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Ken Kiff_© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserved

Ken Kiff: The Sequence at The Sainsbury Centre

This winter, the Sainsbury Centre presents an important reappraisal of the work of Ken Kiff (1935–2001), one of the most original artists working in Britain at the end of the twentieth century.

In the first museum exhibition of Ken Kiff for almost 25 years, The Sequence focuses on a unique series of almost 200 acrylic paintings on paper, which he began in 1971 and continued to work on intermittently until his death.

Ken Kiff_S164 The poet Mayakovsky_© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserved

The Sainsbury Centre’s exhibition will bring together 60 of The Sequence paintings, in the largest ever presentation of works from across the series. Hung sequentially, the installation will reveal the evolution of Kiff’s ideas from their tentative beginnings to the expansion of key themes as the series progressed.

Ken Kiff_S113 Talking with a psychoanalyst, night sky_© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserved

Kiff compared The Sequence to a musical symphony, structured by interconnected themes and rhythms. It was a construct through which he could explore ways of thinking about reality and about how painting might express the paradoxical and arbitrary experiences of life. Working on an extended body of related images, he was able to follow ideas intuitively, developing the fusion of abstract and figurative imagery that would come to define his art.

Ken Kiff_S186 Face above the water_© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserved

The Sequence series explores collisions of fantasy with everyday, lived experience. Kiff drew from a wide variety of sources in order to bring what might be called a form of ‘poetic primitivism’ to the work. The paintings’ motifs referenced stories from the myths and folktales of many different cultures and he used his own experience of psychoanalysis to explore multiple facets of the human psyche. The figurative elements of the images were fluidly combined with abstract forms and ways of using colour that were a response to ideas found in Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. It was an approach to painting that resulted in an utterly distinctive visual language, which brought Kiff to prominence during the 1980s-90s.

Ken Kiff_S15 Red face, spilt cup, sunface, man and tree_© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserve

The exhibition will feature a number of important works that were included in Kiff’s 1986 Serpentine Gallery solo exhibition. Amongst these are the first from the series, Something unknown has to be eaten or drunk (1971). The painting introduced ideas about a divided self and a sense of journeying into the imagination which were major themes throughout the series. Also featured will be the early painting Echo and Narcissus, (c. 1973) – a lyrical image which illustrates Kiff’s use of classical subject matter. Later works, including Spitting Man (1976–80), The poet: Mayakovsky (1977) and Talking with a psychoanalyst: night sky (c. 1975–80) will reveal how the work extended into far more subjective and disturbing territory.

Ken Kiff_ S189 Orange sky _© The Estate of Ken Kiff.
Also included in the exhibition will be a number of previously unseen and unfinished paintings from late in the series which were found in Kiff’s studio at his death. These will be hung in counterpoint to a triptych he began during his National Gallery Residency in 1991, to reveal how ideas explored in The Sequence related to his entire oeuvre. The triptych carries a great many references to the later Sequence paintings in its imagery of anthropomorphic landscape, a radiant female figure and a strange encounter that takes place between two gnarled figures in a black cave-like space.

Kiff was elected a Royal Academician in 1991, and from 1991 to 1993 worked as Associate Artist in Residence at the National Gallery. His work was exhibited internationally and was included in major public collections including Tate Britain; The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and MOMA, New York. Kiff was also acknowledged as a great teacher and worked for many years in the painting department at Chelsea School of Art and Royal College of Art, in additional to other British art schools. His approach to painting was enormously challenging to a dominant, critical hegemony that viewed painting primarily through the prism of theoretical standpoints, rather than as a form of affirmative visual poetics – one made apparent through thoughts and objects engendered by the processes of painting itself.

Ken Kiff_t© The Estate of Ken Kiff. All rights reserved