‘The same way Manet rediscovered Goya when he went to Madrid, it is about time we rediscovered the great value of Ken Kiff’s artwork,’ said Paul Greenhalgh about one of the most original British artists of the 20th century. This winter the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts will showcase Ken Kiff: The Sequence, the first museum exhibition in almost 25 years featuring the artist’s work. Greenhalgh also affirmed that one of Sainsbury’s missions is to bring back artists who have not been discussed that much after their death and, since the rest of the building contains collections with ‘faces and bodies’, Ken Kiff would fit in the most naturally with the rest of the works on display.
The Sequence is a series of around 200 acrylic paintings on paper which Kiff started in the 70s and continued to work on until his death in 2001. This series provides an astoundingly insightful rendition of the human psyche, combining fantasy with everyday experiences. Thematically, Kiff drew inspiration from Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, and historically, Hieronymus Bosch. The ways in which he combined the abstract forms in his paintings with the figurative elements of the images, as well as the carefully selected colour palette, were in response to ideas circulated in modernist and abstract expressionist movements.
The exhibition brings together 60 paintings from The Sequence, the largest presentation of works from the series. Walking around the exhibition, I am completely transported into his imaginary space. Each wall is tightly packed with paintings; in fact, they are hung so close together that they seem to blend into one another, a never-ending stream of brilliantly interconnected paintings you cannot look away from. There is a sense of poetic primitivism which binds them all together. Some motifs echo stories from various myths and folktales, to which Kiff added his own experience of psychoanalysis. The first wall on the left reveals his beginnings when he expressed his ideas tentatively, but the key themes are expressed so clearly by the end that any one of the paintings could stand as a representation of the whole work.
Many paintings stand out to me nonetheless. Kiff’s choice of orange in his painting Untidy, carries positive affirmations which can be identified in his other works. Excrement is a striking painting that introduces humour into the series and addresses humans’ place in nature. The Poet Mayakovsky is a fantastic, but haunting painting of the artist blowing his brains out in his Moscow apartment; it echoes the poet’s famous quote: ‘If you wish, I shall grow irreproachably tender: not a man, but a cloud in trousers.’ My favourite piece is probably the triptych, which he began during his National Gallery Residency in 1991. It depicts a female figure in an odd encounter that takes place between two knobbly figures. The woman’s radiance is brought to the forefront by the cave-like space.
‘When I was a teenager, I accidentally left a fingerprint on one of his paintings. The acrylic was still wet,’ muses his daughter, Anna Kiff. ‘Naturally, he was fuming. He’d been working on it for several years. What I didn’t realise then was the precision with which he painted everything. He’d memorised each brush stroke.’ She also remembers how highly regarded he was as a teacher. According to her, his artistic legacy is not limited to his paintings, but to the knowledge he left behind through his teaching.
Ken Kiff: The Sequence will be on display at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts until 21 April 2019.