per Kirkeby, a Danish artist who trained as a geologist before turning to painting quasi-abstract landscapes that were often characterized as Neo-Expressionist, died on May 9 at his home in Copenhagen. He was 79.

The New York branch of the Michael Werner Gallery, his primary representative for over 40 years, said the cause was complications of a series of strokes.

In addition to painting, Mr. Kirkeby worked in sculpture, drawing and printmaking, wrote and directed films, and constructed permanent outdoor installations from brick. He also published numerous books of poetry and essays on art, designed sets and costumes for New York City Ballet productions of “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and had credits for visual effects on three films by the Danish director Lars von Trier.

But the basis of Mr. Kirkeby’s international reputation was his nature-inspired paintings, which were often seen as a continuation of the North European landscape tradition started by Caspar David Friedrich in the early 19th century. Executed in earthy colors, they could evoke flattened stones, small boulders, skeins of vines and flowing water emerging from darkness — all slightly ajar and pressing forward, giving an ambiguous sense of slow-moving chaos.

“The light of ambivalence is a heavenly one,” he once said.

A thoughtful, independent man with a deep knowledge of both older and contemporary art, Mr. Kirkeby described himself as “extremely restless.” He worked for extended periods on most of his paintings, building up layers of motifs often likened to sediment.

Historically, he said, “artists build on ruins,” but he also saw the pressure of artistic progress as “crazy-making; a very well-known story about reduction that leaves out a lot of possibilities.”

“Basically,” he said, “art history is something made up.”

Mr. Kirkeby was grouped with the German Neo-Expressionist painters less because of his style — he shared little of their figurative concerns, for one thing — than by association.

Michael Werner, who first showed Mr. Kirkeby at his Cologne gallery in 1974, had given prominent German Neo-Expressionist artists like Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff. and Markus Lüpertz their first shows in his Berlin gallery in the 1960s and remained their foremost representative and advocate.

Mr. Kirkeby didn’t mind the affiliation, saying he enjoyed the outsider status. But he said he sometimes felt that curators wished he would withdraw from the Neo-Expressionist exhibitions they were organizing.

His somewhat claustrophobic, shifting forms shared something with the improvisational abstractions of Asger Jorn, another Danish artist, and the large canvases of the American Abstract Expressionists, especially Clyfford Still.

Some of Mr. Kirkeby’s immersive close-in compositions could also evoke the 19th century of the French painter Gustave Courbet. Mr. Kirkeby said his heroes were foremost Delacroix and Van Gogh, whose work, he said, speaking figuratively, “has been with me all the time.”

His paintings could be challenging and a trifle dour, slowly coming to life the longer you looked at them, especially in terms of color. He thought his success had been limited, he once said, because “my work was not punchy enough.”

Per Kirkeby Christensen was born in Copenhagen on Sept. 1, 1938, the oldest of three children of Alfred Kirkeby Christensen, a civil engineer, and the former Lucy Nisbeth Bertelsen. He started painting as a child and soon decided to be an artist.

Mr. Kirkeby, who dropped his family name as a young man, said that when he discovered the work of Jackson Pollock in high school, “I was furious that no one had told me about this before.”

But as he prepared for college, he chose to study geology at the University of Copenhagen instead of art, concluding that the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen was not progressive. As a geology student, from 1957 to 1964, he participated in expeditions to Greenland, Central America and the Arctic that left a lasting impression on his artistic sensibility.

In 1962 he became involved with the newly formed Experimental Art School, also in Copenhagen — a lively but short-lived entity organized by three artists and an art historian. He studied painting, graphic arts, film and performance there.

The 1960s were for Mr. Kirkeby a period of multimedia experimentation. He published a book of poems titled “Copyright” and was briefly a member of the irreverent, interdisciplinary avant-garde group known as Fluxus.

As a Fluxus adherent, he participated in performances organized by the sculptor and performance artist Josef Beuys and Mr. Immendorff. In 1966 and 1967 he spent several months in New York, where he took part in the loosely organized, often participatory events known as Happenings as well as performances by the artist Nam June Paik and the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman.

His own solo performances sometimes used bricks, which he also depicted in his paintings and used in indoor works that evoked Minimalism, and finally in permanent outdoor pieces that border on architecture. He completed his first outdoor brick structure in Ikast, Denmark, in 1973. He would go on to create more than 60 more, mostly in Northern Europe.

In the late 1960s Mr. Kirkeby took up Post-Minimalism with two installation pieces that announced the dominant motifs of his paintings. One was a room filled with tree branches and leaves; the other was a room whose floor was covered with boulders and rocks. In 1965 he had his first solo show at the Free, a Copenhagen exhibition space dating from the 19th century.

Throughout these years Mr. Kirkeby made paintings and drawings, and in the 1970s they became a more central focus. He also managed to write and direct five films in this decade, including “The Deer Garden: The Romantic Forest” (1970), a short documentary portraying the four seasons in the Dyrehaven, a forest park north of Copenhagen (Jorgen Leth was co-writer and co-director). And toward the decade’s end, he turned to making bronze sculpture.

Mr. Kirkeby represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and again in 1980, this time in a two-person show with the Danish sculptor Bjorn Norgaard. In 1977 the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, staged the first of several major museum exhibitions and retrospectives of his work outside Denmark, including one at the Phillips Collection in Washington in 2012. . He had his first New York gallery solo show at the Mary Boone-Michael Werner Gallery in SoHo in 1986.

Mr. Kirkeby, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Mari Anne Duus, whom he married in 2005; a daughter, Charlotte Gransrud, from an earlier relationship; another daughter, Rebecca Kirkeby, from his first marriage, to Jonna Elisabeth Therkelsen; and two sons, Sophus Kirkeby Windelov and Absalon Kirkeby Windelov, from his second marriage, to Vibeke Windelov, a producer of some of Mr. Von Trier’s films.

Mr. Kirkeby had his first stroke, which damaged his ability to see color, in 2010. Subsequent ones caused more problems, as did a fall down a flight of stairs that resulted in a brain injury. In “Man Falling,” a 2015 documentary film about him, he said, “I am virtually a blind painter,” and then added, “But I’m not blind when I work.”

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