Per Kirkeby studied natural history at the University of Copenhagen (1964-67), graduating with a dissertation in arctic (quaternary) geology. During his education he participated in several expeditions to Greenland and other places.
His education in natural history had a profound impact on his earliest works, and the scientific registration of nature and geological phenomena clearly influenced his later works as well. 1962-66 while still a student he worked with painting and happenings at the Experimental School of Art, also known as the Ex School under the tutelage of Paul Gernes. Here he exhibited with John Davidsen and Peter Louis-Jensen.
His public debut was a solo exhibition in the Annex to Den Frie Udstillingsbygning in January 1965. In these years Kirkeby explored a large number of art forms: performance, painting, sculpture, architecture, drawing, graphic prints, film and literature. In the 1960s Kirkeby was affiliated with the Fluxus movement in the form of performances.
Today Kirkeby lives and works in Hellerup, Frankfurt and on Læsø.
Kirkeby is not only a painter, he is also a poet, writer, filmmaker, graphic artist and sculptor. His best known sculptures are of red brick and can be seen in several Danish cities.
In 1978 to '82 Kirkeby was a visiting professor at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts and in 1989 at the Academy in Frankfurt. In 1976 with Bjørn Nørgaard he represented Denmark at the Venice Biennial. Kirkeby has received a number of prizes and distinctions: the Danish Arts Foundation’s three years working scholarship 1965, the Academy’s Major Gold Medal 1968, the Eckersberg Medal 1982 (refused), the Thorvaldsen Medal 1987, the Prins Eugen Medal 1990, Arthur Köpcke’s Honorary Award 1993 and Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Award 1997.
Kirkeby has contributed to countless group and solo exhibitions all over the world, including at Lund Konsthall (1968), Kunstverein, Kunsthalle Köln (1970), Documenta 7, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (1982), Castello di Rivoli in Turin (1984), Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (1985), Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Westfälisches Landesmuseum in Münster, Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam (1987), Museum Wintherthur (1989), Documenta IX (1992), the Venice Biennial (1993), the Istanbul Biennial (1995), ARKEN, Kunsthaus Bregenz (1996), Tate Gallery, London, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1998).
Kirkeby is represented in a number of museums, including Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Göteborg Konstmusem, Skive Kunstmuseum, Statens Museum for Kunst, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Museum Ludwig in Cologne and Tate Gallery in London.