A look into Kim Keever’s Controlled Randomness

Intervista di Francesca Mazzella

Abstract 60765, 44×67”, 2022
Kim Keever (b.1955) is an internationally acclaimed photographer. He is known for his colourful large-scale abstractions, which he creates by pouring paint into a 200-gallon tank of water in his studio. Keever uses his large-format digital camera to capture the resulting clouds of colour as they swirl into different forms and diffuse themselves through the water. After earning an engineering degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, Keever worked briefly as a thermal engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He switched careers to become a full-time artist in the mid-1970s, however, his previous vocation has continued to inform his work, lending a scientific methodology and investigative process to his artistic practice. Kim Keever’s work has been exhibited internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions. His work has been widely collected and can be found in numerous public and private collections, including the Bank of America; Harvard Library; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. 

Van Herpen’s designs and your art seem to merge perfectly together. It is a collaboration but it does not look like it, as the shapes and colors fit in so seemingly. I’d like to start by talking about your participation in the Iris Van Herpen Exhibition in Paris, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. How did this collaboration come to be? (https://madparis.fr/Iris-%20van-Herpen-Sculpting-the-Senses) 
Iris got in touch with me having seen my Instagram page, and it went from there. And then the retrospective came about. I am glad I went to the opening in Paris - I spent 3 days in the Louvre, including my own show. She had four large works of mine in the exhibition, and she held court in front of one of them during the opening. It was a big exhibition represented by two floors in this wing of the Louvre. 
Alchemic Explosion, Look 10,
Shift SoulsCollection by Iris Van Herpen, Collaboration with Kim Keever
In an interview with Jerald Melberg, you mentioned how you work to search what you have yet not seen before, as an artist you stand behind the tank and let the color fall into the water, but it is the shooting and choosing the right shots to then focus on, that seems to be the important part. You’re finding “what strikes your subconscious”. Is this search constant in your life as it is in your art? Is this search for randomness, for what has not been seen, a refuge? An escape? a way to fulfill a human desire? 
Absolutely. My life feels boring compared to what I find in the random events in the tank. I have come to call it controlled randomness. I set up the tank, drop the paint in, and it goes it’s own way. I often find areas I have not seen before. And occasionally I get images that seem to not have any connection to my previous work, that’s what I’m really looking for. You could say it’s an escape perhaps like a short trip into the unknown. 

Is this accident a search for truth?
Well, yes. A search for truth in that I’m always trying to find more interesting forms and color combinations. It’s a search for the best art - so to speak - that I can possibly make. It’s a personal competition with myself. I lived in Manhattan for many years so I’ve seen the best art of several generations by going to many art exhibits and museums. I made art that related to other artists for years. Picasso was my favorite. It wasn’t until I started working with a water-filled tank that I discovered my own truth. Originally I made landscapes in the tank and poured paint into the water for clouds until this “truth” became even more pronounced when I started the abstract series 10 years ago. Since then I have taken over 75,000 photos with a medium-format high-resolution camera. At this point, I have about 200 images that I can say I have found a truth. I knew I was the first artist to truly explore this direction. Many artists have followed my lead.
Sometimes I think most artists are too wrapped up in what’s the latest and greatest. I remember looking at an art magazine from New Zealand, and it could have been a New York art magazine. The images by the New Zealand artists were so connected to New York. New Zealand is very far away and there must be amazing things to paint. I always felt the need to go in a more individual direction, to do something that wasn’t explored, and when I started working with the tank, I knew I had reached that point. I like to say that an artist should be seen and not heard. I want my work to be valuable visually and not for anything I might say or do. 

You mention how artists might feel a need, conscious or unconscious to be relevant in the sphere of the world of the Arts and you spoke of your desire to stay in your own lane. Which paradoxically makes you even more relevant to it, as you are not creating to be seen by it, but are fundamental for its development. As an artist, how do you position yourself before the arts, or art, and your own works?
Thanks. That’s a real compliment. I don’t really think about it much anymore, I don’t look that much at artists the way that I used to, and I don’t keep up with the art world. I love art history and when I was in Paris I took 100 shots in the Louvre of beautiful works, got their name tags, and I’m sending them out to friends. The history of art is essentially copying other artists and then eventually making one’s own statement. As artists we are all influenced by the art around us and by artists we admire. None of us grows up on a desert island without any influence.
And during our lives... my gosh, we see millions of images. Since I was a little kid I always loved the sunset, it just seemed so magical. I think we all love the sunset to a point, but not to the point where we might paint the sunset or draw it or have some artistic involvement with it. In general, as artists, we have a built-in talent, not that it can’t be developed, but I am thinking of a feeling. Most people don’t see the sunset, they know they’re supposed to like it and that’s how far it goes. A lot of people don’t really appreciate art, and that is fine, but as an artist, you have a special insight. 
Going off your thoughts on art history, and us not existing in a vacuum where everything needs context, in a way, observing your artistic process, and knowing of your past in painting, one could see you as re-elaborating the basic concepts of Classical Painting. You have water, painting, and an artistic mind. 
Yes, you’re right. The way I make the work is like a 3D painting or sculpture. I always thought of the early landscapes I did in the tank as conceptual art in that the result related to the Hudson River School but they were made in a conceptual way. 

In the past, the canvas was the primary surface of your production, but now you left it for water, yet water does not serve as a final canvas but as a transitional channel from the paint to the picture. It is fluid, so it won’t stop for us. But you make it stop. It is almost like the paint flows in a space where you do not control it, unless necessary, but then you force it to stop to show us its truth. Do you feel like these moments, in particular, define your role as the artist?
Starting with the Landscapes, the sky, is basically what we see as a condensed water vape, and the further you look up, the bluer it gets, which is oxygen. So my tank, two feet front to back, maybe a few miles of water vape, and a real landscape. The Landscapes always tended to come out like Hudson River School Landscapes, it was not intentional, but there was always a lot of reference to it, regarding my work. 
You Were Mine Once, 48×60”, 2000
Early Rockies, 34×44”, 1998
Forest 83c, 34×46, 53×72, 61×83, 2007
I take from 50 to 100 photos when I start the process. Even though the paint moves relatively slowly through the water, I don’t really have enough time to say “Okay, that’s it!”, and take the shot. Sometimes I can tell when the paint is going in an interesting direction so I’ll take more shots. The discernment is later. When I look at all the different photos it’s sort of like each shot is a drawing, albeit a quick one. I quickly go through the images and pick the ones that strike me for whatever reason. This is the almost subconscious moment of truth for me and the beginning of decision making to look for that special photo. You know, I rarely work with photo galleries because typically they show portraits or full figures, or people in groups. It seems to be more about figures than anything else, and I don’t necessarily relate to photography as much as I do to painting. My background in painting and engineering is certainly influential to my work. 

About your background in painting, you mentioned copies. Artists are used to copying previous works to perfect their craft. But when it comes to your art, is there a way to describe it as copy? or memory of something else? 
I’m always looking for what is different and I then try to work with that. Sometimes later on when I have worked on a piece for a while, I see why it’s interesting, or other people point it out. Friends see more than I do at times, they find relationships to Classical Art and everything else in the world. I’m always pleasantly surprised. In a way, it’s like I am redesigning the randomness to fit my own likes and dislikes, but a lot of it really is from the subconscious. Nonetheless, I don’t do any kind of rearrangements, nor twist the images to try to achieve some specific idea like making a face more “face-like”. 

When I think of your pictures, the only thing I can compare them to today is the new wave of AI-generated art. What are your opinions, if any, on the topic? Is the machine taking the artistic value away from the artist or lending it just for a short period of time?
I am not sure. It is another tool. There is always a way the artist can twist the information to turn it into something else. Artists incorporate these tools as they come along. 

In the Carrie Secrist Gallery presentation of your exhibit “Euphoric Landscapes”, your landscapes are defined as “psychology of time and timelessness”. In your earlier projects you seemed to build small worlds where there was a sense of time, space, and human presence but on your 9-year journey to abstraction, has that persisted?
Yes, in the beginning, I obviously built small worlds. With the abstract images, that idea has opened up many new possibilities. Anything goes, anything can happen. Besides forms and shapes I have not yet seen, I am always searching for new and interesting color combinations. Whatever colors I pour in, they tend to go their own way too. Probably the reason why Iris Van Herpen chose my work is because she found interesting shapes and color combinations too. Part of the joy is the surprise, most of the images are similar to each other. I am pleasantly shocked to find something different that piques my interest. 
Winter 18, 30×44”, 47×71”, 2006
Are your works an extension of you or nature?
I consider making art a “beautiful addiction”. The work is obviously an extension of nature and the physics of paint disbursing in water. I usually leave the tank to sit for a day to let the water calm itself. It seems to give certain qualities to the work. I am the interpreter of these fleeting moments.
Your work and your artistic process incorporate technology heavily. I wonder if you live this addition as an expansion of your artistic process, but also of the survival through time of your pieces, that will never age. Will they last forever or are they meant to be seen today, or yesterday by just you?
I actually make a lot of copies of the files. I have so many hard drives it’s ridiculous. But as long as the files exist there will be a way to reproduce them. And if a piece got destroyed a new one could be remade. If a mistake is made when a picture is mounted, I ask them to destroy it for this exact reason. Also, if you sell one, and there are two with the same number in the world, that is not good. The good point is that over the years, the colors and density, in terms of reproduction have become fairly standardized: I never worry about sending a file to be printed and not having a good image come out.
The work is meant to be timeless. The landscapes never showed figures or roads or any indications of human endeavor. This was intentional to give a timeless quality. The landscape could have been a million years ago or a million years into the future. 

I was intrigued by the shift in subjects in your production. You had a multitude of different series (Landscapes, Eroded Men, Dogs, etc…) but now, you lean into abstraction more than anything else, I then wonder: as you stopped making your works function of a narrower focus on less complicated and artificially constructed images, as the subject of your studies change, does the relationship with the audience as well?
I went in several other directions before I arrived with the abstracts. You can see examples of these on my website (https://www.kimkeever.com/), for example, In the head series, I was making them with loose colored plaster. I would put them in the water and let the water gradually erode them to wear them down. Then I would lower the water and add more plaster to it. I found a way to make the plaster disintegrate a lot faster. The idea was to make “sculptures” that could have been created tens of thousands of years ago without any traces remaining today.  
Eroded Man 68d, 25×24”, 2010
Eroded Man 016f, 25×31”, 2010
Abstract 76014, 36×28, 57×44, 2024
My inspiration for the heads was a Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta. She would go to a river bed, and carve out a head or body form and you knew it would all get washed away. Such a simple idea but very mesmerizing. The dog series is related to my childhood. We had a big dog that I loved and one day when I came home from school, he wasn’t there. The adults told me he had gone into the woods to die and it was shocking. I don’t know exactly what happened so it was a reenactment of the dog lying in the woods. As a young child, I grew up in a very rural landscape environment, with estuaries of ocean water, sunsets, and pine trees on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I’ve loved the landscape ever since. 

Lastly, I wondered if, in your art, you create for someone or something else. Or is your practice fulfilling in itself?
Well, obviously for myself, as an artist. But also for posterity since I don’t have any children it would be nice if my work was still around and admired a few hundred years from now. I had a funny little English teacher in high school, and he would talk about art. He gave incredible reverence to the Old Masters. It was almost a religious experience for me. I remember thinking how amazing it would be to become an old master! It would be nice to think you would live on in that way as an artist.