Nowadays, R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) tends to be ignored by the critics in this country — like a bad smell in the corner of the room. It was not always thus: for years he was an admired, if somewhat controversial, presence, but then came his great retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1994. A large proportion of the British critical fraternity united to condemn and vilify him, to ‘take him down a peg or two’, as if he were an unruly schoolboy too big for his boots, too clever for his own good. This chorus of complaint (some of which amounted to abuse) was deeply felt by Kitaj, and when his beloved second wife, Sandra Fisher, died suddenly in the midst of what he called his ‘Tate War’, he was heartbroken and his love for England all but extinguished. In 1997 he returned to his native America and settled in Los Angeles for the last decade of his life. Since then, there has been more than a slight air of embarrassment hanging over Kitaj’s name and all his works, and his reputation in this country lies somewhere in the doldrums.
Not in the rest of Europe and America, however, as the recent retrospective in Berlin proved. A version of that show has now travelled to England to regale Kitaj’s admirers and to introduce his work to those unfamiliar with it. However, the reviews have been few and far between, and a substantial exhibition has been split between two venues, not even in the same city. This is a horribly unsatisfactory solution, but succinctly demonstrates the low esteem in which this internationally acclaimed artist is now held in his adopted country. This is an exhibition that should have been at the Royal Academy (why wasn’t it? Kitaj was a distinguished member of the RA), and it is shameful that it has to be divided and shown at two smaller museums that don’t have the space and resources to do proper justice to it. We are left with the opportunity to see some marvellous examples of Kitaj’s work, but by no means under the optimum conditions.
At the Jewish Museum, 21 works have been installed with some pomp (hung above strange pedestals built out from the wall) in a space too low for them, under ceilings further lowered by very visible air-conditioning ducts. As a result, major paintings such as ‘If Not, Not’ (1975–6), ‘Cecil Court’ (1983–4) and ‘The Jewish Rider’ (1984–5) are cramped and not at all easy to see. But even so the great beauty of ‘If Not, Not’ glows throughout the gallery. For the painting of the trees and mountains alone this is a masterpiece, but the rest of the complex content is superbly orchestrated in thin luminous oil paint that looks almost like pastel. Kitaj is rarely celebrated as a colourist, often taking risks with jarring combinations or strong contrasts, but this is a particularly fine example of his skills with colour, subtle as butterflies’ wings.
Also here is ‘Desk Murder’, painted predominantly in expressive ‘caput mortuum’ rusty violet, and depicting an office or study with strange abstract forms and a concentration camp chimney or gas vent collaged on to it. ‘Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)’, the ‘book alley’ off Charing Cross Road, moves into thicker, more textural paint with a kind of Yiddish Theatre cast of characters, including the artist himself on a recliner at the front. Kitaj bought a lot of the books in Cecil Court, which fed his painting, yet his eclectic art cannot be dismissed as simply literary. It was full of ideas, many of them bookish, but was equally steeped in the great art of the past, from Giotto and Titian to Rembrandt, Cézanne and Manet. Kitaj’s painting was multi-layered and polyvalent, and he committed the cardinal sin of trying to explain its various levels to his audience. The critics for the most part loathed this, for it showed up their own intellectual and art historical inadequacies, so they turned on Kitaj and excoriated him for wanting to share his obsessions with us. Yet, again and again, looking at his remarkable paintings one sees new things, senses new resonances of meaning, besides being beguiled by the brilliant, sensual, uncompromising drawing and the inventive paint-handling.
I had been hoping to get to Pallant House last week but was immobilised with back pain, and had instead to rely on the detailed report of the artist Arturo Di Stefano, friend and fellow Kitaj enthusiast, with whom I had intended to visit the show. He was more impressed by the Chichester installation than the London one, but again pointed out that there wasn’t really enough space for these (in every sense) big works. (Di Stefano saw the Berlin installation so knows what he’s talking about.) That said, he thought the show tremendous, containing many familiar things from the 1960s onwards, mostly oils, but also drawings and pastels, and some of Kitaj’s unfairly neglected screenprints, as well as several lesser-known works. To him, Kitaj offers a running commentary on the 20th century in all its fragmentation and randomness, its displacement and essential strangeness.
Through his art Kitaj comments on human nature, on art (past, present and to come), on questions of identity and nationality, on politics — on the whole panoply of what it means to be human. And Di Stefano emphasises the importance of looking deeply into this art, not simply skimming. ‘Kitaj’s work becomes richer for knowing how he made things — his sources, however disparate and apparently inappropriate, his sense of disguise and masquerade.’
I have been rereading the American poet John Ashbery’s essays on Kitaj, collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957–87. As he pointed out: ‘A certain kind of American sensibility had to extricate itself from America in order to realise itself.’ He cites Whistler, Sargent, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and reminds us that Kitaj enjoyed playing the role of ‘resident Yankee gadfly in London, warning the locals of the perils of both Americanisation and their own imminent stagnation’. But nothing is straightforward. As Kitaj himself wrote: ‘We lose our way in cities; we get lost in books, lost in thought; we are always looking for meaning in our lives as if we’d know what to do with it once we found it.’
I plan to visit Chichester later in the spring, so hope to return later to this fruitful dialogue.