On Per Kirkeby with LASSE ANTONSEN

Lasse Antonsen was born in Copenhagen in 1947, and studied art in Denmark in 1963-64 at the Experimenting Art School in Copenhagen with Poul Gernes, Per Kirkeby and the art historian Troels Andersen. He studied art and creative writing in 1964-65 at Kunsthøjskolen in Holbæk with the poets Poul Borum and Inger Christensen.

In the late 1970s he studied art history at Copenhagen University, and then continued his studies in the US at Harvard University Extension and Tufts University. He received an MA in art history from Tufts University in 1986, with a thesis on iconography and influence in Picasso’s work in the 1930s.

In the mid-1980s, Antonsen was a researcher at the ICA in Boston, and from 1985-87 he was curator at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he presented the work of artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Henri Michaux and Paula Modersohn-Becker.

From 1987 to 2012, he was Director of the University Art Gallery at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he, among others, featured the work of Ilya Kabakov, Ana Mendieta, Frank Stella, Pedro Cabrita Reis and Nancy Spero.

Throughout his career, Antonsen has taught classes in Modern and Contemporary Art, and conducted graduate seminars at institutions such as the Rhode Island School of Design and Massachusetts College of Art.

Lasse Antonsen has been an exhibiting artist since 2005. His work and installations have been featured, among other places, at the Providence Museum of Natural History in Rhode Island; the Mestrovic Pavilion in Zagreb, Croatia; Bristol Art Museum, Bristol, Rhode Island; and Kunst Kraft Werk in Leipzig, Germany. From a focus on objects and narrative structures, Antonsen has lately been focusing on the creation of cloth collages, referencing 1950s abstraction and the Korean Bojagi tradition.

Interview was conducted and recorded by Varia Serova, curator and art researcher, on August 7, 2020.

Per Kirkeby in his studio in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, in the late summer of 1996.

© Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize

Varvara Serova: Let’s start our conversation with defining your decades-long connection to Per Kirkeby’s art. When and how did you become familiar with him? How did it all begin, and what sparked your initial interest in the artist’s body of work?

Lasse Antonsen: I met him early, I was sixteen years old. It was in 1963. Per Kirkeby was twenty-five years old at the time, and a graduate student at Copenhagen University, studying geology. I was in high-school, and had read that a new, alternative art school, The Experimenting Art School, had opened in the center of Copenhagen and that it had a printmaking class at night, and that is where I eventually met Per Kirkeby.

The art school was seen as an alternative to the Royal Danish Academy, which was perceived by many aspiring artists as too centered on famous artist professors, and not open to experimentation beyond these established artists’ expertise and vocabulary.

The Experimenting Art School was never a formal, or accredited, school. It was always small. In the early 1960s it was located in a dilapidated, third floor, walk-up that has long since been torn down. The school had rented a couple of rooms, and had installed a small printing press.

The history of the beginning, and the life, of the school as it turned into an artists’ collective, is described, in-depth, in the excellent book by Lars Morell, “The Brotherhood, The Experimenting Art School, Copenhagen 1961-1969.”

By the time I attended the school in the winter of 1963-64, two of the artists who were part of the initial steps toward establishing the school in 1961, Richard Winther and Jørgen Rømer, had left, but their interest and expertise in the graphic arts was still the main focus.

(Later in my career as a museum professional, I curated retrospective exhibitions of the work of both of these artists in the US, and Jørgen Rømer became a close friend.)

The art historian Troels Andersen was from the beginning an important presence and driving force. He would occasionally give slide talks to our class. I remember one memorable evening where he gave a slide lecture on clouds, clouds scientifically, and clouds as they have been investigated by artists.

Troels Andersen had already at that time become known in international art historical circles for his writings on Malevich and Suprematism, for which he had done original research in the Soviet Union.

Troels Andersen had also visited, and written about, the Paris poet and artist, Henri Michaux, in texts I had read with great interest before I arrived at the school.

Henri Michaux, the artist and poet, was an important influence at the time, as was Wols and Art Informel, L’art Brut and Jean Dubuffet. The presence in Denmark of these movements and artist, was largely due to Asger Jorn and his connections to Paris through the CoBrA movement.

The other driving force behind the school was the artist Poul Gernes, an amazing individual with an unorthodox view of life, always evolving and changing. He was our teacher.

Once, when I was rather unhappy with the image and the plate I had worked on, Gernes looked at it and said, “why don’t you ink up the backside of the plate, take an impression, and take a look at what is there.” For me, it was a revelation. While focusing intently as an artist on what you are trying to achieve, or wish to achieve, other things happen that you need to notice and possibly incorporate!

Once in a while, when Gernes couldn’t make it, he would ask Per Kirkeby to be teaching, or rather to be present. So that is how I met Per Kirkeby. I remember him as a quiet individual, but also as extraordinarily bright and knowledgeable.

In the context of the different movements present in the mind of a young artist in the early 1960s, this was also a period when the contemporary art scene had begun to discover John Cage and chance operations, and both in Europe and the US, even before John Cage, there was a general resurgence of Dada, referred to at the time as Neo-Dada.

Cage’s teachings led to Happenings in New York, and to the Fluxus movement in Europe, which members of the Experimenting Art School became involved with, performing with Joseph Beuys.

At the Experimenting Art School there was a loose approach to teaching, with a underlying questioning of how and why to engage in art, and most of the artists quite rapidly moved from printmaking into working with collage, inspired by the work of Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg.

In 1963-64 Kirkeby already had an extensive background as an artist, and looking back at the work he was doing in the context of the school, or in the period the school was in existence, it was extraordinarily mature.

While in middle school and high school, Kirkeby had excellent art teachers, themselves artists. Kirkeby was quite knowledgeable in the vocabularies of painting, especially landscape painting, which has a rich tradition in Denmark, going back to the early 19th century and later enriched by contact with the art of Gauguin and the teaching of Matisse.

1963 and 1964 were years at the cusp of many new developments internationally. It was just before Pop Art began to dominate the international scene, and a few years before Conceptualism and Minimalism arrived.

For the artists connected to the Experimenting Art School, although the approach to art making was collage, with its cheap and readily available materials, there was a general focus in subject matter on popular culture. American Pop Art had clean lines and an iconic design presentation, with imagery focusing on the manufacturing of fame, and on public figures such as Marilyn Monroe, and the art itself was in general a reflection of the modern consumer society fueled by the new prosperity after WWII.

For Per Kirkeby, as for Sigmar Polke and other artists in Europe, the enigmatic and philosophical, painted collages of Francis Picabia, were far more important, though, than the US developments, due to these paintings complexity, incorporating layers of subject matter, while establishing superimposed layers of imagery and style.

For Per Kirkeby, the attention to popular culture opened up the opportunity for an engagement with the popular culture he had grown up with, exploring the comic books of Tintin, for example, and the Belgian writer Georges Simenon’s inspector Maigret.

Per Kirkeby's studio in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, in the late summer of 1996.

© Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize

VS: As a scholar, you undertook an extensive research of his art and practice, which involved you visiting his studio multiple times through an extensive period of time.

LA: Although I continued my art studies in 1964 and the following year, at another art school, a school inspired by Black Mountain College, I began to focus more on writing classes. I eventually began to travel extensively, living in Spain and Morocco and in New York City, so for some years I lost contact with Danish culture and with the developments within the Experimenting Art School and the Danish contemporary art scene in general.

I eventually returned to Copenhagen and enrolled at Copenhagen University, studying art history for some years, and then, after moving permanently to the US in 1979, I continued at Harvard University and Tufts University.

While a graduate student I had begun to teach at the Museums School, which was academically connected to Tufts University and logistically with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I also worked as a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary Art, also in Boston.

Eventually I became director of the University Art Gallery at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where I worked for more than 25 years, and where I taught modern and contemporary art, with a focus on graduate seminars.

Along with the German artists Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, Per Kirkeby began to have an international audience in the 1980s. In 1991, Helene Posner, who was curator at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, contacted me and told me that she was curating an exhibition of paintings by Per Kirkeby, and asked if I could be an advisor on the project.

That led to me giving a talk on Per Kirkeby in connection with the opening reception, and from there on I became connected to the Michael Werner Gallery - which represented Kirkeby in both Europe and the US - and eventually, of course, it led me to be reconnected to Per Kirkeby.

In the 1990s I would usually visit Denmark once a year, taking my wife and my children to Copenhagen on vacation, staying on the northern coastline of Sealand. So I began to visit Kirkeby whenever I was in Denmark. But I would also occasionally visit Denmark on my own, and I was also at one point invited to participate in a seminar at a museum in Copenhagen in connection with an exhibition of Per Kirkeby’s work, so I would, of course, see him at those times too.

In 1994, Michael Werner Gallery asked me to write a text on Kirkeby, situating his work in the context of the 1960s. It became a small book for the exhibition “Per Kirkeby: Early Works,” first featured at their New York gallery at the end of 1994, and then again early in 1995, in their Cologne gallery.

While writing the book, I did not interview Kirkeby. It was a busy time for both of us, and I only mailed him the final manuscript, after which we had a phone conversation. During the conversation he gave me additional information on his earliest interaction with Joseph Beuys, which I incorporated in the book.

Per Kirkeby's studio in Hellerup, Denmark, photographs taken in 2000. Charts on spiritual development. © Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize

Per Kirkeby's studio in Hellerup, Denmark, photographs taken in 2000. The drawings on the table were for the building Per Kirkeby designed as a small museum for his work, for the Langen Foundation in Germany. © Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize

VS: Looking back in time, what was your first impression of Per Kirkeby’s artistic space? Did you feel it has been changing through time? What about his work? Did the space reflect the shifts in the direction of his work?

LA: Per Kirkeby was the closest I have been to an artistic genius, and he was extraordinarily multifaceted. I mentioned that, because his inner studio, if we can call it that, had so many aspects to it, operating all at once in mutually reinforcing directions.

By the 1990s he had a studio in the northern part of Copenhagen, and also on the island of Læsø, and he had a place in Germany, in Frankfurt am Main, where he was a professor. He also stayed occasionally in a large old, renovated villa he had bought in southern France.

The studios were important, but more so were the seasons. He would start a painting and become aware of how much the colors were part of that season, and how much they changed as the season changed.

The studio in Hellerup, in the northern part of Copenhagen, was the only studio I experienced. It was where he lived permanently and where his family lived. Especially impressive in that villa was how the studio was directly connected to the house through a large library and study. Per constantly painted, wrote, and studied. Everything flowed ceaselessly.

Besides being a painter, he was a printmaker, a sculptor, an architect, a stage designer, and he was a poet, essayist, and writer. As a writer he focused on cultural history, on travels, and on other artists, writing a book, for example, on the late paintings of Kurt Schwitters.

One time I spent a day with him at Borch Editions in Copenhagen, where he was working on a new series of etchings. Per Kirkeby did not have a car. Like most Danes, he would bicycle anywhere he needed to go in Copenhagen. Over coffee he shared with me how that morning’s extraordinary blue sky had made him reflect on how the earth is rotating within unlimited, total darkness, and that it is only due to the very thin layer of atmosphere, and the dispersal of light within it, that we could experience such a beautiful summer day.

VS: Through the course of your research, did you ever have a chance to witness Kirkeby at work? What was his process, how was it staged?

LA: Per Kirkeby was very open about how he worked. As many great artists, I believe he was himself puzzled by the creative process, and also at the same time constantly afraid of loosing the connections that made it possible for him to manifest significant imagery.

He would constantly talk and write about the creative process, never theoretically, but rather how it manifested itself for him and how he saw it in other artists. There are many interviews and documentaries on him at work. Especially important is the documentary, “Per Kirkeby: Vinterbillede,” from 1996. Also important is, “Per Kirkeby Interview: We build upon ruins,” on the Louisiana Channel, from 2008.

In the Louisiana Channel video you can observe Per Kirkeby drawing while he is being interviewed. I had a similar experience one afternoon in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1993, where Per Kirkeby had an exhibition at the Laura Carpenter Gallery, and I had been invited to give a talk on Per Kirkeby at the Center for Contemporary Arts.

While talking, Per Kirkeby kept drawing, looking partially at the drawing, partially at at me, yet he never lost the thread of our conversation. I marveled at how easily forms and lines and spaces manifested themselves on the paper, almost without hesitation, though sometimes with a redrawing, or reworking, of some areas, and then suddenly, he would turn the page in the notebook and start another drawing.

VS: Do you remember your last visit to Kirkeby’s studio, the conversations you had? What he was working on at that time?

LA: I do, quite vividly actually. It was in 2000. It was a difficult time in Per Kirkeby’s private life, and he was quite distraught. Perhaps because I was somebody who only saw him occasionally, he felt he could share his turmoil with me, but I also know that Per Kirkeby in many ways was very open with his art and his life, kind of innocently marveling at how it unfolded, broke apart and reassembled itself. Seeing, perhaps, his life as a film continuously unfolding.

The only artwork I really remember from that day, was an amazing, large decorative painting by Poul Gernes that we sat under for much of the afternoon. For me that pulled much of my life in art together in one place.

A couple of months later he had his first stroke and operation, which was the start of a prolonged period of illness and devastation, where the later stages can be witnessed in the documentary “Man Falling” from 2015.

After that we lost direct contact. There were no longer exhibitions in the US where I could be the one talking about his work, and without a direct need to see Per Kirkeby, our personal relationship did not continue on.

But my relationship with Per Kirkeby’s art continued after that. In 2002 I curated the exhibition, “Per Kirkeby: Large Scale Monotypes 1993, Etchings from ‘Feldbuch’ 1994, Original Book Covers 1987 -1994,” at the University Art Gallery at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where I was director. It traveled afterwards to a couple of other institutions, where I actually did talk about his work.

Looking over my notes on Per Kirkeby, I came across this text that I wrote in December, 2019:

The truly extraordinary and deeply original art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, has been diagnosed with cancer and given a relatively short time to live.

The article in which he announced it, is his look back at his life, written with great humor and insight.

In 1993 I spent a week in Santa Fe - in the company of Per Kirkeby and Peter Schjeldahl - in connection with an exhibition of Per Kirkeby's paintings at the Laura Carpenter Gallery.

I had been asked to give a talk on Per Kirkeby's life and art, which took place in the lecture hall at the Center for Contemporary Arts. It marked the only time I ever gave a talk where people had to pay admission to hear it.

The lecture hall was overflowing, not because of me, of course, but because Per Kirkeby at that time was at the height of his International fame, and very much an artist's artist.

Kirkeby came to the talk, as Schjeldahl did, and afterwards we were all at a large, quite animated, dinner arranged by Laura Carpenter at her compound - which is where I was staying, as was Kirkeby and his wife.

The next morning I walked to a small suburban area of Santa Fe and went into a cafe to have coffee, and it turned out Schjeldahl was already there, and we had coffee together.

His reputation as arrogant and obnoxious - as he has described himself - I had heard about, but he was extremely sweet and kind, and we talked for quite some time about Denmark, and about Danish literature and philosophy.

Schjeldahl has written very perceptively about Per Kirkeby. Here is one quote about experiencing Kirkeby's paintings:

“I associate it with the smell of turned earth, with the clamminess of damp woods…the effect is somber, even sullen, but with patience there is a stirring in its depths, the beginning of a grateful joy.”

Schjeldahl coined the experience of a Kirkeby painting "the Kirkeby effect," effectively giving rise to the idea of "slow" painting, and to the reality of having to actively investigate Kirkeby's work in order to gain access to the experiences embedded inside of it:

“a slower, inchoate, darker contemplation, a state of mind hypersensitive and a bit stupid."

Peter Schjeldahl gave a gallery talk in the Laura Carpenter Gallery that afternoon on the group of paintings on view by Kirkeby called "The Inferno Series."

Another afternoon Schjeldahl gave a reading at a bookstore, that Per Kirkeby and I went to. Schjeldahl had just published a collection of his writings called "The Hydrogen Jukebox," the title from Allen Ginsberg's epic poem, "Howl."

A few years later I met Schjeldahl again at a large private dinner given for Per Kirkeby in Manhattan, in connection with an exhibition of Kirkeby's work at the Michael Werner Gallery, for which I had written the essay for the catalog.

Kirkeby had the flu, so ended up not flying in from Denmark for the dinner, and I realized quickly that I had been placed in his seat, among the directors, curators and collectors connected to, among other museums, the Guggenheim and MoMA.

For some reason Schjeldahl was placed further down the table, and much of the evening I was in the company of the editor of Art in America, and Robert Storr, then curator at MoMA.

I did my best to represent Per Kirkeby which, obviously, was why I was there. Schjeldahl and I only had a brief conversation before we both headed out into the late night.

I am grateful that I got to experience, however briefly, this great and profound art critic. His writing, and truly original (non-academic) sensibility and intelligence, will be missed. We will now have to go forward on our own.

To that I can add that we now also have to go forward on our own, no longer having Per Kirkeby with us.

My hope is that MoMA, or some other significant museum here in the US, will finally mount a full-scale retrospective of Per Kirkeby’s paintings, sculptures and prints, so that the American public can get an in-depth appreciation of his unique work, work that resonates with so many layers of meaning and beauty.

Per Kirkeby's studio in Hellerup, Denmark, photographs taken in 2000.

© Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize

August 2020 © Lasse Antonsen for Zephyr and Maize