The American-born Ronald Brooks Kitaj (wiki bio) was a thinker/artist who seemed to naturally conjure up magical images endowed with deep meaning.
The archetypal outsider, Kitaj’s work always had a lingering sense of loneliness that quietly creeps into his images and never seems to disappear. Kitaj studied at the Royal Academy of Art (1959-61) where he became friends with other soon-to-be-famous classmates Adrian Berg, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones and David Hockney. The small group of ambitious artists fashioned the artistic face of 1960s swinging London, which became the counterpoint to New York’s Pop Art.
Kitaj seemed to fit nicely into the slightly cerebral British art scene. His images were graphic yet contemplative, not weighted by popular theory but nonetheless dense with ideas and meaning. He became a touchstone of the School of London–a term he coined.
His jewishness was a leitmotif of his art and it demonstrates his unwillingness to whitewash his sprawling ideas and constant exploration for the art world, which even today prefers that “ethnicity” or “religion” fit nicely under the über-motif of globalism.
His later work –which dealt with exiles and identity–alienated critics, particularly in racist Britain.
In 1994, his Tate retrospective in London left him reeling from the harshest criticism of his life…from anyone’s life in fact. John Ash summarizes the journalistic blitzkrieg in an Artforum article in May 1995:
Here is a selection – a kind of poisonous bouquet – culled from the pages of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The London Evening Standard, and The Daily Telegraph:
“From the first, it appears, he would try anything, however senseless….His pornographic scenes, also his straightforward nudes are tasteless and sinister.”
“The dispiriting, admonitory spectacle of an oeuvre ruined by fatal self-delusion….”
“A staggeringly trite cheapening…of human catastrophe….”
“We are in the slushy world of Teflon Ron and his non-stick pix.”
“His drawing has become so incompetent and careless, so childish and so ugly…wretched adolescent trash…a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art….”
“The Wandering Jew, the T. S. Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz, a small man with a megaphone held to his lips.” (source)
His conflict with dominant historical narratives obviously peeved the “everything in its place” Brits. Even in this week’s obit, the London Telegram couldn’t resist to chide his exploration of jewishness when they wrote, “In 1989 Kitaj published his First Diasporist Manifesto, a multi-media pamphlet that explored his Jewish obsessions.”
Kitaj’s wife suddenly died after the Tate show and the artist’s knee jerk reaction was to blame the critics for her death. The artist moved to California and only returned to Britain to symbolically make peace with the British art public for a show at the National Gallery in London, “Kitaj in the Aura of Cézanne and Other Masters.”
The last years of his life were spent quietly, but it makes me sad to think that this week —with no fanfare and hardly any notice–we lost a great creative genius.
Top left, R.B. Kitaj, “The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin),” 1972-3, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm), Private Collection, New York.
Top right, R.B. Kitaj, “Passion (1940-45) Writing,” 1985, oil on canvas, 18 x 10 1/2 in. (45.7 x 26.7 cm), Collection of the artist
Middle right, R.B. Kitaj, “Self Portrait (Cold in Paris),” 1983, softground etching