His Own Kind of Free Thinker


When the artist R.B. Kitaj died at age 74 in October of last year, The New York Times ran a respectful, studied sort of obituary, under the headline "Painter of Moody Human Dramas." Kitaj (pronounced kit-EYE), who was Jewish and American-born but who spent the bulk of his career living and working in England, was always a controversial figure, beloved by a good number of his contemporaries (mostly artists drawn from a number of different fields), but also scorned as a pedestrian thinker and technician by critics like Hilton Kramer.

The obituary sketched in the general outline of the artist's career — which was often seen as breaking into almost two even halves — and so suggested some of the issues that caused the controversy. According to Martha Schwendener, who penned the Times piece, Kitaj "emerged professionally as part of the British Pop Art movement in the early 1960s, along with artists like David Hockney and Eduardo Paolozzi. His early works merged Pop collage techniques with the brushwork of Abstract Expressionism."

Then, in the mid-'70s, the painter began to "reconnect" with his Jewish heritage, as Schwendener put it. According to the reporter, "Paintings like 'The Jew, Etc.' (1979) feature an alter-ego Everyman named Joe Singer, and in 1989 Mr. Kitaj published The First Diasporist Manifesto, in which he discussed the relationship between Judaism and his work."

Schwendener also touched upon perhaps the most heated moment in the painter's career. In 1994, Kitaj was given a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London, something that was almost unheard of for an American artist. The show was basically trashed by the critics, who not only attacked the paintings, but also the "didactic" prefaces that the painter wrote to accompany the works. Writes Schwendener: "Afterward, Mr. Kitaj's second wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, whom he married in 1983, died of an aneurysm at 47, prompting the artist to contend that critics, on this occasion, had literally committed murder. A 1996 painting titled 'The Critic Kills' was signed 'By Ron and Sandra.' "

Following what the painter called the "Tate War," he moved to Los Angeles and lived there until his death.

Collaborated on Collages

According to the obituary, Kitaj was born Ronald Brooks on Oct. 29, 1932, in Chagrin Fall, Ohio, outside of Cleveland. His father abandoned the family; then his mother married a Viennese refugee named Walter Kitaj in 1941, and Ronald adopted the surname. He eventually studied at Cooper Union in New York and the Academy of the Fine Arts in Vienna in the early '50s. He married a fellow American who was studying there, Elsi Roessler, and he worked as a merchant seaman and after that an artist for the U.S. Army.

He eventually made his way to London and with the help of the G.I. Bill studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and the Royal College of London, "where he met Mr. Hockney and collaborated on collages with Mr. Paolozzi. He became the first American artist since John Singer Sargent to be elected to the Royal Academy. He remained in contact with American artists, particularly the poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg."

And just before his death, it was announced that Yale University Press was set to publish Kitaj's Second Diasporist Manifesto, which has the subtitle (A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses). It appeared several months after the painter's death.

As might be imagined from the kind of life Kitaj led — and the way he so clearly positioned his two "manifestoes" — they are hardly traditional works, either as declarations of revolutionary aesthetics or as a commentary on his career and the works of his contemporaries. Across from the title page of the newest work, there's a picture of Kitaj's late wife, identified only as Sandra; and the book is dedicated to those "precursor Manifestoists, Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenstock) and Marcel Janco, Jewish founders of DADA."

The book begins with what was identified in the Times obituary as a paraphrase from Philip Roth's novel The Counterlife. Under the chapter heading "Taboo Art," the painter writes: "I've got Jew on the Brain. Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my DADA, my String Theory, my Lost Horizon. The Jewish Question is my limit-experience, my Romance, my neurosis, my war, my pleasure-principle, my death drive."

Kitaj then explains why he called this little preface "Taboo Art." He notes that his "art experiments are Taboo in many quarters because a new Jewish Art is too avant-garde for the gardists. That adversity sort of thrills me as I make to die the death of the misunderstood but also not neglected painter. This is my last decade and I promise to play it out unwisely, as I always have. How unwisely? Jew unwisely. Jews like me are not as smart as people think — after all, even a painter and art critic as bad as Hitler outsmarted us."

Once the manifesto gets started in earnest, it is illustrated with Kitaj's portraits of his Jewish heroes — Kafka, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin; and he also fashions paintings based on earlier great works by the masters, as in his "Melancholy After Durer" from 1989, which plays off the great German's depiction of melancholia.

These paintings, he explains, are his attempts at creating a Jewish Diaspora Art. What does he mean by that term? He explains in one of the typical fragmented sections of his manifesto cum poem, which are sometimes, as in this case, set off like stanzas:


"An art of Jewish Secularism/Personal Judaism
as a somewhat new kind of painting art whose 
motto can be: 'I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. 
… This is a somewhat new kind of religion.' 
— Einstein, my new kind of Jewish Art Saint. See 
my painting 'The Physicist' (1999). Christian Art 
depicts its saints from St. John to Liz and Jewish 
Art can begin to as well. Better late than never."

Kitaj was never shy about the high opinion he had of himself or his ability as a painter. Here is a typical passage touting his strengths: "I am my own kind of freethinking Jew, a painter who intends and wills a new kind of Jewish Art because doing that excites me anew every day in heart and mind and avant-garde romance. I never tire of it and I study and paint all day til bed at 8 PM with a Jewish or art book. No more women except (see 20)" — a reference to his late wife Sandra.

Kitaj also sees himself at the end of a long line of Jewish Modernists, "where Kafka, Celan, Proust, Soutine, Philip Roth and a few hundred other Jewish radicals have gone before me, but almost no painters. I feel I may be alone in this, but who cares? I do sometimes! But I'm usually not lonely."

Kitaj means to be deliberately provocative, to shock us with his in-your-face aesthetics, and one's tolerance for this sort of deliberate antics may wear thin before readers make it to the end of even this brief book. The jagged nature of the prose — it's strenuous effort never to be beautiful — seems to be part of the overall plan.

Still, he's never dull, and the drawings reprinted here will definitely startle, and may even make you as uncomfortable as Kitaj obviously intended you to be.


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