Per Kirkeby, ‘Untitled,’ 2009. Tempera on canvas. (Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin)

The Phillips Collection emphasizes the serious side of Danish artist Per Kirkeby in what is billed as the most comprehensive show devoted to his work so far in the United States. Although Kirkeby, who was born in 1938, has hovered around the edges of different art movements in the past century, including pop art and the contrarian, anti-art celebrants of Fluxus, he remains hard to define. Of the 26 paintings and 11 bronzes on display at the Phillips, only a handful hints at his pop flirtations. The rest are mostly large-scale works with expressionist energies, large fields of dark and vibrant colors that suggest primal things: light, land, water, sky.

There are also mysterious interior spaces, visions into the center of the Earth, forests so dense they became cathedrals of green and what seem to be fantastical architectural constructions — enormous spaces with clouds moving inside them. The work ranges from a 1967 Masonite panel that suggests a view out of the mouth of a cave to a wall-size, brilliantly red, yellow and green painting of horses from 2009.

Many of the works have strong intimations of the sublime — things so large and terrifying that one feels a paradoxical sense of power to see them contained in a room, on canvas, their violent energies constrained by the hand and mind of man. The small-scale rooms of the Phillips Collection emphasize both the scale and ambition of Kirkeby’s efforts to domesticate wildness.

Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips, says she has been interested in Kirkeby for years and had hoped to be involved in a major show of his work mounted at the Tate Modern in 2009. But the economy was dodgy in the run-up to that exhibition, and it was hard to see how the Tate show could be scaled down to fit the Phillips. So the Phillips has now mounted its own Kirkeby exhibition, smaller and more focused, covering five decades of his career, focused on painting and sculpture, and with only a nod to his early work and its more subversive, worldly sense of humor.

The first impression is scale. Upon entry, visitors confront a canvas almost 13 feet long, titled “Erdbeben,” or “Earthquake,” painted in 1983, from roughly the middle of the career arc on display. A bright patch of white placed strategically to the right of center suggests a bright light pouring in through some chink in the rocks, perhaps a window or portal. Strong horizontal lines give the impression of a horizon, but the title compels one to think of other possibilities, perhaps a fault line, or the meeting tectonic plates. The paint is moved in rough, forceful strokes, though it is often spread thin, giving a sense of both motion and layers.

Per Kirkeby, ‘Large Head,’ 1984. (Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin)

Kirkeby studied natural history and geology before devoting himself to art in the 1960s. In his extensive writings about art, geology is a recurring theme: To paint simply and directly, Kirkeby has written, “demands a deep understanding of that fundamental normalcy that goes beyond any culture, a kind of ‘geological’ understanding of all things.” Geology does a lot of work in the intellectual apparatus Kirkeby has constructed and which critics use to make sense of him. Perhaps too much work. But it is hard to avoid the sense that layers play a far more important role in his painting than mere accumulations of color or density.

Painting, it seems, isn’t just about representing the visible or tangible effects of geological forces — mountains or valleys or earthquakes — it also is a form of geology itself, subject to the same forces, contained within, and part of a world that is made by erosion, abrasion and the sedimentary accumulation of stuff.

An untitled 2006 painting draws the viewer in with the sense that Kirkeby is doing a somber, northern riff on one of Matisse’s classic haystacks, dark and stormy, with a thick band of paint suggesting some primordial rift in the earth. Over what might be the sky, frantic yellow-orange lines remain hard to resolve. Perhaps they are energy lines, or a reference to the immanent intensity of van Gogh’s landscapes, or perhaps they suggest something more terrestrial, like a squall of rain lit by a sunset.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, what they are, any more than it matters whether the bulky form in the foreground is a haystack or not. Lesser painters, working in this existential gulf between representation and abstraction, often play a game of hiding or obscuring, as if real things in the world become abstract merely by blurring edges, smudging the margins or throwing veils over them. Kirkeby’s work takes one a bit further, to a profound indifference to the question. Just as a purely geological view of the world suggests that at some level everything is merely stuff — hard or soft, organic or not, but just stuff — so, too, do the paintings subsume identifiable objects within a grander abstraction of color and shape and energy.

Hence, Kirkeby can say (in an interview with Kosinski published in the exhibition catalogue): “I’m not a landscape painter, but clearly there is a certain feeling for landscape in them.” Nature, he says, “gives permission” to use certain colors. It inspires and suggests, but it doesn’t demand slavish imitation.

Two rooms give a sense of Kirkeby’s earlier work, often painted on square Masonite panels. The exposed dark-brown Masonite surface and the vigorous use of earthy tones in 1967’s “Dark Cave (The Dream About Uxmal and the Unknown Grottos of Yucatan)” suggest ongoing aspects of the artist’s work, a pragmatic and unsentimental approach to materials, and the recurring draw of the landscape that he claims not to be painting. A church and a bird outlined in red paint on the surface of another 1967 painting are early instances of a recurring use of what one might call scribbles on the surface of the palimpsest, legible figures drawn over thick layers of paint, striking the eye rather the way a cymbal or triangle strikes the ear in the midst of a thickly orchestrated symphony.

The paintings get larger over time, until they become so large that their effect is theatrical, as if one is looking at the backdrop for a production of “Siegfried” or “Goetterdaemmerung.” The Wagnerian connection is neither explicit nor entirely apt, but the painter and the composer have a few things in common: Nature is an essential inspiration but always highly processed, heightened and dramatized; and they may share a deep fetish for the autochthonous, the idea that we are grounded in the earth that rears us. For Wagner, this blended easily into an ugly nationalism. Kirkeby seems to be channeling something different, a sense of identity that goes beyond the national and parochial, what one might call a geological sense of place and origins.

Per Kirkeby, ‘Inferno V,’ 1992. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

Kirkeby’s arrival on the international scene came with a 1981 show at the Royal Academy in London, “A New Spirit in Painting,” which made the then-controversial claim that painting was alive and well in an age of experimental, conceptual and performance art. More than three decades later, a reflexive suspicion of painting — so old-fashioned, so two-dimensional, so obsessed with its own history — still haunts the art world, which may explain some of Kirkeby’s relative obscurity in this country. But the work counters any such suspicion and dispels it. “Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture” is a thoroughly engaging and rewarding exhibition.

Per Kirkeby:Paintings and Sculpture

is on view at the Phillips Collection through Jan.6. 202-387-2151.