Ian McKeever in conversation with Alexander Adams


Ian McKeever RA (born 1946) is one Britain’s foremost painters. His abstract paintings, often derived from observation of the natural world near his home in Dorset or prompted by journeys to destinations as far away as Siberia, Greenland and New Guinea, have been exhibited worldwide. A new monograph by Lund Humphries comprehensively surveys his paintings for the first time. The artist talked to Alexander Adams about his work and the book. Alexander Adams: So often I see in your ‘abstract’ art echoes of the natural world. Your references to nature open up avenues of association rather than close them down. Ian McKeever: I do draw strongly on the natural world around me, increasingly, especially, the world immediately around me, those things which encroach not only into my physical world, but also psychologically and emotionally speaking.What I sense as the gap between the sensations of oneself as being distinct from the rest of the world around one is perhaps increasingly the content of the work. Of course one cannot paint an ‘abstract’ painting and not have a strong sense of subject matter, without its lapsing into formalism, which as such does not interest me.


AA: Do you consider yourself a Romantic artist? Do you feel any kinship with Rothko in that regard? IM: I try not to think about the sublime and certainly not to engage with it, rather just to be in the world. Perhaps such painters as Rothko were the last painters who could wear the sublime on their sleeve, engage with it in a full blooded unselfconscious way. However, I do believe very strongly that one of the still sustaining roles of art, and especially painting, is to engage with some notion of a spiritual dimension in our lives. AA: You tend to work in series. How do these series develop? IM: The primary activity is painting; a group of paintings can take anything up to three years to paint. Stretching the canvases, I begin to get to know the paintings physically. They may sit for weeks, or even months, before I actually put down any paint. At any given time I tend to focus on one painting; however, this is never finished in one continuous session. Paintings are rotated, left to sit, and it may be well over a year before I come back to a painting again. During this period I occasionally take out brief periods to make prints. The drawings, on the other hand, are usually made after I have finished a group of paintings and am thinking ahead towards the next group. I may clear the studio and work on nothing but drawings. I very rarely draw whilst in the midst of painting, other than simple notations.


AA: Can you tell me how your drawings and gouaches on paper relate to the paintings on canvas? IM: Basically, I make two quite different types of drawings. Small linear drawings, usually made with a brush and watercolour or gouache, which are a response to my travel sketchbooks, which seem to function as a way of de-figuring what I have seen whilst travelling, pulling the material back towards my ownmore abstract language as a painter. The other groups of larger more painterly gouaches, on the other hand, visually parallel the paintings. These are usually made after I have finished a group of paintings, when I will clear the studio and make nothing but gouaches for several weeks. These gouaches seem to be both a way of exorcising still lingering issues from the recently finished paintings and a way of beginning to sense a way forward for the next group. They give me breathing space between groups.


AA: Do you use a sketchbook in the studio? IM: I keep several notebooks to hand in the studio, where I jot down thoughts and drawings related to the paintings. However, during the long periods of actual painting, I find anything more complicated than very simple line drawings confuses rather than clarifies. AA: As you don’t record dates or exact order of canvases, can you tell us something about how you assign a numeral to a work? IM: The numbering of paintings, which I use less and less, has no meaning to a painting’s chronology within a group. Usually it is simply a means of identification. Paintings are numbered a day or two before they first leave the studio, in whatever sequence they are stacked against the wall on that day. AA: Do you work towards these displays, creating a series with an exhibition in mind? Have you ever made pieces with a certain exhibition or permanent display location in mind? IM: Very rarely. I made the three large ‘Marianne North Paintings’ specifically for the space at Matt’s Gallery in 1995; however, this is unusual. My normal method of working is that one group of works suggests the nature of the group whichwill follow on. It’s an organic process intrinsic to the needs of the work itself. AA: Can you pinpoint when abstract painting first made an impression on you? IM: My introduction to ‘abstraction’ was probably not via painting, but seeing an exhibition of sculptures by Anthony Caro, probably in 1968. AA: With which abstract painters, historical or contemporary, do you feel most affinity? IM: Regarding painting, that is more complex and changing, as my concerns and interests have developed over the years. Certainly the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, have been important.With Newman it is to do with the presence of the painting, with Rothkomore about space, the way his forms hover in front of the canvas. But then so also has a painter like Edvard Munch been important to me. However, in more recent years I find myself looking more at Trecento painting and Russian icons. I’m increasingly drawn to early Italian painting, particularly Simone Martini. There is a clarity of line and a luminosity to the work, similar to the best of early Russian icon painting, towhich I am also strongly attracted.


AA: Many artists feel ambivalent about large monographs and retrospectives. How does it feel to see the trajectory of your art in the new monograph? IM: An interesting question. Doing a large monograph certainly doesmake one step back and look back far more thoroughly than one might normally do. But for me it has been an interesting project, seeing congruencies between different periods of work I would not have had the occasion to do. I do see the book as somehow being an extension of the ‘feel’ of the work. I did not want everything thinly represented and so made a conscious decision to flesh out specifically the painting groups of the last 25 years, so that they could be seen in some depth. AA: So each writer chose a distinct area? IM: Yes. For example, Catherine Lampert studied the travel sketchbooks, travel photos, books and other sundry visual references from the studio, which led to her text. It deals with one group of paintings, the ‘Temple Paintings’ [the group that was shown at Kings Place, London gallery in autumn 2009]. AA: Did the monograph make clear any aspects that had not been apparent before? IM: Had we not prepared the monograph I probably would not have seen that I have produced one or two black paintings within every group of paintings over the last 25 years, and that they, as well as being black, also constitute a real history of the evolution of the work since 1990. Without the monograph, this particular inner history would perhaps have not been evident. I am now preparing an exhibition just of black paintings for Sonderjyllands Kunstmuseum in Southern Denmark [for autumn 2010]. The museum is planning a catalogue, which will document all those black paintings.


AA: In the early part of your career your work intersected with Land and Conceptual Art, as well as photography and painting. That work before the mid-1980s is represented only sparsely in the new book. Is it difficult to discuss that work alongside the later painting? IM: The physical parameters of the book determined what the publication could cover in terms of work. I don’t think that there is a difficulty discussing earlier work in connection with the later paintings. It was simply a question of how much a book of this nature could hold. The different groups of paintings have never been presented as a continuous history, only as discrete periods, so to focus on the paintings felt right. The longer history is perhaps for another publication, something more word-based,where the interconnected conceptual ideas in the work can be explored. I do still take photographs quite regularly, although I use them in a different way to the early works. Perhaps that wider history just needs another kind of book.
AA: Thank you for talking to The Art Book.


Alexander Adams
Artist and writer, Berlin