I was deeply struck by Ken Kiff’s work when I first encountered it properly at the Serpentine Gallery twenty years ago, soon after I left art school. I was searching for my own identity: I wanted to paint pictures and I wanted colour to be the driving force, but I was uncertain how to translate this impulse into something that was singular and distinct. At that moment (surveying British painting in the early 80s) , looking at Ken Kiff represented a possible third way between the conflicting directions suggested, as I saw it, by Frank Auerbach’s muscular figuration (along with others in the School of London) and Howard Hodgkin’s sensual and highly coloured mood pieces. There was something powerfully appealing and reassuring in the deceptive simplicity and amazing colour of Kiff’s personal language; something strange and exotic as well (un-English perhaps) that was both internally coherent and quite unlike what the others were doing. It reminded me of Francesco Clemente’s vision (both had worked in India) while also possessing much of Miro and Klee’s playful poetry.
Now, twenty years later, confronted once more with his work in Marlborough’s posthumous retrospective, I see how his engagement with the past, with journeys and with India, has foreshadowed my own, even if the trajectory and starting points have been quite different. His presence continues in other ways too: a month ago I went to the auction of the Deloitte collection at the Royal Academy and saw a small print made by Kiff when he was artist in residence at the National Gallery.
It was an unsettling moment, this encounter with the past, because he had -unknown to me - drawn the image from the same painting by Giovanni di Paolo (St John the Baptist retiring to the desert) that I had chosen last year for a painting of my own (see previous journal entry). So I bought it, and as I write this I can see it hanging on a wall nearby.
Ken Kiff (1935 - 2001), Marlborough Gallery London 6 february - 1 March 2008