As a student in 1982 I interviewed Ken Kiff in his Putney studio.
C.I. Who are your influences?
K.K. My great passions are for Picasso, Klee and Braque, I suppose – all those people. For me Klee is a very profound painter. I think that for example even a thing like geometry in painting – which on the surface would have very little to do with my painting – is still a fact. It may be very distorted; but there is a kind of gradual locking-in of structural things, like edges and colours, which to me is terribly important. And mulling over that is partly why my pictures take so long.
C.I. Are you looking for complete balance?
K.K. I won’t use a word like balance because that seems too much like a shape here and a shape there, a sort of weighing up, which is not an analogy that I like. I used to have a thing about unity. I would want the painting to be totally unified and I would think about all the things that would lead to that. There is a certain Braque where every shape in the picture is made up of horizontal or vertical strokes, or a semi-circle – the total picture is unified with a basic cellular structure.
But then it’s not quite as simple as that, if you think of pictorial, poetic or musical construction, there are structures that overlay other structures. You take a Shakespeare sonnet that has a syllabic construction but on top of that he overlays rhythms caused by alliteration, and another brought about by the relative force of the words, or by abrupt stops – then he might reverse some of the stresses. Shakespeare is a master because he can hold the basic structure in his subconscious all the time yet do all these other things too.
So I want all these structural things moving along; yet I want them all flowing into one organic thing. I think that is the force of Paul Klee saying a painting has bones. The basic structure is like a skeleton, and muscles and skin all hang off the structure but are all part of a living organism. So instead of a word like balance – and yes one does want balance very very much – I would now use a word like wholeness.
C.I. Of course in figurative work the subject matter brings its own power that has to be factored in to the wholeness of a painting.
K.K. Absolutely! Even in purely structural things there are some things that you can do in figurative painting that there is no chance of doing in abstract work. Take the Chagal in Paris, the girl with her head flying off (To Russia, Asses and Others 1911) which I think is a very spectacular painting, wonderfully locked together and very geometrical, though I don’t think he planned it that way. You can trace the main arc that includes all the figures, and another that includes all the house. But for all that I don’t see how you can get the tension of the head coming off unless it’s figurative.
C.I. You seem to have found a balance – sorry to use that word again – between abstraction and figurative painting.
K.K. I do feel I am now achieving that, yes. Here are some early paintings of mine. I was doing these abstracts, which were like this square with just four squares in them. I was also still doing figurative things: and I was wondering how to find my way through the two possibilities. I was keen on the tempera paintings which I had done with a techniques expert. The type of gesso he made was a very soft one, which I followed – one that was very soft and absorbent. I was using Rowney’s tempera – but on these soft gesso boards you can put them on and then with a razor blade take it off again. So I made a thick gesso and thought I’ll change these about if need be until I really feel satisfied. I worked on these gesso boards with no plan whatsoever of them turning out like this. That one there – the yellow one – was at one time a dark green painting with a staircase on it. They were abstracts at some stages, but I worked on them for years and years, and in the end they were all figurative. I think that they gained from this very simple abstract planning, and the most successful one does, I think, have the best of both worlds.
C.I. Where does your imagery come from?
K.K. I think that there is a continuous flux of imagery that we all have got in our heads. It comes along in dreams, but dreams are part of the absolute continuous process of imagery – unconscious visual thinking. I envisage it that the artist joins in with the stream of imagery. He won’t understand it in any full sense. I don’t believe in any total understanding or explaining of images. You can think about them of course, but not explain them.
C.I. Do you begin with drawings?
K.K. I may, but I wouldn’t expect a drawing to sort things out. What is happening in a painting is so difficult… so drawing can only be used up to a point.
C.I. But you have a definite idea of the subject matter?
K.K. Sometimes, but it could also just start as a lump of red. I would know it was going to be red and not know it was going to be a house, or whatever. That happens on a number of occasions – more in the past than it does now.
C.I. So the continuous flux continues right through the process?
K.K. Exactly. Take this painting here (Man walking up steps. 1983. Acrylic on paper). There is a person here. I don’t quite know what is going to happen yet – a house and some trees. And this person, for some reason is walking up steps, or there is a hint of steps. I can’t imagine the general character changing. For a long time I have been thinking of a yellow here, though a very quiet one – this I think will stay red, though it will go to a pinky-red – the ear will be brought out and the eye will come up there – but I can only see it as a slightly muted brown at the moment. But I will probably leave this now and come back to it.
One week I would be working on the acrylics, and three or four might be worked on in a day. I might suddenly say “her skirt which has got that purple flower on and snake, is going to be black” – as I imagine it will be – or I might say “no, a dark navy colour” and then it would go in. But then I might not be able to see more – or a lot might flow from that and I would have a big session. I might decide it was finished in two days, but it’s more likely that something would go on, and then I would move on to the next one. You see I might think ‘black skirt’, ‘red house’ and two or three get worked on.
C.I. Do colours carry for you a symbolic meaning?
K.K. Sometimes. I mean that they can become part of the imagery. If I had a figure, say with a head all brushed in green on one side and red on the other, those colours are the most powerful opposites; and so that figure is a powerful image that one might want to use. This is the effect of colour in all paintings. You can’t say that some artists are symbolists and others not. Everything in a painting – every aspect – has a simple function.
C.I. In these recent paintings there is a repeated shape of a diamond with a tail… It seems to be the only purely abstract image.
K.K. Some people feel it is sun and moon, or fire and water. I see it as a suggestion of two opposites. In my painting Magical Elements with Salamander it is the meeting of opposites in a number of ways. There are three primary colours at the top, and the quiet colours at the bottom. Then there is the man and the fish. The fish isn’t a fish but an amphibious animal – water and land, and I feel that that’s what it’s all about.
C.I. It shares many similarities to your painting Acceptance
K.K. Yes. Though the magical element isn’t there. This works in a slightly different way. This is a painting with a yellow background, a cold and warm yellow – one on top of the other. On top of this is a cloud which is a very soft pink- a sort of light red – and then there is the blue water. So really it is the three primary colours all in the background. The three personal images – the man, the fish-come-reptile and the tree – are all no colour. A kind of dullish greeny nothing really. They are meant in a sense to be no colour and they are all meant to be embedded in these colours. So the ‘acceptance’ thing – you could say is the person accepting the fish – but I don’t think it’s just that.
Recorded at Ken Kiff’s studio. 1982