Published  21/02/2001

Ken Kiff: obituary

Ken Kiff 1935–2001: obituary

The world of the imagination, like that of the dream has attracted many twentieth century artists, for it is a realm of experience unspoiled by logic or categorisation. Ken Kiff's work displayed the innocence, candour and privacy of such a world. The optimism and tenderness that Kiff's work radiates is not easily achieved in terms of ideas or technical proficiency. The most striking quality of Kiff's work is the humanness which springs from the artists receptivity to aspects of everyday life and to a wide range of intellectual concerns.

His fantasy world was not an alternative to reality but an integral part of it.1 He was willing to express uncertainty alongside confidence and was obsessed by unifying the plethora of disparate images available to him. The process involved was a dialogue between the artist and himself and with the elements within the picture plane. Kiff's working method involved the nurturing of the surface, allowing shapes, figures, feelings to assume a life of their own. The concern foremost in this method was the process rather than the finished product and the search for sense or meaning in one's own life as well as in relation to the wider world. The openness required in this approach was firmly anchored by Kiff's respect for and proficiency in the craft of picture-making. The self-awareness involved was constantly won: it was the artist's view that by being in touch with inner experience, his imagery would be informed by the world around him.

Unlike much Neo-Expressionists painting of the 1980s where one senses that the artist was "at the mercy of the irrational imagery",2 Ken Kiff's work in this vein had developed over thirty years. The activity of painting and drawing was for Kiff a reflective and tender activity as well as an arduous and ruthless one. The result was a poetry that defines human experience, that conjured primal instincts. They seem closer to fairy tales than dreams, however, Kiff's experience of Jungian psychoanalysis gave him a familiarity and confidence to draw upon images from his subconscious. The scores of animals, birds, human figures that move in and out of his works often appear to symbolise past forces and experiences.

The Little Man became a central character in Kiff's work from the early 1960s. He wore many different hats. He could be sad, inquisitive, grotesque or serene. He expressed the full range of human emotions and more often than not he was the quiet adventurer. Kiff said he was a self-portrait as much as any other artists' characters are. Norbert Lynton observes:

The little man we encounter in Ken Kiff's paintings, a manikin close to caricature, is the artist himself, a pilgrim making his way through the world.3

Of his figures Kiff said:

"I like them to be calm, to come together on the way, friendly rather than grotesque ... there is not a lot of aggression.4

In all of Kiff's work his images spilled from one work to another - his triptych of the 1980s is very successful, displaying the ability Kiff had to structure such a work and balance colour and tonal strength with the shapes and images . In Triptych: Empty Street, Shadow Above a River, Sea Space, (1986-88) at first glance Kiff used areas of black to delineate shapes and separate areas on the plane (though each becomes a strong presence in itself). The subtle use of very dark purple and brown (not straight black) however, are what makes the dark areas harmonise with his tonal palette and become evocative subjects themselves. They are at once empty spaces, formal devices, a black cloud or river and in the lower central panel Shadow Above a River, (1986-88) what appears to be the shadow of the viewer. Certainly the viewer feels welcome in this world. Kiff's attitude was one of openness and there is scope for others to suggest meaning and involvement in the artist's quest.

Kiff's use of colour was exemplary - his sensual application and then ruthless scraping back of the hard board is employed until the image sings harmoniously. In his work, basic questions seemed to beg answers: Where do these images come from? What determines quality? How do they sit in relation to early twentieth century modernist art? Can the principles of optimistic progress be revitalised in a later period? Paul Klee spoke of how an image came into existence in On Modern Art, in 1924. As Martha Kapos noted in her discussion of Ken Kiff's work in 1986:

It is curious that in spite of the widespread re-emergence of figuration in Europe and America there has been so little critical discussion either of how images occur, how they relate to the formal elements that constitute painting, or what their structural function might be.5

Paul Klee describes the "dynamic relation between form and qualities of image".6 It is the imagination that keeps line, colour, and shape living within the picture plane. Klee wrote:

Speaking from my own experience, it depends on the mood of the artist at the time, which of the many elements are brought out of their general order, out of their appointed array, to be raised to a new order and form an image which is normally called 'the subject'.7

A line or an area of colour then has the potential to express a wide range of feelings or ideas. By maintaining an openness, Ken Kiff, like Paul Klee (and Chagall and Redon) could endow the surface of the plane with a life force and with knowledge and ambiguity. In doing so a dialogue is set up between the artist and the physical components of the picture. Kiff was quick to point out, however, that by changing a physical element with meaning does not imply that it is then an idea.8 While Kiff maintained a close control over structure he had pointed out "If you are obsessed with structure, the real structure passes out of sight".9 It was not possible in Kiff's view to separate form from emotion. Perhaps the most direct expression of the artist's personality and intention is drawing, an artists' personal handwriting, the most immediate and direct of languages. It is perhaps easier to detect commitment and feeling for a subject as well and an informed knowledge of form in drawing. An inert line that merely describes truthfully in academic manner, for example, can more easily be distinguished from one that is charged with life.

Pause on a Mountain, (1988) for example in charcoal and pastel seemed to be initially a sad image. It is arresting in the moment of thought and recognition captured in the soft, suggestive media. The man was walking up a hill, Kiff explained to me, he turned around to see a huge figure. Then the sun appeared. The drawing is concerned with inner tension - the veins in the man's neck resemble wild ivy - and with the tension between the two figures. One experiences an overwhelming sense of nothing. What is the power of these tiny lines; on the surface they appear tentative but they have a remarkable capacity to enter one?

Kiff remained a brave artist, one who had not hesitated to examine his own psyche and his own motivation for being an artist. It is a rare combination, the physicality of his pictures, the technical proficiency with the understatement and generous spirit. Referring to the painting The Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky Invites the Sun to Tea, (1985-87) Norbert Lynton said:

It celebrates creativity amid doubt and despondency - creativity as energy but also as a duty, work to be done by man as it is the sun's task to shine.10

Kiff always showed a consistent ability to sieve through ideas, to discern between what was important to him and what was peripheral, to dig out images from the mind and from past experience but also to endow the pictorial elements with a life force so that the image emerges naturally, as if by itself.

Ken Kiff died on 15 February 2001 aged 65.


1. Martha Kapos, "Illuminating Images", Ken Kiff:Paintings 1965-85, Serpentine Gallery, London, Jan-Feb 1986, Arts Council, London, p.35.

2. Kenn Kiff, quoted by Timothy Hyman, "the Meeting of Contrasted Elements", Ibid, p.10.

3. Norbert Lynton, Ken Kiff - New Work, Fischer Fine Art, London, 19th May-24th June 1988, no pagination.

4. Ken Kiff, Interviewed by Janet McKenzie, London, June 1988.

5. Martha Kapos, op.cit., p.36.

6. Ibid, p.36.

7. Paul Klee, On Modern Art, London 1954, quoted by Martha Kapos, Ibid, p.36.

8. Ken Kiff, Interviewed by Janet McKenzie, op.cit..

9. Ibid.

10. Norbert Lynton, op.cit., no pagination.

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