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.