Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Memory: R. B. Kitaj

I was sad to read, in yesterday’s New York Times, the obituary of an old friend of the family—and a noted artist, R.B.Kitaj.

I had in fact heard a report of his death earlier, a couple of nights before, through a mutual friend, but neither one of us had been able to ascertain that the report was in fact no more than a simple rumor. It seemed he was simply too young to die. Yesterday, though, there was confirmation.

Ron, as he was known to the family—though he came to prefer the single “Kitaj,” and we eventually dropped the “Ron” out of respect for his wishes—was one of the great figurative artists of the post-World War II period. An expatriate American living in London for many years, he returned to make his home and work in Southern California a number of years ago, after the tragically early death of his wife, the artist Sandra Fisher. At that time, his important retrospective show at the Tate Gallery (this was 1994) had been widely, even cruelly, panned by critics, primarily on account of the lengthy explanatory texts he apparently felt necessary to include next to the paintings on the walls, in case they should be misunderstood. He bitterly and publicly denounced his critics for having contributed to Sandra’s sudden death of an aneurism, and later produced a painting called “The Critic Kills,” signed “By Ron and Sandra.”

Clearly, then, Kitaj was a man of quirks. He was a virtual recluse on his return to Los Angeles, and effectively discouraged visitors. Even so, I’m sad that we did not make the effort to penetrate his solitude at those times when he did put out the invitation. The truth is, I think, that both Ellie and I were not a little intimidated by the intensity of his intellectual fortitude and his fierce, single-minded dedication to the life of the mind. His closest friends included some of the great poets and writers of our time—Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Phillip Roth, among many more—and he was a voracious consumer of all things of cultural significance. He was also impatient of everything shoddy or ill-thought.

A prominent figurative painter throughout that period when the art of the human figure was sacrificed on the high altar of abstraction, Kitaj was willing to fight anyone for his convictions. His essay, “The Human Clay,” written in 1976, was a passionate defense of the “School of London” artists—Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff—who, like himself, persisted in finding inspiration and aesthetic necessity in the study of the human form despite the great American tide of abstraction championed by influential critics like Clement Greenberg. Kitaj’s own paintings defiantly combined narrative and history with a keen sense of social justice and humanitarian outrage. The one shown immediately below is subtitled "The Refugees." Kitaj's self-portrait stretches across the foreground, evoking his own sense of permanent exile and isolation.

It was in part, I believe, under the tutelage of my father-in-law, Michael Blankfort, that Kitaj rediscovered and committed his art to his Jewish roots and to the too-often dark history of European Jews. The NY Times obituary had him headlined as the “Painter of Moody Human Dramas”—an epithet that does only part justice to the social and psychological intensity of his work. The bleak history of the diaspora was a theme he explored not only in his paintings but also in two key essays, “The First Diasporist Manifesto,” (1989) and “The Second Diasporist Manifesto,” (2005).

Michael was also a collector of Kitaj’s works, and gifted the Los Angeles County Museum with several important pieces, including an early large-scale painting, “Dismantling of the Red Tent,” (1963-64) whose bleak and mournful landscape marked the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

One work from the collection, a charcoal drawing called “Terese,” (1978) ended up in my own hands in a curious way. Always fascinated by the mystery genre, I had just published “Chiaroscuro,” the first of my own two mystery novels, in the mid-1980s. It was set in the contemporary art world, and started with the description of my intense artist-hero—I called him “Jake Molnar”—making a drawing. The drawing was one I had often seen and admired on the walls of the Blankfort house, “Terese.” I have never made a point of it in public, but there was much about Jake that reflected what I knew of Ron through our family friendship. In any event, it was in celebration of the publication that Ellie’s parents were generous enough to make “Terese” mine. She hangs, today, in all her glorious nakedness, above the mantle in our bedroom, and she is admired every day.

A sad loss, then, of a highly cultured man and an extraordinary artist at too early an age. He was only 74. The NY Times quotes the accolade of Time magazine critic Robert Hughes: “He draws better than almost anyone else alive.” But let Kitaj speak here for himself:

If some of us wish to practice art for art’s sake alone, so be it… but good pictures, great pictures, will be made to which many modest lives can respond… it seems to be at least as advanced or radical to attempt a more social art, as not to.

To which I say Amen, Ron. And bon voyage, wherever the journey leads from here. May this restless soul finally find a home.


robin andrea said...

A beautiful, heartfelt tribute, Peter. I did not know of Kitaj's work, but the pieces you posted here makes me want to see more. How very sad that he died so young.

gregg chadwick said...


Thank you for your poignant words on Kitaj. RB was a man of great talent, passion, and strength. There are not many like him and he will be missed.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

What a lovely tribute to an artist and friend. I have heard of Kitaj, but am not familiar with his work.

I intend to look up his and Sandra Fisher's now that you have piqued my interest.

I cannot help but think that his life would make a wonderful book.

carly said...

P: The Refugees bears a very close relationship to Max Beckman's work from what I can see in the pic. That would make sense, Beckman also being a Jewish social commentator, if he was influenced.

Nice that you have something to remember him by. And that you have a frank nude on your wall!

PeterAtLarge said...

Robin, yes. I know that many people share my habit, secretly or not, of checking the obit pages to see how many of those listed are younger than myself! Ouch!

Gregg, you're right. A man of that integrity is rare in today's world, where many of us are so frenzied in our efforts to get ahead. Including artists.

HSF, interesting thought. I don't think there's a Kiatj biorgaphy, as such--but of course there are a number of books about his work...

Carly, there's certainly common ground with Max Beckman--including, I think, a somewhat dark view of the human species. Kitaj is not always kind to us...

Thanks for the comments, PaL

Gerald said...

I grew up in Kitaj's Cleveland, and traveled the same streets. I too, a Jew with a similar agnostic inclination, born of Hungarian/Roumanians, was born there. Cleveland has a history as being a center of immigration from that area, and I might add that many of us came liberated of orthodoxy.

I wrote to Kitaj to say I had been going to Drawing Class at The Cleveland Musuem Palm Court, and likely crossed paths with him, which he acknowledged by graciously returning a small post card to me. The personal aside, he has led me back to painting through my looking at his work, and reading what he has had to say.

So in the end, he was no recluse and I am grateful for the connection. I am not sure he would have been aware of his effect on me.

G.A. Lester, Oakland, CA.

Karma Kitaj said...

Hello, Peter,
Thank you for your comments about my brother, whom I too called "Ronnie."
I knew your mother-in-law, Dorothy, a bit in LA when my mother Jeanne was living there, and had heard of Ron's fondness for Michael Blankfort.
In the absence of a service at this time, I've been processing my experiences as Ron's much younger sister on my blog: Perhaps you'll visit.

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