THE ZARATHUSTRA OF CONTEMPORARY ART
R.B. Kitaj, who died on Sunday at his Los Angeles home aged 74, could be called the Zarathustra of contemporary art. With characteristics of prophet and jester alike, he produced complex, compelling, at times knowingly irksome images that were both intensely personal and able to address major themes of modern history and identity politely avoided by most art of his time.
His work broke a modernist taboo – before that became fashionable – by being unabashedly literary. Hilton Kramer once complained that his paintings were “littered with ideas.” He told stories through painting, using visual quotations from high art to convey meaning, and wrote wordy, bombastic “prefaces” to accompany pictures, and manifestos. These texts were sometimes essential to understanding the work, but as often as not, they merely added another layer of playful obscurantism.
But as referential and as literary as he could be, Kitaj was always a consummately visual artist. In mid career he turned with renewed vigor to drawing from life with a robust, assured hand, prompting Robert Hughes to opine that he “draws better than almost anyone else alive.”
Kitaj was born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland, Ohio on October 29, 1932, taking his Viennese refugee step-father’s surname when his mother remarried in 1941. He adopted in the process a rapport bordering on obsession with a displaced European intelligentsia. In his “First Diasporist Manifesto” (1989), which was, typically, a cross between an apologia for his own work and a broader essay about Jewish art, he described his paintings as “a refugee’s suitcase, a portable ark of the covenant.”
After a spell in the merchant navy and Army service in Europe, Kitaj studied in Vienna, Paris and the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford on the GI Bill, and then went on to the Royal College of Art in London, graduating in the stellar class of 1960 that included David Hockney, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. These artists were all associated with the British Pop Art movement, but in Kitaj’s case, the identification was misleading. If his early work had a tight, cool, illustrative quality and was rooted in collage and appropriation, which were hallmarks of Pop, but from the get go the intellectual content and emotional tenor of his work were unapologetically highbrow.
His series of fifty screenprints, “In Our Time” (1969-70) consists of reproductions of original book covers, of left wing tracts, antisemitic pamphlets, popular novels, critical essays. A cross-section of Kitaj’s eclectic reading, the battered covers alluded nostalgically to the mystique of past ideas. “For me, books are what trees are for the landscape painter,” he later said.
In 1969 Kitaj was devastated by a personal tragedy when his first wife died of an overdose, bringing his artistic production to an abrupt halt. His artistic recuperation came about through intense drawing from the human figure, and a rededication to traditional Western painting. In the 1960s, he had opposed the New York scene’s abstract formalism; as an intellectual among painters in the 1970s, he pitted himself against the dominant “conceptualism.”
He experimented with styles rooted in Impressionism, Symbolism and the old masters. With the encouragement of Sandra Fisher, who later became his wife, he turned to pastels. Their particular inspiration was Degas, whom he playfully called “my favorite antisemite” (an accolade Degas had to share with Ezra Pound.)
In 1976 he accepted an invitation to collect art on behalf of Britain’s Arts Council. The result was an extraordinary exhibition, “The Human Clay,” in which he presented drawings – some recent, others from student days – of a spectrum of British artists, including representatives of diverse styles. In a typically bombastic preface, Kitaj put forward the idea of a “School of London,” construed in his head, that could rival Paris and New York. The idea would be taken up and applied to a small circle of figurative expressionists championed by Kitaj in that show, including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who would be exhibited, along with Kitaj himself, as representing a resurgence of painterly expressionism.
Kitaj’s imagery often dealt with sex, drawing on a personal fascination with what he liked to quote Flaubert coining “the undertaste” of prostitution. His works could deal in a way that was both haunting and arousing with the alienations of sexual langor in an archetypal modern city. At the same time, he was also steeped in the history and lore of his adoptive city, London. In “Cecil Court, London, WC2 (The Refugees)” (1983-84), a surreal jumble of distended, puppet like figures and a self portrait reclining in a Corbusier chaise longue in the alleyway famed for its booksellers, he deals at once with Yiddish theater, books, his personal history, and the ambivalences of tradition and modernity, a settled place and diaspora.
It was a telling coincidence that Kitaj rediscovered artistic and Jewish tradition simultaneously. In the catalogue of a one-man exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in London in 1985, Kitaj quoted the composer Arnold Schoenberg: “I have long since resolved to be a Jew…I regard that as more important than my art.” Grouped together under the title “A Passion”, the works in this exhibition used a chimney as a symbol of the Holocaust, which had come to obsess Kitaj. .
In retrospect, however, earlier works of a political and intellectual nature, such as “The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg” (1960) or “Isaac Babel riding with Budyonny” (1962) invariably had Jewish connotations, too, if only that Luxemburg and Babel were Jewish. Kitaj liked the idea, adapted from the Cabala, that pictures could periodically change their meaning.
Kitaj’s affirmation of his Jewishness was strictly in the secular, intellectual, style of agnostic Jews such as Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, “the exemplary and perhaps ultimate Diasporist” according to Kitaj’s Manifesto. At first he was attracted to such men as angst-ridden intellectuals rather than as Jews, but he grew to realise the potency of Jewishness as a metaphor for their common alienation and malaise. Benjamin became his alter ego. Apart from a fascination with his brilliant and radical ideas, Kitaj identified personally with the melancholy, dilletante nature of Benjamin. “The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin)”, 1972-74, plays off sets of narrative which have lost their intelligibility; the layers of “citations” – the jigsaw puzzle proletarian, the animated talkers, the café as “open air interior” – all relate to aspects of Benjamin’s theories and his “agitational usage” of sources and references.
Kitaj’s own capacity to agitate became evident in the critical response to his retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery in 1994, when one reviewer after the next lambasted him with such cat-calls as “existentialist bullshit,” ““namedropper” and “pseudo-intellectual.” They were in part incensed by Kitaj’s statement that he had now entered his “old age style” in the quickly produced, loose expressive works that were primarily linear though not carefull drawn, in contrast to earlier work, slowly construced with areas of saturated color and deliberative line. These were often direct reworkings of old master paintings. Their dismissal, however, was of the whole oeuvre.
Kitaj was already devastated by this onslaught when personal tragedy caught up with him. While attending his mother on her deathbed in America he learned that his wife Sandra had been taken suddenly ill of an aneurism: she died days after his return to London. Like Coleman Silk in his friend Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain” (a character likely in part to have been modeled on Kitaj), he believed that – aiming at him – the critics had murdered his wife.
After this “Tate War,” as he described it, Kitaj decamped to America, settling for his last decade in Los Angeles, where his children by his first wife, including the screenwriter Lem Dobbs, were living. He bought a house that had formerly served the actor Peter Lorre, painting his studio, a former garage, Van Gogh yellow. After producing a series of agitprop-like tableau taking on his critics, who he viewed as “anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-foreign and anti-intellectual,” his anger abated in an extended series of lustrously lyrical paintings memorializing Sandra, the posthumous muse of his “Angels/Los Angeles” paintings.
He is survived by three children, Lem Kitaj (nom de plume Lem Dobbs), Dominie Lee Kitaj and Max Kitaj, and his sisters Karma Kitaj and Madeleine Kitaj MD. He has three grandchildren.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 24, 2007 under the heading “Visual Artist R.B. Kitaj is dead at 74”