Born Trowbridge, Wiltshire.Pictured here with his sister Rosemary (left) who also went on be a painter and sister Cecilia (centre) who became a ballet dancer and worked with Hilde Holger and Lindsay Kemp.
From humble beginnings in a cottage with no gas or electricity, from the age of 16, Keen was sketching and painting detailed studies of birds he observed in the fields and woods. He shone academically, winning first a scholarship to grammar school and then to Oxford and was thinking of studying to become a vet. This was thwarted by the onset of war.
More short films followed in swift succession, including The Autumn Feast in 1961 – a collaboration with New York Beat poet Piero Heliczer who starred in Andy Warhol’s ‘Couch’.
In 1962, he met Tony Wigens of Cine Camera magazine, who had some of his work blown-up to 16mm and distributed on the amateur film circuit and shown in the foyer of the National Film Theatre.
It was here that the influential critic Ray Durgnat first saw Keen’s films and wrote about them in ‘Films and Filming’.
Keen was a prolific artist and produced many smaller scale paintings and drawings, as well as larger works, assemblages, prints, books, poems and collages.
An important contributor to Britain’s 1960s countercultural scene, he maintained important international links through mail art with self published books and prints. Keen was actively involved in the Fluxus movement and Anti Nuclear protests at this time. He staged numerous expanded cinema and experimental sound and poetry performances, most famously at the legendary Better Books on Charing Cross Road, London. He was also co-founder of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. He worked closely with Bob Cobbing, Annea Lockwood and Jeff Nuttall amongst others.
In 1970, The National Film Theatre held the First International Underground Film Festival, where Jeff showed his Rayday Film as part of an Expanded Cinema show. This took its name from the magazine, Amazing Rayday, that Jeff had published in Brighton since 1962 and sold in the UK and USA. Revealing his enduring love of comics, it included graphics, poems and artwork with written contributions from William Burroughs. He also presented Expanded Cinema events at art venues that combined multiple projections, poetry, experimental sound and live action with graffiti style drawings on the wall. During the 1970s his films were shown to both national and international acclaim.
Keen featured in a group exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and performed at San Francisco Art Institute. The Channel 4 documentary Jeff Keen Films was broadcast in 1983. Working with editor Damian Toal, he began experimentation with video and computer technology. Characters from his work, such as Dr Gaz – his original ‘mad scientist’ alter ego – metamorphosed into a more Homeric figure. Larger than life anti-heroes including Blatzom (a play on the word ‘Blitz’), Omozap (a play on the word ‘homosapien’) and The Plasticator (a Terminator-style ‘Art Assassin’) became part of Keen’s ever-evolving cast of characters. Keen also worked on graffiti-style paintings which were designed to be transitory and disposable. Large-scale paintings were created on cardboard and paper that disintegrated over time. In 1998, Keen gave lectures and showed his films at Tate Britain.