Keith Milow: “The work distills the conflict I have as an artist”

After an absence of almost 20 years, one of the great British artists returns for a new solo show

Since 1998, Keith Milow’s work has gone unseen. Starting in the 1960s, he had carved out a reputation as one of the most important British artists of his generation. He blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture with works as likely to reference mathematical equations as classical architecture. He exhibited alongside Andy Warhol and Bridget Riley.

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Inspired as much by Mondrian as Jasper Johns, his work has always resisted classification. Which is perhaps why, as the art scene exploded in the latter part of the last century, he slipped from the mainstream. In a collector-driven world, work that’s hard to pigeonhole is hard to put a price tag on.

Two years ago he moved back to London and created a number of new works, inspired by the train journey between his new home and his old, in Amsterdam. This month, these pieces go on show at Dadiani Fine Art. Entitled IT, IT, IT, IT, the exhibition takes its name from a line in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s formalist opera Einstein On The Beach. We caught up with Milow before its launch to discuss how his long absence his softened his work.

What links the paintings in this exhibition and how do they relate to your previous works?
All the works are linked best by what they do not include, that being emotional references, biographical instances and deliberate figurative depictions. Although none of the works are even thought of as ‘abstract’, just as one would never describe Jasper Johns works as ‘abstract’. I follow him in that my work questions and plays with the nature and practice of art leaving open to the spectator. To any interpretation they bring to the work.

This is the first time you've exhibited since 1998. Why the gap and how has your art changed during that time?
I had been living abroad the best part of 35 years during which time my links with the London art scene gradually diminished and after a while it became difficult to find a dealer who would take on my work. Memories are short and were even more shortened when the YBAs took centre stage. The last few years have represented a maturing of my work enabled by, among others, the extraordinary patronage of a Dutch collector. The work is more relaxed these days and comfortable with the medium and means I choose.

What inspired the new works?
These works were developed from previous series and preoccupations involving more than one system occupying the painting at one time, not necessarily harmoniously, but each drawing attention to the nature and structure of the other. The work also distills the conflict I have as an artist whose admiration for others is polarised between artists such as De Kooning, Schnabel and Pollock on the one hand, Mondrian, Donald Judd and Carl Andre on the other.

The first of these ‘line’ paintings were triggered as a result of travelling on the Eurostar between Amsterdam and London. When emerging from the tunnel there are long stretches of fencing, which resolve themselves as horizontal lines against a landscape and seemed to create a matrix for the landscape beyond. It brought to mind some early Richard Hamilton paintings based on a perceived and motion-influenced image, as seen from a train. Something fleeting, something uncertain.

At a time when so much imagery is processed, digitised and mechanistic, I have increasingly felt the need to reassert the role of paint and gesture in my work and even hint at figuration, the interpretation of which, I am happy to leave to the spectator.

You have been categorised as avant-garde, post-minimalist, abstract – how helpful are these labels? How do you describe your own work?
That’s difficult to answer. Generally I leave it to others to label my work. I do not have a program or a manifesto. All I can do is approve or otherwise of the labels I get given.

The title piece is named for a line from Einstein on the Beach. Why?
It’s such a seminal piece and I have lost count how many times I have seen it. It will always amaze me how the opera ever got made and became the triumph it clearly is. I first heard of Robert Wilson in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, because of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. His work together with Phillip Glass has run concurrent with my own career, a soundtrack almost. I had recently bought the complete DVD of Einstein and, listening to it again and more closely to the words, I came to the titles of my latest series. The previous ‘Line’ series, the bulk of the exhibition, the titles are taken from Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 29.