"I am inspired by colors, patterns, shapes and random objects.
Not to sound cliché, but something inside me just clicks. ... It's like a slow motion
or stop motion experience."
—RICHARD KEEN, artist
t has been my pleasure to work directly for over a decade with artist Richard Keen, whose paintings combine landscape references with hard-edged geometry. It’s been a delight as well to watch Richard evolve and grow, both personally and professionally, through the well over 500 paintings he has created over the years of our relationship as artist and dealer.
In 2010, Maine Sunday Telegram critic Daniel Kany referred to Richard Keen as an artist who achieves “an unusual sense of formal satisfaction” through his connection with the deeper visual logic” of the coast of Maine, which can be “gorgeous and bountiful, but craggy and mortally tough. Our landscape is transcendentally beautiful, yet more often than not, impenetrably dense. Maybe because the standard understanding of our landscape tradition complements our painters for their on-site heartiness, we too often dismiss or undervalue the artists who seek the deeper visual logic of Maine scenic culture. At his best, Keen achieves architectural structure, abstract appeal and an unusual sense of formal satisfaction.”
I would add, that Keen always seems to be ahead of the trend in color aesthetics. The colors in his works sometimes feel jarring to me, but wait six months and they’ll be spot on. I don’t know how the artist is able to feel the color pulse before it sweeps over the rest of society. But, Keen has proven time and again his foreshadowing of color.
Both Richard Keen and I revere the artistic tradition and inspiration of Maine’s Monhegan Island, whose breathtaking cliffs and cathedral-like woods have inspired many of America’s greatest artists. I remember when Richard told me on a studio visit that, after 20 years of painting, he was ready to take on the island. Indeed, in 2015, we mounted his exhibition titled “Island Geometry: Monhegan.”
Again, critic Daniel Kany reviewed the show, calling it “one the most groundbreaking exhibitions of landscape painting” he had seen in a while, noting that the 25 oil paintings fell into four modes. Two, he wrote, followed familiar lines of Keen’s past work: “marine landscapes divided into outlined geometrical forms by various forms of logic—hills, clouds, water, rocks, trees and so on.”
“The newest group,” Kany wrote, “leaves behind Keen’s penchant for visual dialogues between the forms of nature and human marine culture. Instead, it reaches back towards the modernism of Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Milton Avery and cubism to investigate a compositional logic in which objects in the foreground garner sculptural form while the other elements knit themselves into a quilt-like, two-dimensional background.”
—Elizabeth Moss, owner, Elizabeth Moss Galleries
You're from northeastern Pennsylvania—Delaware Water Gap and Pocono Mountains country. What/who were your creative influences as a kid?
I’m originally from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, but I grew up in northwest Indiana near the Michigan border. As a child, visual art and creative influences were rare and came primarily through my public education. I spent a large part of my time outdoors, exploring the woods, creeks and lakes. Indoors, I remember being inspired mostly by music and cartoons (both drawing and watching).
Your high school art teachers had a big, supportive effect on your art. Please tell us about these years.
I was fortunate to have access to art and music throughout all of my public school experiences. It was in high school that my teachers saw something in me and encouraged me to keep pursuing art somehow. My high school had four art teachers with access to photography, painting, sculpture and clay. Each of these teachers pushed me to think about art and its impact on my life. They all provided access to imagery, magazines, art books and videos. I remember seeing my first Art in America and Art News magazines, which is where I saw the work of Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, Ansel Adams, Claus Oldenburg and Georgia O’Keeffe.
By the time I was a junior I had declared art as my major and begun building a portfolio. By senior year I was spending most of my time in the art studios exploring clay, painting and sculpture.
Where did you attend art school and graduate school?
I bounced around in undergrad school until I landed at Millikin University, a small private school in Decatur, Illinois. This experience was the best higher education experience of my life. The art studios were humming with healthy competition and the faculty inspired us to delve into our practice with everything we could. I received my BFA and double majored in studio art and art therapy.
I received my MA from the State University of New York at Albany. It was there that I began driving to Manhattan by myself and exploring the gallery scene before the big migration of galleries from Soho to Chelsea.
That’s a big jump between the two education levels in what was expected of you as an artist. Tell us about it.
Undergrade school in the mid ’90s placed emphasis on producing a cohesive body of work based on studio production with little guidance beyond inspiring regiment, instruction, practice and personal reflection combined with learning art history.
In graduate school during the late ’90s, there was a large shift in expectations for artists to contextualize, verbalize and write about their own work. This shift has become paramount for young artists today, primarily because there are so many young artists coming out of art schools today; if they don’t have the ability to contextualize, verbalize and write about their work, it puts them at a disadvantage.
Any advice that has stayed with you?
“Think and paint, paint and think.” —Marvin Klaven, undergraduate painting professor
What do you hope to give people through your art?
I hope people find that my work allows for a break from reality and a chance to sit with their thoughts. I love to hear people talk about what they see in my work.… This tells me that they are engaging with it on their own terms without needing me to explain.
What sparked your interest in painting landscapes?
Seeing fishing weirs in Downeast Maine unlocked a pathway for me to combine non-representational abstraction with abstracted realism. They helped lead me to create the visual language that has become my voice as a painter.
How does your series “Form Singularity” tie to the sea?
My “Form Singularity” paintings began when I saw a homemade sail that a fisherman was using. The shapes in this body of work all come from boat components and they generally have a horizon line, or division of space that references sea from sky. They also take cues from colors and textures that I come into contact with around boatyards and out on the ocean.
What leads you to start a series?
I am inspired by colors, patterns, shapes and random objects. Not to sound cliché, but something inside me just clicks. … It’s like a slow motion or stop motion experience.
What inspired the “On the Wall” series?
My wall paintings (murals) are linked to my “Form Singularity” work. They are a means for me to work larger without storing large canvases. I document them, draw them and color-chip them so that if the opportunity presents itself, I can re-create them for galleries, museums, etc.
In 2003 you left teaching art at Mount Ararat High School for an underwater life, with business partner John Blood, repairing boat moorings in Casco Bay. Quite a change from the studio! What effect does spending time underwater have on you?
I find that spending time on and under the ocean gives me a unique perception of color, space and an awareness of the relationships between shapes that are uncommon. This part of my life provides me with a balance to my life and an urgency to create when I’m in the studio.
Have you met any interesting sea creatures?
I generally don’t see many sea creatures underwater. Maine waters in the areas with boat moorings are a thick celadon color where the light penetrates and it turns pretty dark after 30 feet. The most common thing I’ve seen are seals, lobster and flounder. But I always wonder what is seeing me….
Favorite music to listen to in the studio?
I like to listen to music that motivates me physically and emotionally as I work. I listen to everything from Beck to Johnny Cash. I like most genres of music, but I’m still partial to sounds that I grew up with, including Van Halen, AC/DC and Metallica and Nirvana. My tastes have tamed a bit. I like a lot of Americana, blues and rock. I listen to Wilco, Dawes, The Black Keys, Radiohead, Josh Ritter, Hamilton Leithauser, Courtney Barnett, Amanda Shires and Beastie Boys.
You share your life with a writer and avid horse woman. Do you ride or spend time with her horses?
My covivant, Heather Martin, is a writer, teacher and a horse person. She currently has two horses, Henry and Divi. I don’t ride, but I enjoy watching them, helping when needed, and I like closing down the barn for the night and giving them treats. Heather notes that Divi is a Shire/Thoroughbred and Henry is an OTTB (off-the-track Thoroughbred) who she adopted, sight unseen, from an organization that pulled him out of a kill pen. She thought she’d give him “a few good years”—and 21 years later, he's still tickin’!
. . .
Most baked goods are hard for me to pass up, but an almond bear claw would be on the top of the list.
Owl and Elm Pub in Yarmouth, Maine.
The panoramic views hiking along the Knife’s Edge on Mount Katahdin are bigger than life … but any views in Acadia National Park are pure magic!