Ken Kiff

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Ken Kiff, RA (29 May 1935 – 15 February 2001) an internationally known figurative artist, was born in Dagenham and trained at Hornsey School of Art 1955-61. He came to prominence in the 1980s thanks to the championship of art critic Norbert Lynton, and a cultural climate intent on re-assessing figurative art following the Royal Academy’s ‘New Spirit in Painting’ exhibition in 1981. He started exhibiting at Nicola Jacob’s gallery, moved to Fischer Fine Art in 1987 and finally to the Marlborough Gallery in 1990, by which time he had begun exhibiting internationally and had work in major public collections. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991 and became Associate Artist at the National Gallery 1991-93. His 30-year teaching career at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College influenced a generation of students.

Despite his success, Kiff’s position was never a comfortable one. His commitment to the pictorial values of modernism, his deep respect for artists such as Klee, Miro or Chagall, and his ideas about painting were often at odds with prevailing assumptions. In contemporary debates around abstraction versus figuration he tended to push past the battle-lines: ‘colour thinking’ as opposed to ‘image thinking’, pictorial form versus representational meaning, in order to get at something beneath their seeming differences. Images themselves arose out of the stuff of painting and an intimate relationship with a technique. His deep personal knowledge of poetry and music informed his sense of a painting’s structure. He saw colour in terms of images and images in terms of colour, which constituted, as he saw it, “the natural complexity of painting”.

Colour and colour relationships interacted in his paintings with a range of images evoking the blissfully radiant and lyrical to the comic and disturbingly grotesque. ‘Fantasy’ as he saw it ‘was a way of thinking about reality’. The matter-of-fact imagery of streets, houses, trees, animals and people was configured with dreamlike encounters and happenings in a way that invited the viewer into an internal world constantly using the external world as its subject-matter.

‘The Sequence’ begun in the 1970s, and by the time of his death, constituting nearly 200 works represented a striking formal innovation. Regarded by Kiff as a single work, it was a series of pictures (acrylic on paper), forming a chain, repeating and developing imagery and colour, and allowing their networks of association to move and develop laterally across many formats, with a single energy carrying them along.

By the late 1980s his range of media had expanded to include woodcuts, monotypes, lithography and etching. He enjoyed how new ways of working with materials, the grain of the wood, for example, or the wax in the encaustics, could extend his visual thinking and force him to make decisions more quickly. He took great pleasure in collaborating with master printmaking technicians such as Dorothea Wight and Mark Balakjian in Britain, Erik Hollgersson in Sweden, and Garner Tullis in the US.

Selected solo exhibitions[edit]

1979 Gardner Centre Gallery, University of Sussex

1980 Nicola Jacobs Gallery, London

1981 Talbot Rice Art Centre, Edinburgh

1982 Edward Thorp Gallery, New York

1986 Ken Kiff Paintings 1965-85, Serpentine Gallery, London, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

1988 Fischer Fine Art, London

1991 Ken Kiff, Recent Work, Marlborough Fine Art, London

1993-94 Ken Kiff at the National Gallery, London

1996 Marlborough Fine Art & Graphics, London

2001 Retrospective Paintings, Works on Paper, Prints, Marlborough Fine Art, London

2008 Ken Kiff Paintings and Works on Paper, Marlborough Fine Art, London

Selected group exhibitions[edit]

1970 Critic’s Choice, selected by Norbert Lynton, Arthur Tooth & Sons, London

1973 Magic and Strong Medicine, selected by Norbert Lynton, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

1979 Narrative Painting, selected by Timothy Hyman, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

1981 New Works on Paper 1, curated by John Elderfield, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1982 Issues: New Allegory 1, curated by Elisabeth Sussman, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

1983 Alive to it All, Serpentine Gallery, London

1984 The British Art Show, Ikon Gallery and City Gallery Museum, Birmingham

1987 Current Affairs, British Painting and Sculpture in the 80s, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and British Council touring

1989 Tree of Life, Southbank Centre, London, Corner House Gallery, Manchester

1990 Nine Contemporary Painters, A Personal Choice, selected by Andrew Lambirth, City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

1994 Here and Now, Serpentine Gallery, London

1997 British Figurative Art, Painting, The Human Figure

2001 Tell me a Picture, selected by Quentin Blake, The National Gallery, London

Selected bibliography[edit]

1979 Norbert Lynton, Ken Kiff, Gardner Centre Gallery, Sussex University, catalogue Introduction

1979 Martha Kapos, Ken Kiff, Gardner Centre Gallery, Sussex University, catalogue Introduction

1979 Timothy Hyman, Ken Kiff, Artscribe no 17

1980 Peter Fuller, Ken Kiff, Art Monthly no 34; reprinted in The Naked Artist, Writers and Readers, 1983

1980 Michael Mason, In Pursuit of Visual Rhymes, TLS, 22 Feb.

1981 Stuart Bradshaw, Ken Kiff, Talbot Rice Art Centre, Edinburgh, catalogue Introduction

1981 John Elderfield, New Work on Paper 1, Museum of Modern Art, New York, catalogue Introduction

1981 John Ashbery, Pleasures of Paper Work, Newsweek, 16 March

1981 Hilton Kramer, Expressionism Returns to Painting, New York Times, 12 July

1983 Iain Biggs, Uses and Abuses of Myth, Artscribe no 38 Jan

1985 Timothy Hyman, The Meeting of Contrasted Elements, Ken Kiff Paintings 1965-85, Arts Council catalogue

1985 Martha Kapos, Illuminating Images, Ken Kiff Paintings 1965-85, Arts Council catalogue

1985 Michael Sheperd, The British Show, Art Gallery New South Wales, catalogue Introduction

1988 Marina Warner, The Tree of Life: New Images of an Ancient Symbol, Southbank Centre, Spring

1988 Martha Kapos, Ken Kiff, Art Monthly, no 118 July August

1989 Malcolm Miles, Shadows and Rainbows, Ken Kiff, Alba, April

1991 Andrew Lambirth, In conversation with the Artist, Ken Kiff, The Artist’s and Illustrator’s Magazine, no 54, March

1993 Ken Kiff, Thoughts on Being at the National Gallery, and Norbert Lynton, catalogue Introduction, October

1993 Richard Cork, Unfinished Business on his Easel, The Times, 7 Dec

1997 Malcolm Miles, Something Unknown must be Eaten or Drunk, Point – Art + Design Research Journal, no 5 spring/summer

1998 Norbert Lynton: Ken Kiff’s Sequence, Ed. Iain Biggs, MakingSpace Publishers, Bristol

1999 Andrew Lambirth, Ken Kiff and the Weather in the Soul, Marlborough Fine Art, London, catalogue introduction

2001 Andrew Lambirth, Ken Kiff, Thames and Hudson, London


Further reading[edit]

  • Lambirth, Andrew (2001). Ken Kiff. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-09300-9.

External links[edit]