These paintings and Abstract Expressionism share a painterly vocabulary and have nothing else in common. It’s disconcerting even now, when gestural painting is often figurative, to see how precise Kirkeby’s work is. It is based on direct observation; he evokes very specific events in nature—by which I mean the world. He trained as a geologist and that fact is often mentioned in reviews of his work referring to a layering effect that is likened to archeology. I think in this series of paintings of waterfalls, dated 1981-89, it might provide a partial explanation for his uncanny understanding of rock formations.
Kirkeby’s waterfalls also stand in stark contrast to Pat Steir‘s waterfalls. I don’t think she used any direct physical reference at all. They are conceptual, reconstructing the idea of waterfall by forcing paint to respond to gravity flowing down the canvas to make the curtain.
Kirkeby is not painting Niagara; he is searching out hidden places in the mountain forests. His paint strokes vary between rough and sensitive and slow and fast. I might as well go ahead and hazard (because few will have read this far) that there is an earthy feminine sexuality to these deep mossy places where the water rushes and splashes and trickles, seeking eventually to unite with the sea—but not too quickly.
Me, I love to swim in the punchbowl (that is the technical term) as close as I dare to the falls and then give up, allowing myself to float backward in the current. Except for Untitled ‘89, where the pool is dark, deep and wells toward us, Kirkeby does not seem interested in the pool. This painting is wonderful, the sun, still high in the sky, hits the top of the ridge that shades the falls.
His main interest is in the vertical, horizontal and diagonal faces of the rocks—they are painted with great authority—and in the multiple ephemeral forms and shapes the water assumes. I’m reminded of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured at the same time. Also of the odd idea that greater detail in painting equals realism. Greater detail in this painting, for example, would work against what the painter is showing, a continuous flow shaped by gravity and immovable objects.
Even in Autumn Tree, the most jarringly abstract painting in the show, I find I can recognize an actual experience, the effect of staring at a brightly sunlit flash of leaves and immediately afterward at a part of the fall that is in shadow.
There must be an unwritten rule that it’s unseemly for critics to ‘collect’ as part of their review and yet I do want one of these. What I like about Untitled ‘83 is that I can see it as a detail of a much larger fall where I am so close I could rest my cheek on that mossy green or I can see it as a grand torrent at a greater distance. I’m torn between it and Vibeke… (see above) with its celadon mists and intricate flows.
I’ve never been able to stay long enough at a waterfall, there’s always some reason I have to “get back.” I envied a small snake once, her head was actually poking through the curtain—she was hunting inside the fall waiting for something to flow by—or possibly just breathing in the negative ions. That is the Lenhard Effect. A waterfall is the only natural generator of large amounts of negative ions–which have been shown to reduce stress and increase serotonin levels producing a feeling of happiness.