RA Magazine Summer 2008
Issue Number: 99
The unquiet American
Art historian Marco Livingstone celebrates the complex and often tragic life and art of RB Kitaj, who never failed to challenge prevailing artistic trends
The American painter RB Kitaj, who died in October 2007, a week short of his 75th birthday, spent four decades of his life in England, where he came as a student in 1957. He had already led a peripatetic existence as a merchant seaman, an art student in New York and Vienna and finally as a conscript in the American army.
When he arrived at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford at the age of 25, he was ready to steep himself in the cultural life of his adopted country and to forge a distinctive figurative painting with many deep roots. The traditional discipline of life drawing, the Surrealist heritage and collage aesthetic of bringing together disparate motifs, firsthand experience of recent American art, an immersion in art history and an unashamed intellectualism all coalesced into an art that could seem bewilderingly eclectic but that was also consistently and wholly his own.
On leaving Oxford in 1959, Kitaj enrolled in a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art in London. During the two years he spent there, his fellow students included several painters who, like him, were later to become Royal Academicians: Allen Jones, Adrian Berg, Frank Bowling, Patrick Caulfield and his great friend David Hockney. The fact that Kitaj was five years older than others in his year, and that his experience of life, art and the world of the mind seemed so much greater than theirs, made him an influential presence.
In 1963, just two years after completing his studies, he had the first of many solo exhibitions. For a brief period, Kitaj’s freewheeling approach both to the quoting of found images and to styles of depiction led him to be considered a key figure within the nascent Pop Art movement, which included not only Hockney and Jones but also fellow students such as Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier. It was a label with which he never felt comfortable, given his allegiances to literature, poetry, political history and early modernism. Where Pop Art sought an immediacy of impact and an accessibility of reference for the viewer, Kitaj willingly suffered accusations of intellectual pretension and abstruseness in order to create multilayered paintings that released their secrets slowly.
Sympathetic viewers were encouraged to decode the pictures, following up clues – some of them pasted on to the canvases as hand-written notes – with further reading and more attentive looking. Kitaj’s art is multifarious: romantic and intuitive, bookish and philosophical, deeply human, fractured and tinged with nostalgia and regret. The defining character of his work was firmly linked to the condition of self-imposed exile and ‘un-at-homeness’ that Kitaj felt as an American in Britain, as a self-educated intellectual and as a painter in thrall less to the art of his own time than to centuries of western picturemaking, from Giotto through to the Hollywood movie industry.
By the mid-1970s, when he was recharging his art with a process of drawing from life, he was most thrilled by French painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His heroes included Manet (whose etchings he collected), Degas (whose pastels inspired his own adoption of the medium) and Cézanne (whose haunting late Bathers series became the touchstone for his own art).
Eventually, all these strands came together in his sense of himself as a secular Jew, dealing head-on with the tragedy of the Holocaust – in paintings such as The Jewish Rider of 1984-85 – and drawing into his art aspects of Jewish thought and experience.
Very shortly before his death, he published a book, Second Diasporist Manifesto, which is full of quotations, gnomic utterances and references to the themes, beliefs and histories through which he sought to forge a ‘Jewish art’. The torrent of small paintings he created from 2005 until his death, in which he finally found his ‘old-age style’, owed everything to these concerns. So, too, did his lifelong habit of writing commentaries on his own pictures, the painterly equivalent of Midrash, the rabbinical interpretations of Biblical passages.
Kitaj’s life was punctuated by tragedy: he was abandoned by his father as a baby, bereaved in 1969 with two young children, ferociously attacked by the critics at the time of his Tate Gallery retrospective in 1994 and again bereaved when his second wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, died aged 47 just weeks after the Tate show closed. When Sandra died, Kitaj said England also died for him and in 1997 he and his young son Max returned to the USA, settling in Los Angeles near his elder son (a Hollywood scriptwriter) and Hockney.
So disenchanted was Kitaj with the UK that in spite of his friendships (not least with Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach) and the continuing visibility of his work here, including the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy (he was immensely proud to have been elected an RA in 1991), he never again set foot in the country.
The final tragedy came with his decision, after the onset of Parkinson’s, to take his own life. Until the end, however, he continued to paint at a feverish pace and with a surprising humour and optimism. Right to the finish, too, he began each day at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf café in Westwood Village, writing down his thoughts and noting ideas for more paintings to come.
- Marco Livingstone is curator of Memorial to RB Kitaj, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Gallery 1, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts
Summer Exhibition 2008
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