Kitaj, R. B.

Kitaj, R. B.
Oct. 29, 1932-Oct. 21, 2007
American painter


Although fully aware that he has been "tugging," as he puts it, against the direction of modern painting, R. B. Kitaj has persisted in a representational art concerned with profound moral and social questions of man's personal and historical experience. He possesses the excitement, inventiveness, and technical skill, especially in his depiction of the human figure, to meet his goal of bringing art closer to the general public. But the formidable difficulty of much of his work, amalgams both of intricate themes and of diverse styles, has made him perhaps the most hermetic artist of today. Since 1957 Kitaj has lived mainly in England, where he has been more widely known than in his native United States-a condition, however, that was somewhat altered by a major traveling retrospective of his paintings and drawings that opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1981 and then moved on to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Stadtische Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, West Germany.

Ronald Brooks Kitaj was born in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Chagrin Falls on October 29, 1932 to Jeanne Brooks, a native of Baltimore and, eventually, a schoolteacher. He acquired his surname when, in 1941, his mother married, for the second time, the research chemist Dr. Walter Kitaj, a refugee from Vienna. Like the imagery of many of his paintings, information about R. B. Kitaj's early background is in some respects obscure and fragmentary. He has spoken of his sense of a Jewish and Russian, as well as an American, identity and has said that agnosticism and a "compassionate idealistic socialism" were important factors in his upbringing. "My people were enlightened working people," he told Timothy Hyman, who interviewed him for London Magazine (February 1980).

To Hyman's questions about his early experiences of art, Kitaj replied enthusiastically, "As a child, I lived nearby one of the best American museums (Cleveland) and my early years were brightened by that great place." Museums were to him "lighthouses of utopianism and social well-being" from the days of his Depression-stricken boyhood. For about four years he attended children's classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where encouraging teachers taught him to draw from Greek statues.

Kitaj's drawing lessons at the museum ended when, in 1943, the family moved from Cleveland to Troy, New York. Before, during, and after his four years at Troy High School, from 1946 to 1950, he continued to draw. At seventeen he left home to sign on a Norwegian cargo ship stopping at ports in Havana and Mexico. The following year, 1951, he secured American seaman's papers and shipped out on tankers to the Caribbean area. Between voyages, however, he had studied during the 1950-51 semester at the Cooper Union of the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. "My provincial heart was set on learning to paint like Hans Memlinc," Kitaj recalled in his catalogue introduction for an exhibition he organized for the National Gallery in 1980. But under the influence of the emerging school of action painting, the de rigueur technique at Cooper Union called for a house-painter's brush.

"I never did chase down those Flemish secrets." Kitaj went on to say regretfully. Visiting Europe for the first time in 1951, however, he enrolled in Vienna's Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, and with Albert Paris von Gutersloh and Fritz Wotruba as his teachers, he drew everyday from the human figure. At sea he had acquired a habit of eclectic, desultory reading, attracted particularly to English and European literature of the 1920's and 1930's. "Kafka and Joycean exile meant more to me then than the gorgeous Brueghels and Velazquezes in the great Hapsburg collection," he told Hyman in regard to his stay in Vienna. He nevertheless traveled to Paris and other cities to study masterpieces in museums.

On a brief return to New york in 1953, Kitaj joined the National Maritime Union so that he could sail on ships to South American ports to finance further wanderings in Europe and a visit to North Africa. He spent the winter of 1953-54 painting in the Catalan region of Spain. In 1955 he was conscripted into the United States Army, and after completing basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, he served in Fontainebleau, France as an illustrator of the Armed Forces Central Europe.

For years Kitaj had longed to go to Oxford to become what he has called "a kind of scholar-painter." Oxford appealed to him above all other cities because Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound had been there in the early years of the century. With the support of the GI Bill benefits that he claimed upon his release from the army in 1957, he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. "The concept of the work of art as a carrier of meaning far beyond the limited concerns of form alone made a deep impression on Kitaj as a young art student," Marco Livingstone wrote in "Iconology as Theme in the Early Work of R. B. Kitaj" (Burlington Magazine, July 1980). Already familiar with Erwin Panofsky's studies in iconology, Kitaj at Oxford further investigated the value and significance of subject matter in art through his readings of exotically illustrated articles in the Journals of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes and through his meeting with Edgar Wind, an influential professor of fine art at Oxford and a Warburg scholar.

In June 1959 Kitaj received the Oxford University Certificate in Fine Art and the following year entered the Royal College of Art in London for two years of study. His fellow students, like many other young artists in England, were under the spell of the postwar American abstract expressionists, who were absorbed in the process itself of painting and in the painting of pure form, totally devoid of subject matter. But having at Oxford, as Livingstone explained, investigated "the possibility of using inherited meanings of borrowed imagery as the raw materials for his pictures," Kitaj pointed the way, with David Hockney, his friend from registration day, to an alternative-a new kind of figurative painting. In addition to classmates at the Royal College, Kitaj influenced young painters whom he taught at Ealing Technical College and Camberwell School of Art and Crafts from 1961 to 1963. He also tutored intermittently at Slade School of Fine Art in London from the fall of 1963 through the summer of 1967.

Since adolescence Kitaj had been fascinated by surrealism, which, partly because it linked literature with art, remained an inspiration to him. While his use of images of symbolic content owes much to his iconological explorations, in his method of collage making he is indebted to the surrealist device of surprising juxtaposition of disparate elements. The absence of perspective and the diffusion of the viewer's attention throughout the flat surfaces of some of his early pictures may suggest the uncentered, or overall, canvases of the abstract expressionists, but also resemble and encourage a wandering of the mind in the manner of free association celebrated by the surrealists.

Erasmus (1958), which Kitaj regards as the first picture of "any interest" that he painted in England, is a grid design of heads, one of his several paintings whose composition testifies to his admiration for Piet Mondrian. The cartoon-like heads and their arrangement call to mind the work of some American Pop artists. "During the early 1960's Kitaj found himself described as a leader of a hypothetical movement, London Pop," Jerome Tarshis wrote in Artnews (October 1976), "although he had always felt distant from Pop and its sources in mass culture." Many of his early paintings, in fact, such as Pariah (1960), Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody (1961), and Welcome Every Dread Delight (1962), as Livingstone has pointed out, were based on illustrations in the learned journals he had read at Oxford. Equally esoteric were aesthetic intentions and complex mental images inspired by the artist's reading of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. The eclectic character of his work and the deliberately contradictory styles of his early paintings, furthermore, derive in large part from his devotion to Degas, Cezanne, Picasso of the blue period, and Matisse.

A strong link between Kitaj and Pop artists appears, nevertheless, in his use of ready-made graphics. In 1962 he met Cris Prater, a London silkscreen printer with whom he began a collaboration that resulted in the publication in 1970 of several portfolios of silkscreen prints, including Covers for a Small Library after the Life for the Most Part. The fifty screenprints of that series reproduce covers of real and imaginary books and magazines, bearing such titles as the recognizable Coming of Age in Samoa and Partisan Review and the unrecognizable Bub and Sis/Rimes No. 3. A bibliophile to whom books are as essential, he has said, as trees are to a landscape painter, Kitaj once observed, "SOME BOOKS HAVE PICTURES AND SOME PICTURES HAVE BOOKS." And John Ashbery, in an essay for the Hirshhorn exhibition catalogue, noted, "The statement has implications for all his work."

Printed language, literary and other quotations, abounds among the ready-mades, or raw materials, that Kitaj often combines with drawing and painting in his collages. His collage compositions also consist of scraps of photographs, references to films, and other documents of the recent past carrying associations accumulated and transformed by time. So obscure were many of his images that the artist supplied explanatory footnotes for his paintings in his first solo exhibition, at the Marlborough New London Gallery in February-March 1963, which he titled "R. B. Kitaj: Pictures with Commentary, Pictures without Commentary."

In his review of the show in Artnews (March 1963) the British critic John Russell wrote, "I must admit that the most interesting young painter in England today is probably an American, R. B. Kitaj." Along with calling attention to the complexity of Kitaj's sources in regard to both ideas and their organization, he credited the artist with bringing "the subject back into painting" and "history-painting back to life." Two of the pictures of the exhibition that bear out Russell's point are The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960) and Isaac Babel Riding with Budenny (1962), in which Russell observed "an element of straightforward leftwing pamphleteering"-a tendency both early and persistent in Kitaj's work.

For his first one-man show in New York, at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in early 1965, Kitaj also furnished explications of some of the more cryptic subjects of his seventy paintings, drawings, collages, and prints. The artist's method of assembling and arranging heterogeneous images to stimulate a variety of connotations for his viewers offended those critics who deplored "literary" painting. But he had many defenders, among them, Charlotte Willard, who found him a "subtle colorist" and who wrote in the New York Post (February 7, 1965), "For me, at least, he has enlarged the possibilities of the art of our century-and I don't care if it is called Pop."

The New York show displayed one of Kitaj's best-known works, The Ohio Gang (1964), which Alfred H. Barr Jr. promptly purchased for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A gathering of curious, degenerate figures, including a two-faced gangster, a nude gangster's moll, and a bare-breasted prostitute or, perhaps, a depraved wet nurse, The Ohio Gang is a history-painting that "epitomizes an entire era" and that establishes "an air of social portentousness and dire historical significance that is basic to Kitaj's world view," as the American painter Joe Shannon described the picture in an essay for the catalogue of the Hirshhorn show, which he organized.

Another of Kitaj's fragmented and disjointed history-paintings is Walter Lippmann (1966), which borrows its images from various media. The painter identified some of its ingredients: the British film star Robert Donat, wearing a military greatcoat and holding a glass of wine; the pigtailed heroine of Margaret Kennedy's novel The Constant Nymph, climbing a ladder; and, in a small portrait at the edge of the picture, Lippmann himself. In a letter to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, which owns the picture, Kitaj explained that Lippmann represented an "elegant voyeur…as if the explainer or whatever he was in Our Town wrote for the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune."

The Lippmann portrait, though partly concealed, shows Kitaj's gift for capturing likeness. So do his portraits of the baseball players Richard Sisler and Albert Schoendienst, which Kitaj, a baseball fan, painted in 1967, the year after he had visited baseball spring training camps in Florida to make drawings for Sports Illustrated. His portrait of Hockney, David at Berkeley (1968), and those of the poets Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth, and others, result from his year, 1967-68, as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1969, on another visit to California, Kitaj worked at the Lockheed plant in Burbank on Fiberglas sculpture depicting early industrial imagery, a venture into a medium not entirely new to him, inasmuch as he had collaborated for a time in 1962 in England with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Remaining in California through 1970, Kitaj taught for a year as visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

During the 1970's Kitaj produced several of his most effective history-paintings, including The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin) (1972-74), a tribute to the German-Jewish intellectual who committed suicide in 1940 and with whom he shared a love of quotation and of allegory. Another history-painting, If Not, Not (1975-76), was inspired by The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot, who is portrayed in the lower left corner of the painting, wearing eyeglasses and a hearing aid. Among the disconnected, grotesque emblems that crowd the chaotic, Bosch-like landscape is the guardhouse gate at Auschwitz-one of many instances in Kitaj's work that bear on his statement in the Hyman interview: "A central condition for me has been the murder of the European Jews."

While still working on his so-called "epic pictures," by the mid-1970's Kitaj was turning out one-figure paintings like Moresque (1975-76) and The Orientalist (1976-77). His superb draftsmanship had always been a mainstay of his collages, and from his student days he had aspired to finer representation of the human figure. His resumption of drawing from life coincided with an intensified interest in pastels, evidenced in his masterly and dramatic Study for the World's Body and the nude Femme du Peuple I, both of 1974. A visit in 1975 to the Petit Palais in Paris, where he saw an exhibition of Degas' work, inspired him to perfect his technique in the medium of pastels.

"The visual questions that really interested Degas," Kitaj has maintained, as quoted in Newsweek (April 16, 1979), "…were about physiognomy, facial expression, character." That aspect of Degas' art accorded with his own desire to create in his pictures a set of persons with a life beyond the canvas, like characters in a novel. His depictions of the Jew Joe Singer in pastels and oil paintings are directed toward that goal. Fifty of his pastel and charcoal drawings and a few paintings were shown at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in the spring of 1979. Some of the pictures from that exhibition, along with about thirty more recent pastel and charcoal drawings made up his show at the Marlborough Fine Art in London in the fall of 1980. Of that show Michael McNay wrote in the Guardian (October 24, 1980), "It is work striving towards an honesty devoid of fashionable preconditioning. Kitaj is often accused of pretentiousness. The Marlborough exhibition reads more like humility." In his comprehensive retrospective at the Hirshhorn the following year, there was about an equal number of drawings and paintings out of some 100 works selected for display.

In the London Magazine interview Kitaj explained why he intended to confront "impossible" issues in his work: "Some day, when I'm chased limping down a road looking back at a burning city, I want the slight satisfaction that I couldn't make an art that didn't confess human frailty, fear, mediocrity, and the banality of evil as clear presence in art-life." Paradoxically, although he championed "a more social art" and criticized abstract painting for its remoteness from the interests of most people, the obscurities of his collages often made his own art inaccessible. If his pictures are indecipherable, so are the experiences they depict, Kitaj could argue. But in his introduction for the catalogue of a show he organized at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1976, he acknowledged his shortcomings in what he called his "versions of late surrealism" and went on to say, "I hope I am not beyond repair in this matter." His drawing of the human figure and the otherwise greater realism of his pastels, some critics feel, are remarkable advancements in communication.

The Hayward Gallery show, which Kitaj entitled "The Human Clay," consisted of paintings and drawings by British artists that the show's organizer purchased for the Arts Council. Kitaj stirred up much controversy by choosing only works depicting people. Again, in 1980 he was invited to select paintings for the National Gallery's fourth "Artist's Eye" exhibition. As Richard Cork reported in Art in America (February 1981), "He had no hesitation in using [the invitation] to polemicize about an outright and unashamed return to the figurative tradition." One of the fascinating aspects of the show was Kitaj's arrangement of pictures, which, like the interrelationship of images in his collages, illuminated manifold connectedness of themes and forms.

On his first visit to Vienna, R. B. Kitaj met Elsi Roessler, who was also a native of Ohio and whom he married in 1953. Their son, Lemuel Kitaj, was born in 1957, and in 1964 they adopted a daughter, Dominie Lee Kitaj. The death of his wife in 1969 had a disruptive effect on his work for some years. Michael McNay of the Guardian (May 8, 1970) found that Kitaj did not enjoy being interviewed and described him as "a private man, deep-chested and leonine, courteous but reserved, fastidious and slightly oldfashioned in speech." Kitaj has two homes, one in London and the other in Sant Feliu, a Mediterranean port in Catalonia. In 1982 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

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