David Hockney (born 1937), Per Kirkeby (1938) and Richard Long (1945) have all been around long enough to play a full part in the attention-deficit world of late-20th-century art. Hockney and Kirkeby both started out in the Pop Art movement but now, in their seventies, age and perhaps experience have turned them into practitioners of that most humble and dismissed of genres — landscape art. Long, on the other hand, has known nothing else. And while there is something elegiac about these artists of a certain age returning to nature there is nothing maudlin or nostalgic about the work they are producing.
The least known of the three, to a British audience, is Kirkeby. Although he has long been considered Denmark's greatest living artist, the exhibition opening this month at Tate Modern is the first major survey of his work here. This is surprising because Kirkeby is an exceptionally varied and interesting artist. His pieces include bronze sculptures, architectural brick constructions, paintings on hardboard, blackboard and canvas, and he is also a well-regarded poet and critic.
Kirkeby describes his art as a "natural-historical process" and it occupies a point between abstraction and representation. His landscapes since the 1980s are not in any way topographical but amalgamations of near nature motifs — slashes of foliage, the striations of rocks, leaden reflections in water. Together they add up to not grand views, but the dank and mulchy crevices of mountains and woods where nature is often in shadow.
The key to his vision is that before he became an artist he trained as a geologist and it gave him a distinct eye for pattern and texture in close up: he sees the world as strata. Study his paintings (Kirkeby himself is no help, he rarely gives his work titles and he says of his interpreters "They will never catch me") and the flecks, veining and granularity of rocks are apparent everywhere.
He is also art historically literate and his pictures are full of echoes of his favourite painters: the blurred forms hint at El Greco, the rich, saturated colours at Van Gogh, the inherent northern Romanticism at Caspar David Friedrich and, although never stated as an influence, there is frequently an acidity and spikiness redolent of Graham Sutherland. Buried in the pictures too are more explicit symbols — drinking vessels from a Dutch still life, planks of wood whose heavy graining is borrowed from Cubism and frequently, without explanation, rudimentary huts, a symbol of man in nature.
This strange mishmash makes for an entirely individual pastoral. His are pictures worth looking at long and hard. Although they seem to have been painted quickly they have had lengthy gestations that give them a beguiling and rewarding complexity, a sense of depth and purpose beneath the surface patterning.