The work of R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) has received an exceptional amount of attention this past year, much of it in England and much of it favorable—a development that would surely have astonished the artist. Born to a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio, Kitaj spent much of his adult life in the U.K. In 1994, however, Kitaj’s long-tetchy relationship with British critics was brought to a rancorous close when his retrospective at the Tate was eviscerated in the British newspapers. This event, followed by the unexpected death of his wife a few weeks later, caused a terminally wounded and, by many accounts, utterly unhinged Kitaj to flee to Los Angeles, where he committed suicide in 2007.
“R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions,” organized by the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was seen in two parts in England this past spring—at the Jewish Museum in London and at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester—before it returned to Germany for a run at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Its February opening marked the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in England since the Tate debacle. A few months later, the British Museum mounted “Recent Acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj,”1 a third of which was given over to Kitaj prints, while the Jewish Museum in New York presented “ R.B. Kitaj: Personal Library,” an exhibition built around Kitaj’s great print series, In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part (1969–70).2
Although “Obsessions” was chiefly dedicated to the artist’s paintings, all three shows presented the opportunity to reexamine Kitaj’s extensive work as a printmaker and his predilection—so evident in the prints—for digressive exegesis, the key to both Kitaj’s ambition and the critical rage that greeted it.
In the 1970s Kitaj repudiated his early graphic work, most of it photomechanical, making a forceful return to drawing and autographic figuration, but his career as a printmaker was largely shaped by his work with the great screenprinter of British Pop Art, Chris Prater of Kelpra Studios.3 Prater had got his start producing promotional material for the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, but at the beginning of the ’60s he began making prints with artists such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley and Patrick Caulfield. Screenprinting, considered a tool of advertising, was not even taught in British art schools at the time and its use by painters was revolutionary. Kitaj and Prater joined forces in 1963.
Over a period of more than a decade, Kitaj made 65 single-sheet prints and four major suites of prints with Prater, most of them bright Pop-ish collage compositions densely layered with allusions to painting, drawing, literature, music, contemporary and historical art, mysticism and philosophy. The Defects of its Qualities (1967–68), for example, conjoins (among other things) a photo of a surgeon, a 19th-century registration certificate for a prostitute, the signature of Georges Braque, and the 1964 Print Council of America brochure, “What is an Original Print?,” notorious for its explicit and shortsighted exclusion of photomechanical technologies from the category “original.”
The title of Kitaj’s major screenprint suite, Mahler Becomes Politics, Beisbol (1964–67), was built from a punning echo of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and the Hispanic pronunciation of “baseball.”4 He described it as “a run of prints using the music, the poems, the Mahler literature and times and a good deal else as a compound crutch upon which to hang much that cannot be made to splice easily with Mahler.”5 The things hung there include found photographs, published poems, magazine clippings, citations from his own paintings and—significantly—the covers of books. “Books feed into the pictures I make with an untutored passion,” Kitaj said. “Vast libraries have crowded around my painting easel all my life and the spectres in books have haunted me, some would say ruined me, and now and again they even breathe life into some of my dubious art.“6
In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part (1969), is Kitaj’s finest and strangest print project, and it figured prominently in all three recent exhibitions. It consists of no fewer than 50 screenprints, each of which replicates the cover of a single book from the artist’s own library and marked a significant departure from the visual complexity of his earlier work. It was made by Prater in London on the basis of detailed instructions sent to him by Kitaj from Los Angeles where he had gone to teach after his first wife’s death in 1969.7 He produced few paintings during this period, dedicating his energies chiefly to this large-scale project.
While each book stands alone in each print, together they map the artist’s pursuit of cultural and artistic identity through literature, poetry, history, Jewish subjects, politics, film and the human form. Battle-Songs of the International Brigades, George Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn and Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The Prevention of Destitution all reference leftist politics, but the decadent art-nouveau, red-cloth binding of Bub and Sis: Rimes No. 3 and the striking geometric binding of W. B. Yeats’ The Tower denote a taste for the aesthetic, as does the exquisite simplicity of Lloyd Goodrich’s 1949 book on Edward Hopper in the Penguin Modern Painters series.
Books like The Spirit of the Ghetto (with drawings by Jacob Epstein) are a clear nod to the artist’s exploration of Jewish identity. The enemy position is denoted by such troublesome volumes as The Jewish Question (1920–22), a selection of articles from Henry Ford’s notoriously anti-Semitic newspaper, the Dearborn Independent; and Ezra Pound’s How to Read. Pound, Kitaj acknowledged, was particularly problematic—also famously anti-Semitic and yet “a cultural pathfinder of my unschooled youth…. Pound came before Rembrandt, before Giotto, before Cézanne, in my awful mixed-up teenage…. The old bastard.”8
The contents of these books are conspicuously absent, but the covers evoke worlds of knowledge and human experience that range from the mundane (the city of Burbank’s annual budget for 1968– 69) to the pioneering (Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa of 1928). In the “Afterwords” he wrote about the prints in 1994, Kitaj elaborated on the roles these books had played in his life and art. He had picked up the July–August 1943 issue Partisan Review secondhand in New York; it featured a remarkable collection of writings: a poem by Robert Lowell, a George Orwell report on “The Situation in Britain,” and Rosa Luxemburg’s “Letters from Prison.” For Kitaj, Partisan Review
lay near the heart of one of New York’s great ages—a period I could still pass through myself, a New York which I believe touched me and my art forever in ways transient and enduring, fantastical and various…. PR was a cicerone to the great modernist flood-tide which I wanted to get to know…. Orwell’s London Letter in the issue represented by this print was written 50 years ago but his odd take on anti-Semitism within a very fortress of the New York Jew, scares hell out of me as if he had written it this morning.9
Kitaj described this print as “my soupcan, my Liz, my electric chair,”10 but his aims had little to do with those of Warhol; they differed on everything from the erudition of the subject matter to the nature of the printed surface. Before he began playing with diamond dust, Warhol seemed to relish the textural blandness of screenprint and its implication of mechanized facture. At Kelpra every print was pulled by hand, and the surfaces of In Our Time are anything but characterless, carefully evoking the specific textures of paper and cloth bindings.11 Despite their enhanced scale (77 x 57.5 cm each), the prints look like book covers lightly flattened in a primitive flower press rather than images squeezed out by a machine; the battered corners and torn edges of the paper appear three-dimensional, their fragile materiality intact and reconfirmed.
The air of nostalgia that hovers here would have been there when Kitaj bought these mostly prewar books in the 1950s and ‘60s, but it is surely more potent now. Even leaving aside eReaders and other such devices, contemporary books are rarely made with the fine materials or nuanced designs that Kitaj so lovingly records here.
“My bibliomaniacal self is one of the selves celebrated in this print cycle,” Kitaj wrote in the “Afterword” for China of Today: The Yellow Peril.12 Like Walter Benjamin, whose famous 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library” partly inspired In Our Time (and whose title the artist later appropriated for a painting, along with Benjamin’s moustache and spectacles), Kitaj bought books for their content, their aesthetic character, and sometimes just for their sheer oddity. The curiosities department of In Our Time is headed by the lurid cover of an Edwardian publication called Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls, which shows a woman at a barred window with the subtitle, “My god! If only I could get out of here!” Kitaj began collecting books as a student at Cooper Union in New York in 1950, rummaging in the bookstores along 4th Avenue, and the habit continued when he moved to England in 1957. The surfaces of his homes on both continents are described as buried in books.
British critics—curiously, perhaps, for representatives of such a literary culture—found Kitaj’s bibliophilia to be one of the most annoying things about him. Their distaste was consistent from the time of the artist’s first show at Marlborough Gallery in 1963, when critic Edward Lucie-Smith wrote, “The trouble, as with Pound, is that there is something both pompous and a trifle hectoring about Kitaj…. It’s like a man saying, ‘Listen to me, Listen to me,’ and when we listen we find he has nothing to tell us.”13 In 1994 James Hall in The Guardian advised Kitaj to “leave his books behind,”14 while The Independent’s Tim Hilton described the artist as “an egotist … imprisoned by his library.”15
But for Kitaj, the library was not a badge of pretension but a metonym for the endless searching and fragmentary answers that are the essence of the modern experience, and, not least, his own sense of himself as a “literary” artist and a quintessential man of the Jewish Diaspora. In response to a critic’s complaint that his 1986 exhibition was “littered with ideas,” Kitaj wrote:
Heavens to Betsy, I hope that’s true. My poor Diasporist mind urges me to wander among ideas without rest, always the false-scholar, which is often how we painters make our mark. The pursuit of ideas, both religious and secular, at any cost, is often attributed to Jews by both well wishers and doubters…. The Diasporist pursuit of a homeless logic of ethnie may be the radical (root) core of a newer art than we can yet imagine.16
In his painting Cecil Court, London W. C. 2 (The Refugees, 1983–84), Kitaj pictures himself lying on a Le Corbusier chaise longue in his favorite haunt of antiquarian bookstores, surrounded by figures from the Yiddish theater that had been described to him by his grandparents. He described the painting as staging “some of the syntactical strategies and mysteries and lunacies of Yiddish Theatre in a London Refuge, Cecil Court, the book alley I’d prowled all my life in England, which fed so much into my dubious pictures from its shops and their refugee booksellers.”17
The facsimile properties of In Our Time (and the perverse requirement to judge a book by its cover) suggest a certain Duchampian sensibility. Questioned about his artistic influences in 1965, Kitaj cited Francis Bacon, “the Ernst of the Semaine de Bonté … Rauschenberg, Johns and Duchamp.”18 It is possible to see a connection to something like The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box, 1934), the boxed collection of collotype reproductions of scrap-paper notes detailing the process of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (The Large Glass, 1915–23). Duchamp, however, was a tease who loved puns and wordplays— the illusion of meaning—and the notes contained in the Green Box do not actually shed much light on The Large Glass; rather, they are a verbal extension of it. By contrast, Kitaj’s commentaries (such as the “Afterwords” he wrote for Jane Kinsman’s 1994 catalogue raisonné or the “Prefaces” displayed alongside the work and in the catalogue of the infamous Tate retrospective the same year) documented his sources, reading matter and thought trajectories. At the same time they used the act of quotation—recontextualized language—to signal “the fractured character of the world and the theme of the lack of a homeland” as well as the Talmudic tradition of interpretation.19
Kitaj, indeed, referred to the Tate show’s “Prefaces” as “neo-Talmudic” descriptions.20 According to Jewish tradition, each paragraph of the Torah has 49 levels of meaning, and the ensuing profusion of elucidation is enshrined in ancient Talmudic manuscripts as nested commentaries: layer upon layer of debate, loops of self-referential dissent that can only be followed in full by an examination of earlier annotations. In other words: there is no simple answer. Let me tell you about it. How long have you got?
For Kitaj, that was the heart of what it meant to be Jewish. Never a believer, he only began to examine his ethnic heritage after reading Hannah Arendt’s account of the Adolf Eichmann trial, published in the New Yorker in 1963. “That broke the Jewish Ice for me,” he wrote in his unpublished memoir, Confessions (the title, from St. Augustine, was intended to mark the artist’s path to Jewishness—essential Kitaj in all his glory).21 He moved on to Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel and other Holocaust writers: “Inch by inch I would proceed, after 1965, a young caterpillar of the universalist pretension of art, treading and reading and plotting softly to emerge around 1970 as a Jewish butterfly of particularist energies, which might even lead me ‘back or forward to a universal art, beyond good and evil.’”22
Artist-as-Yiddish-butterfly was hardly a concept designed to appeal to Kitaj’s adopted homeland, which liked outsiders to demonstrate an unfailing attachment to its native customs and institutions. Kitaj knew this and he didn’t care. He had, he said, “always been detested by half of the art people and critics–hated by some … ‘literary’ has long been a term of abuse.”23 Like his friend Philip Roth, who lived in London on and off during his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom, Kitaj loathed what he called the “low-octane, English anti-Semitism.”24 He was also frustrated by the traditional propriety and muted voice of the British Jew, which as Roth noted in his novel Deception, stands in contrast to the stance of his counterpart in New York, where one sees “Jews with appetite. Jews without shame. Complaining Jews who get under your skin. Brash Jews who eat with their elbows on the table. Unaccommodating Jews full of anger, insult, argument, and impudence.”25 Jews like Kitaj.
The vitriol of the British response to the 1994 Tate show rather mystified American observers. The artist’s insistence on figuration was not entirely fashionable, but Britain had fostered a strong tradition of figuration throughout the 20th century, much of it critically celebrated. And while Kitaj’s prolific addenda defied modernist notions of the autonomy of the work of art, the same might be said of Richard Hamilton or indeed Duchamp.
The main target of fury in 1994 was, in fact, those “neo-Talmudic” “Prefaces,” in which the artist situated himself expansively within an artistic and intellectual tradition that included Kafka, T. S. Eliot, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. The headline of Tim Hilton’s Independent review ran, “Draw draw is better than jaw jaw: R.B. Kitaj gives great interview. But would he be a better painter if he spent less time talking about his work?”26 Andrew Graham-Dixon, also writing in The Independent, described Kitaj as an “inveterate name-dropper…. 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.”27 It is hard not to conclude that this venting of spleen reflects long-established British perceptions of Jews as what the English-Jewish writer A. Alvarez has described as “overwrought, grasping, too clever by half.”28
The work shown in this year’s “Obsessions” received largely positive reviews in the British press.29 “Nearly two decades after the Tate show,” The Economist opined, “these exhibitions prove just how good Kitaj was at marshaling complex ideas into a coherent and forceful image.”30 But Aaron Rosen sounded a more careful note in Apollo: “As fine as the current exhibition is, it does not provide closure to Kitaj’s troubled relationship with England. Instead it feels more like an uneasy truce, a hard-fought settlement after an acrimonious divorce.”31 The Independent’s Adrian Hamilton dismissed the charge of anti-Semitism, conceding only, “There may be an element of this, or at least the English distaste for the jumped-up foreigner in their attacks….”32 That’s very different, of course.
The position of outsider, a sojourner in a foreign culture, was essential to Kitaj’s vision of the Diaspora Jew, but it was equally the role of the bohemian modern artist. And the portrait of the artist that emerges from In Our Time is that of an assimilated urban Jew fully immersed in the intellectual and political currents of the 20th century—a worldly, educated, old-school socialist and lover of poetry; the kind of man very much at home in New York and, before the war, in many European cities.
It is a pity that “Obsessions” will not reach New York, so obvious a home for this generous examination of Kitaj’s art. One can only wonder why Kitaj did not decide, as his Jewish identity began to emerge in the ‘60s, to abandon the timorous English for the Jewish “fortress” of New York. He could surely have done worse than to spend his evenings with Hannah Arendt in her book-crammed study on Riverside Drive, shamelessly raging, boasting, intellectualizing and dropping names until first light gleamed over the Hudson.
- In Our Time and several prints rejected by the artist were part of a gift of 293 works donated by Kitaj’s estate in 2009 to the museum, where he had wished them to be housed along with the Old Masters. The core of the gift was the complete set of artist’s proofs of every one of his prints, impressions that the artist had kept in his studio until his death, suggesting that he had not entirely rejected them.
- “Obsessions,” Jewish Museum Berlin, 21 Sept 2012 to 27 Jan 2013; “R.B. Kitaj. Obsessions: Analyst for Our Time,” Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 23 February–16 June 2013; “R.B. Kitaj. Obsessions: The Art of Identity,” Jewish Museum, London, 21 Feb–16 June 2013; “Recent Acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj,” the British Museum, 30 May to 1 Sept 2013; “ R.B. Kitaj: Personal Library,” Jewish Museum, New York, 5 April to 11 August 2013.
- Kitaj’s rejection of his early prints certainly contributed to their critical neglect until recently [see Kitaj catalogue raisonné review, p. 39].
- Jennifer Ramkalawon, Kitaj Prints, A Catalogue Raisonné (London: The British Museum, 2013), 13–14.
- R.B. Kitaj (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, February 1965), unpaginated. An exhibition catalogue.
- Kitaj, ca. 1990, quoted in Tracy Bartley et al, R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions, 1932–2007 (Bielefeld, Germany: Kerber Verlag, Jewish Museum Berlin, 2012), 172. An exhibition catalogue.
- Ramkalawon, 19.
- Jane Kinsman, The Prints of R.B. Kitaj (Surrey, UK: Scolar Press; Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, 1994), 67.
- Ibid., 59.
- Ramkalawon, 26, 35n.
- Kinsman, 59.
- Edward Lucie-Smith, “A village explainer,” The Listener, 21 February 1963, 343.
- James Hall, “Teflon Ron,” The Guardian, 20 June 20 1994.
- Tim Hilton, “Draw draw is better than jaw jaw: R.B. Kitaj gives great interview. But would he be a better painter if he spent less time talking about his work?” The Independent, 19 June 2004.
- Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto (1988). Quoted in Martin Roman Deppner, “Letters to a Young German Painter,” Bartley et al, 109.
- Bartley et al, 140.
- Interview with Maurice Tuchman in Kitaj, Paintings and Prints (Los Angeles: Lytton Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965), exhibition catalogue no. 54.
- Cilly Kugelman, “ ‘I Accuse!’ Kitaj’s ‘Tate-War’ and an interview with Richard Morphet,” in Bartley et al, 195.
- R.B. Kitaj: A Retrospective (London: Tate Gallery), 65.
- R.B. Kitaj, Confessions, unpublished manuscript in Kitaj Papers, UCLA, box 5, folder 1, p. 55, quoted by Eckhart Gillen, “ R.B. Kitaj—Secret Jew and Avowed Diasporist,” Obsessions, 88.
- Krzysztof Z. Ciezkowski, “Problems in Kitaj, mostly iconographic,” Art Libraries Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, 1989, 37–39. Quoted in Ramkalawon, 26, n56.
- Kitaj portrayed Roth in the drawing A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), 1988–91.
- Philip Roth, Deception (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 198.
- Andrew Graham-Dixon, “The Kitaj myth,” The Independent, 28 June 28 1994. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/art–the-kitaj-myth-the-man-who-would-leap-frog-his-way-into-history-on-the-backs-of-giants-stands-exposed-andrew-grahamdixon-on-kitaj-at-the-tate-1425629.html.
- A. Alvarez, Where Did It All Go Right? (New York: William Morrow, 1999), 158.
- See, for example, Tim Adams, “RB Kitaj: an obsession with revenge,” The Observer, 9 Feb 2013.
- “R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions,” The Economist, 2 March 2013.
- Aaron Rosen, “ R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions,” Books in Tow, Apollo, 26 April 2013.
- “R.B. Kitaj retrospective comes to London a decade after he fled Britain over ‘anti-Semitism,’” The Independent, 11 March 2013.