In-Your-Face Outsider

The American British Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj died in Los Angeles on October 21, eight days before his 75th birthday - a look at his tumultuous career

16kitaj (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
"I've got Jew on the brain," declared the American Jewish painter R.B. Kitaj. "Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my Dada, my Lost Horizon. The Jewish Question is my limit-experience, my romance, my neurosis, my war, my pleasure-principle, my death drive. I mean, I drive it into the ground but it survives awhile, this Jewish Question, in my cursed pictures which many love to curse who loathe 'Jewish Intellectualism,' as Dr. Goebbels called it." Kitaj (pronounced key-tie) was the most prominent Jewish artist of our time - or perhaps more accurately, the major contemporary artist who most prominently featured Jewishness in his work. This was one of the reasons - but only one - why Kitaj was controversial, why indeed his work was both admired and cursed. That Kitaj was, although no household name, a master artist is beyond dispute. His colorful figurative and semi-abstract work hangs in every major collection, from New York's Metropolitan and Whitney and Museum of Modern Art to Washington's National Gallery, from Jerusalem's Israel Museum and Paris's Pompidou to Britain's Tate and British Museum and Oxford's Ashmolean. In 1985 Kitaj became the first American elected to Britain's Royal Academy of Art since John Singer Sargent nearly a century before. The eminent art critic Robert Hughes once wrote of the artist, "He draws better than almost anyone else alive." To which Kitaj rather typically responded, "I draw as well as any Jew who ever lived." Yet Kitaj's in-your-face Jewishness was only one of his characteristics that unsettled the public - and the critics. Another was his insistence on writing about art and books and ideas. Many believe visual artists have no business either writing or theorizing. Others see it as a usurpation of the critic's function. Still others automatically view the artist who engages in literature as pretentious: something like the rock musician who writes a novel or the ball player who pens verse. All of the above charges were leveled at Kitaj. But the painter was fiercely unapologetic about being a lifelong reader and writer. "Reading Jewish books," he once wrote, "is to me what reading trees is for a landscape painter." And read he did, favoring such weighty Jewish writers as Franz Kafka, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, Marcel Proust, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gershom Scholem. Kitaj often wrote about these authors and thinkers and used ideas and images from their works in his paintings. He was also a compulsive letter writer, numbering among his correspondents such luminaries as Isaiah Berlin, Susan Sontag, Avigdor Arikha, Allen Ginsberg and, not least, Philip Roth, who modeled the protagonist of the 1995 novel "Sabbath's Theater" largely after Kitaj. The artist meanwhile produced articles and essays of his own, most prominently his "Diasporist Manifestos." These documents were openly patterned after the famous Dadaist manifestos promulgated by Tristan Tzara, who, Kitaj was quick to point out, was a Rumanian Jew, born Sami Rosenstock, and his fellow Jew Marcel Janco. Kitaj's manifestos, from which I have quoted above, may surely be criticized for intellectual name-dropping and pretentiousness, and some of his statements invite mockery. ("I believe my art is Jewish art if I say it is. I am Jewish art in my soul's desire to paint radical pictures... I feel I may be alone in this, but who cares? I do sometimes!"). Yet Kitaj was not one to accept mockery or indeed any criticism lying down. Nothing illustrates this so much as the dramatic events that came to be known as "the Tate war." Although he was an American - or perhaps despite this fact - Kitaj was destined to become part of British art history. He was born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932. His mother, Jeanne Brooks, the daughter of Russian Jews, was abandoned by her Hungarian husband, Sigmund Benway, after their son was born, but in 1941 she married a Jewish chemist named Walter Kitaj who had fled Vienna just as the Nazis took over. Ronald studied art in New York and in Vienna, served in the U.S. Army and settled in England in 1958, where on the GI Bill he studied at Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and at London's Royal College of Art. In an act that recalls Camille Pissaro's promotion of his fellow French Impressionists, Kitaj in 1976 organized a group exhibition at London's prominent Hayward Gallery that featured his artist friends, whom Kitaj labeled the "School of London." The group included Francis Bacon and David Hockney, but highlighted such Jewish painters as Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Kitaj himself. The exhibition was a challenge, if not an affront, to much of Britain's insular art establishment, which apparently did not take lightly to an American and a Jew declaring the arrival of a new "London School" of painting. To add fuel to the fire, Kitaj was turning out numerous paintings depicting Jewish subjects and Jewish themes. Many of these works dealt with the Holocaust (a series of abstracted, ominous chimneys) or with the Jew as eternal outsider, wanderer or refugee. Kitaj even created a recurring alter-ego Jewish "character" called Joe Singer who figured in many of his paintings. Just why Kitaj's Jewish identity had deepened is uncertain, but it quite likely resulted from a combination of his voracious reading and his sense of living for nearly 25 years as an outsider in a society of genteel and often not-so-genteel anti-Semitism. The critics got their revenge in 1994, when the Tate Gallery mounted a Kitaj retrospective. The reviewers savaged the show, both the paintings and the literary texts that Kitaj displayed along with them. One critic labeled Kitaj an outright fake artist. Another called him a Wandering Jew and barely concealed the wish that he would wander off somewhere else. Kitaj (and others) detected no small measure of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the reviews. Then, even before the fierce critical reaction had cooled, Kitaj's beloved wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, whom he called his "Shekhina" (the mystical feminine manifestation of God), died suddenly at age 47 of a brain aneurysm. There was no doubt in Kitaj's mind that the critics were responsible for Sandra's death. Kitaj decided to quit England and return to America. But before he did so he made his bitterness abundantly clear. In 1997, as part of its annual summer exhibition, London's Royal Academy devoted an entire room to what would be Kitaj's "farewell" to Britain. The room included works by Kitaj's comrades (Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff, Hockney), but the most prominent painting was a large Kitaj canvas entitled "Sandra Three." Inspired by Manet's "Execution of Maximilian," the picture shows a nightmarish firing squad consisting of Kitaj and Manet (who was also excoriated by critics). Kitaj's face is replaced by a large Hebrew initial, kaf. The two figures are blasting away at a hideous ogre. The monster is of course the art critic, for as an inscription on the painting says, "The killer-critic assassinated by his widower, even." A bilious tongue spilling out of the critic's mouth bears the words: "killkillkillkill the heretic always kills." Elsewhere on the painting are such words as, "blood will have blood," "HATE HATE," and "Painting in Blood." A number of paperback book covers, the titles referring to death, revenge, critics and anti-Semitism," line the lower border of the painting. The dominant color of the painting is a bloody red. The sheer ferocity of "Sandra Three" provided the most alarming experience I have ever had at an art exhibition, and I clearly recall the hushed crowd around me reacting with similar shock. It was like looking at the work of an enraged and yet cunning madman. Kitaj's laconic comment, as reported in the press after the opening of the exhibition, was simply, "I was a dead man for one and a half years after Sandra died. Then the juices came back and I felt like fighting back." Shortly thereafter, Kitaj and his then-12-year-old son Max left London and settled in Los Angeles. Ever since then, I have followed as closely as I could the career of this deeply wounded Jewish artist. In 2005, New York's Marlborough Gallery, which had represented Kitaj for 45 years, offered a major showing of mostly new drawings and paintings by the artist. The exhibition was titled, "How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art." I was delighted to find Kitaj's line and color as vigorous as ever. Several paintings were on the theme of Arabs and Jews, and several dealt with Biblical figures. Many striking portraits were of notable Jews, such as Arnold Schonberg, Chaim Soutine and Sigmund Freud. One bold canvas depicted novelist Anita Brookner, Kitaj's former neighbor in London's Chelsea neighborhood, and another was a wonderfully playful portrait of Lucian Freud painting a portrait of Kitaj. Several pictures were inspired by Kafka, a writer with whom Kitaj deeply identified himself; one even had Kitaj as K., the eternally frustrated protagonist of "The Castle." Most prominent in the exhibition however were the many cheerfully erotic double portraits of the artist and his wife Sandra, whom Kitaj insisted was still very much alive for him in Los Angeles. I was as pleased to learn of that in 2005 as I was saddened to learn of R.B. Kitaj's passing this October.