In what now seems almost like another life, I worked with the painter Ken Kiff to produce a small book on his TheSequence, a series of almost two hundred paintings. Since his untimely death in 2001, Ken Kiff’s extraordinary body of paintings, prints, and drawings has yet to receive the attention it deserves. There are any number of possible reasons for this. Not the least of which is, in my view, that his vision was fundamentally and profoundly that of a visual poetand, as such, largely antipathetic to the historical, conceptual and theoretical preoccupations of those who earn their living producing the ‘official’ discourse around reputation in the art world.
The work on show in the exhibition demonstrates the full range and qualities of the Sequence works in all their beauty, strangeness, and occasional provocation. But it also includes the last of his large triptychs, the Untitled National Gallery triptych painted between 1991-c.1997. Back in 1997 my wife and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Ken Kiff at the Royal Academy, looking at the exhibition of Braque’s late Studiopaintings and his last triptych is, for me, a summation of a similar kind to that found in those works. (Although in certain respects it also distantly echoes, in a softer, perhaps more English way that we might relate to the work William Blake or Samuel Palmer, there is also something here of Beckman’s great triptychs with their complex psycho-dramas). So, while it’s clear from the exhibition and its catalogue that Ken Kiff’s work is very far from being forgotten, it has yet to receive anything like its proper due.
Fortunately the current exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, beautifully curated by Emma Hill, has an excellent catalogue that, unusually, does justice both to the work itself and to the artist’s own thinking by liberally quoting from his letters. It also helpfully includes commentaries by a number of contemporary artists whose appreciation of his work adds to our understanding of its reception. The exhibition and catalogue will, I hope, be a first step towards bringing the work of this extraordinary artist to a wider (and, I trust, younger) audience.
Currently I feel in many respects too caught up in the circumstances surrounding my own relationship to the work in this exhibition to write about it coherently. (A number of Ken Kiff’s letters on display in the gallery and quoted in the catalogue were written to me during the course of our working together). This is in part be due to the fact that, having spent over fifteen years working on a variety of deep mapping projects that had, I thought, taken me away from the preoccupations that inform Ken Kiff’s paintings, I now find myself working in a studio again. While the relief paintings I have been making over that last two years are of an entirely different order to his work, his extraordinary achievements as an artist remain in the back of my mind.
There are, however, some thoughts arising from reading the catalogue in the light of my relationship with Ken Kiff’s work that seem worth sharing here. These relate to the notion of marginality and relevance, and are prompted by a remark quoted by the painter and critic Timothy Hyman that’s repeated in the catalogue. Hyman reports that the painter John Hoyland (1934-2011)claimed that: ‘… if you turn your back on all the understanding of what’s gone on in modern art, you’re going to end up doing some idiosyncratic little kind of painting that doesn’t belong to anything, like an escape … like Ken Kiff or somebody, painting your own nightmares’. Looking back at Ken Kiff’s work today, given the political and environmental causes of the present situation, Hoyland’s patronising and ill-informed put-down has acquired a bitter cultural irony. Today it is Hoyland’s late modernist gestural abstraction, and the macho assumption of ‘progressive’ historical relevance that accompanied it, that increasingly seems not to “belong to anything” culturally substantial; to be “an escape” into the dogmas of a self-mythologizing cultural elite largely blind to the deepening psychic, social and environmental nightmares induced by an increasingly toxic Modernity.
In the same article in which he quoted John Hoyland, Timothy Hyman went on to identify what he took to be Ken Kiff’s ambition for his work; namely to create: ‘conjunctions – of the Absolute with the humdrum, the Essential with the particular; but also Klee with Renoir, the most refined abstraction with the most warm, earthy depiction. How to show dimensions that might seem “other” – say of thought or of spirit or of Fantasy – as part and parcel of the Natural world’. It’s something of this quality in the work as a whole that gives the lie to Hoyland’s trite exercise in self-promotion, offering as it does a verbal approximation of the particular richness and enduring relevance of Ken Kiff’s work. However, today the aspect of that work that speaks more strongly than ever is touched on in a letter he wrote to me in 1988, which is quoted in the catalogue. Although he is referring to his work as a painter, I have come increasingly to hear his observations as relating equally to the work involved in our psychic, social and environmental realities. He writes:
The strangest thought, always, for me is how a work can be reached, and then left. For it to be reached, a process has to be undergone … which is both highly thought out, and ‘arbitrary’ to a point which feels kind of vertiginous. For the work to be left, a totally unintelligible new thing has to be sensed as complete, perhaps necessitating a determination to scrap all ideas of completeness. After all, all ideas of completeness will be useless anyway.
And, ironically perhaps, it was on re-reading this after a gap of twenty years that I finally recognised that my long preoccupation with deep mapping chimed precisely with this recognition. With the need to find a way of working that let go of ‘all ideas of completeness’ (in all its various senses and dimensions) so as to be open to whatever ‘totally unintelligible new thing’ that may emerge.