Portrait of the artist outside big picture

Ken Kiff
April 26, 2002

If you read a book about the life and work of someone you feel you know and find no surprises, it can be taken as either a sign of the book's accuracy or an indication that its author shares your own lack of insight. In this case I firmly believe the former is true. This book sounds and looks like the person I feel I knew.

When I read Ken's obituary in The New York Times a year ago, it was the first I had read in an American paper of an Englishman I knew. Even before I got into the words I felt strangely proud of him, proud that he was able to command so much space on foreign pages. But, as with the book, I found it upsetting. Upsetting to see such late attention being paid. Here is an artist whose work has always been first-rate and deserving of international recognition, yet who has been substantially neglected.

As Andrew Lambirth tells us, Kiff was artist in residence at the National Gallery in London, was included by John Elderfield in a drawing show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was elected a Royal Academician by fellow British artists. But these successes are incidental to his real achievement.

As always with artists, the pictures tell the more interesting story. During the middle of the past century, when so many centre-stage artists were doing their best to drain art of content, there was Ken very effectively stuffing it back in.

My one criticism is the limited scope of the story the book sets out to tell. The text is not ambitious enough; it fails to position Kiff right in the middle of "the bigger picture", where he deserves to be placed. What we get is a clear and accurate portrait of an artist.

Missing is the author's assignment of Kiff to his correct place in the world. In his painting Man Cutting an Image , the man/artist is caught sitting at a table, setting out to snip his way right through the middle of a possible self-portrait painted roughly on paper. The first cut, which he has yet to make, will take his black tailor's scissors from the chin to the tip of the nose. Kiff's paintings (and this book) are full of equally engaging images, that to my mind belong firmly next to what are more famous images by much bigger names: Louise Bourgeois, Fransisco Clemente, to some extent even Eric Fischl and certainly Paula Rego. They are all trying to do a similar thing.

Stephen Farthing taught painting with Ken Kiff at the Chelsea School of Art and at the Royal College of Art. He is director, New York Academy of Art, United States.

Ken Kiff

Author - Andrew Lambirth
ISBN - 0 500 09300 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £32.00
Pages - 224

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