Issue Number: 118
A major show of the late R.B. Kitaj aims to set the record straight on an artist who was destroyed by art critics at the height of his career. By Marco Livingstone.
R.B.Kitaj, 'Juan de la Cruz', 1967. Kitaj compares the church reformer St John of the Cross to an American sergeant at the time of protests against the Vietnam war. It is almost 20 years since the controversial British retrospective of the American painter R.B. Kitaj. Though hugely admired by his artist friends, including David Hockney RA, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, during nearly 40 years in London, Kitaj raised the hackles of some critics with his 1994 Tate retrospective. This show featured ambitious figurative paintings and pastels inspired by literature and politics, that were dense with allusions to earlier art, intellectually acute, and unapologetically personal in their sexual sub-texts and concern with Jewish identity and experience.
Vitriolic attacks on his work and the tragic death at age 47 of his painter wife, Sandra Fisher, led Kitaj to abandon England in 1997. He took his own life in Los Angeles in 2007, just days before his 75th birthday.
The Royal Academy honoured Kitaj, an Academician, with an entire gallery at the 2008 Summer Exhibition, featuring works from each decade of his working life. Yet it is only now, thanks to a retrospective show last year at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, that there is the chance in the UK to reassess the complicated, poetic and visually arresting ‘puzzle pictures’ of an artist whose work was in danger of being relegated to the sidelines. The Berlin exhibition, ‘Obsessions’, is too large for Chichester’s Pallant House, so it has been split between two sites, the other being the Jewish Museum London, which will present about 20 of his Jewish-themed pictures.
Kitaj did not make things easy for himself, rejecting most of his highly influential graphic work of the 1960s and early 1970s, such as his collage-based screenprints, as too mechanical and with their sources insufficiently transformed by his hand. His family and former assistant, however, honoured his wish to make a gift of 293 prints – nearly his entire production – plus 18 drawings to the British Museum. Fifty of these prints will be displayed there just as the retrospective closes, supplementing the impressive account of his achievements as a painter and as one of the great draftsmen of the human figure in 20th-century art.