Renewal and Resistance
“Where are all the beautiful women?” a lady asks R.B. Kitaj during the packed opening of his recent show at L.A. Louver, a leading gallery in Venice, California.
“What?”, he replies, incredulously. Mr. Kitaj has battled deafness for many years, but even so would have had difficulty comprehending this question.
The lady gestures towards the paintings and drawings on display. Many feature a voluptuous young woman, usually nude, often in the company of an older bearded man. On first impression, they do indeed seem to represent a cast of women, with different features and hair colors, rather than a single protagonist.
When finally the penny drops, Mr. Kitaj fixes his bewildered interlocutor a defiant stare: “She’s dead!”
An exhibition of new paintings by R.B. Kitaj is a rare event. For years, his slow output has been a matter of notoreity. Since his controversial retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery in 1994, which traveled to the Metropolitian Museum, New York, and the LA County Museum, he has gone even more reclusive than had been his norm. The Tate show had been the occasion of a barrage of vituperative criticism. Mr. Kitaj, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, had lived in England since the 1950s.
In the “Tate War”, as he calls it, he lashed out at detractors, countering their cat-calls of “existentialist bullshit,” “namedropper” and “pseudo-intellectual” with his own charges, calling them “antisemitic, anti-foreign, anti-American, anti-intellectual.”
Amidst this furor, his much younger wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, also an American abroad, suddenly died of an aneurism. Sandra is the “beautiful women [sic]” of his “Los Angeles Pictures”, the group of works on display at LA Louver. He says that he doesn’t try to depict her exactly, but makes her up, from memory, as he goes along. In 1997, Mr. Kitaj returned to America, choosing as his base the city where he had met Sandra, where he had once taught at UCLA, and where his son by an earlier marriage, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs, and his grandsons live.
He took with him Max, his son by Sandra, who he has raised singlehandedly since the boy was ten. Both his sons were at the opening, along with their sister, Dominie, a decorated servicewoman just back from Iraq. David Hockney, one of Mr. Kitaj’s closest friends, was also in attendance.
I was in LA for the opening of his show and the last week of his friend Lucian Freud’s retrospective. During his period of mourning (arguably ongoing) Mr. Kitaj had sat for Mr. Freud, although neither of the portraits begun was completed. I was also in town to work on an exhibition of Sandra Fisher and her circle, for the New York Studio School in a couple of years. Sandra was a personal friend, and it was unnerving, the next day, at Mr. Kitaj’s new house, to see portraits she had made of me ten years earlier. Mr. Kitaj included a selection of Sandra’s work in a back room at Louver. She painted in an unpretentious, fresh, naturalistic style, favoring a cheery, fauve palette. Her subjects were portraits of friends and nudes of both sexes.
Mr. Kitaj now lives in Westwood. His house, formerly Peter Lorre’s, is overtaken by books. There are no easy chairs, “to discourage visitors from staying too long”, he tells me. I’m honored to be invited at lunchtime; a man of very strict habits, Mr. Kitaj habitually receives only at 4pm.
Rooms are given over to particular subjects. In one, he has created a shrine to Cézanne, for instance. He has all the prints (he prefers the uncolored version of the famous bathers lithograph) and an impressive array of first editions. Another room is his Judaica library. Volumes are organized according to an eclectic, personal logic. Looking at one particularly odd juxtaposition, Kitaj remarked: “My friend Leon Wieseltier was visiting, and he remarked that this is probably the only library in the world where you will find a set of Proust next to the works of Rabbi Soloveitchik.”
Raised in an agnostic, leftist household, Kitaj surprised friends in the mid-1970s when, just around the same time this some-time “Pop” appropriationist rediscovered drawing from life and the single figure, he also reconnected with his Jewish heritage. For sure, it was a secular Jewishness, having more to do with a spiritual identification with mid-twentieth century intellectuals, especially mid-Europeans whose lives were shattered or disrupted by the Holocaust, than with religion. (The name Kitaj belonged to his step-father, a refugee from Vienna.) He has come to be fascinated, however, by the kabbalah, finding in it parallels to the world of art and ideas. Every morning, after a long walk, he winds up at a Westwood café surrounded by pretty UCLA students where he studies the writings of Emanuel Levinas, before working for an hour on his memoirs.
He is living proof of some traits his critic enemies picked up on: a promiscuous lover of big ideas, an inveterate historical namedropper. But he has always been aware of that. An early critic complained that his work was “littered with ideas”, and he has often quoted the remark with pride. What friends and foes alike often overlook in Mr. Kitaj is the ambiguity, irony and self-depracating humor that invariably go along for the ride with his grand theorizing and bombast.
In a corner of his Judaica library is a back copy of the Burlington Magazine with his 1980 pastel portrait of Degas on the cover. Degas has had to share with Ezra Pound, yet another hero, the typically Kitajesque epitaph, “my favorite antisemite.”
He explains to me how different antisemitism is in every country and situation. Degas’s anti-Dreyfusard stance, he feels, can be explained, even vaguely sympathised with, in the context of the national disaster of the Franco-Prussian war. Mr. Kitaj is both incensed and bemused by people’s reaction to his charge of the “low octane” antisemitism he feels he encountered in the British press. “Antisemitism runs the whole gamut from ignorant gossip in an English pub to the death camps, with infinite degrees and nuances along the way”, he explains, reaching as he speaks for a press clipping recently sent to him by a London friend. It is a diatribe by a tabloid critic who had given him a particular drubbing, this time against the Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, a champion of Kitaj’s, and a Jew. “Time to be rid of this Trotsky of art”, ran the headline. “You see,” Mr. Kitaj exclaims, nodding sagely. “Trotsky! Not Stalin or Hitler, but Trotsky!”
To those who knew Sandra Fisher it can be disconcerting to witness her transmutation into a motif. She was blessed with a preternaturally sunny disposition, a Californian optimism to counter her husband’s studied pessimism. Kitaj dedicated his book, “First Diasporist Manifesto”, “For Sandra, who puts me down when I complain, replying she’d rather live in these times (as a woman and artist) than any other.”
Since her death, Mr. Kitaj has very publicly transformed her into a personal symbol of renewal and resistance. Mr. Kitaj is a great collector and reader of little magazines, and in emulation of them, he has launched “Sandra”, as a periodical manqué. Various projects, be they exhibition catalogues or installations, have appeared under a “Sandra” rubric, featuring the same beaming photograph from her youthful prime.
The first instalment of “Sandra” was a strange set-up at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in London, his farewell to the city. Surrounded by a personal selection of his “School of London” friends (he had coined the term himself in the 1970s), including Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney, was his own transcription of Manet’s Execution of Maximillian, in which he cast himself and Manet among the firing squad, returning fire at the dreaded critics. The LA Louver catalogue is “Sandra Eight: Los Angeles Pictures”.
In “The Los Angeles Pictures”, “Sandra and I became Lovers again”, he writes in a catalogue note. “I could make love to my angel with my paintbrush, fondle her again, caress her contours.” Some paintings are very graphic, as the couple make love in the bath, for instance. Others keep up Mr. Kitaj’s famous habit of referencing old master paintings, sometimes in composite, taking not just forms but the aura and association of the older work. Their two faces overlapping in a kiss (recalling Brancusi) actually borrows its format from a detail of Giotto’s Scrovegni fresco at Padua depicting the meeting of Joachim and Anna, Christ’s grandparents. “I detected Barnet Newman’s Zip in the line running between the profiles, so I emphasized it in the profiles of Sandra and me.”
He sees his pictures as “love stories”. “The Man-Woman Story has become quite rare in painting since the death of Picasso. Earlier, many painters had shown the woman and man in a love situation- such as Picasso, Munch, Schiele, Chagall, even Matisse.” But then the subject became rare. He puts this down to fact that many of the best painters recently have been gay or abstract. Even straight artists, however, have veered towards the isolated, individual figure, he says, citing his “School of London” friends. Sandra Fisher, he points out, was an exception, often painting nude men and women embracing.
An aspect of Mr. Kitaj’s Tate show which irked critics was his announcement that he had entered his “old age style”. They saw in this an impertinence, as it is not for an artist but for connoisseurs to decide when this had happened. Again, there was a failure to savor the intended irony, the heavy quote marks that surrounded such a stance. In earlier work, whether the tightly constructed fragmentary collage-influenced paintings of his “Pop” period of the 1960s, which first catapulted him to attention, or the more naturalistic pastels of the following decade, Mr. Kitaj was noted for his draughtsmanly finesse. Robert Hughes had famously said of him in the pages of Time that “he draws better than almost anyone else alive.” But in his self-consciously “old-age” style he opted for a loose, wobbly, tentative, unfinished look, and this carries over in his Los Angeles Pictures.
This doesn’t stop him from teasing me with a big assertion, typically one that raises a provocative thought about culture at large beyond its overt egotistical posture: “I draw as well as any Jew who ever lived”.
This article originally appeared in the New York Sun, Monday June 30, 2003