The Refugee 

Expatriate artist R.B. Kitaj's bittersweet homecoming

Wednesday, Sep 10 1997

This story, originally published in the September 18, 1997, issue of L.A. Weekly, was reposted when R.B. Kitaj passed away October 21, 2007.

Photo by Slobodan DimitrovThere are certain phrases that, once you've spent a few afternoons in the company of the painter R.B. Kitaj, rapidly become familiar. "I overstayed my welcome" is one of them; "I try to follow my passions wherever they lead me" is another. Then come the names, that roll call of great 19th- and 20th-century artists reverently and passionately recited, like a painter's mantra: Manet, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Giacometti, Brancusi, Mondrian . . . And if he forgets somebody -- Picasso, say -- he'll interrupt himself, two sentences later, to stick the name back in. Such is his devotion to the past.

No doubt about it, Ronald Brooks Kitaj (pronounced Kit-eye) is, as he likes to say, an "odd fish," and not just because he is an American painter who chose to spend four decades of his life submerged in London. When he left America in 1957, after first traveling the world as a merchant seaman and studying art in New York and Vienna, Kitaj was a newly wed 25-year-old ex-G.I. with a crew cut and romantic ideas about Europe. Now, returning to his own country after 40 years abroad, Kitaj is a chastened, white-haired widower of 65 who has left his mark on the artistic life of London like no American painter since James McNeill Whistler a century before him. Only the third American to be elected to England's Royal Academy, he has won scores of prizes, doctorates and awards while charting his own idiosyncratic course, from his beginnings as a bookish pop artist to his current status as a Jewish "identity" artist. And if he is not, as he says he is, "the most controversial artist alive," he certainly makes waves like few painters around.

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In 1878, Whistler sued the celebrated English art critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Over the last two years, Kitaj has gone further: Effectively, he has accused several English art critics of murder.

Six days after his arrival in Los Angeles, Kitaj greets me at the door of his house in Westwood with a taut smile and a handshake that has some Yankee swing and gusto to it. His face is ashen but handsome. "Call me Kitaj," he says in an accent that remains fully American. "That's what my wife called me. I've never liked the name Ron."

Inside, Kitaj introduces me to his 12-year-old son, Max, who seems shy and polite and thoroughly English, and Charlie, a young woman from London who has come over to help with the move. Apparently, I am the first visitor to the house, so, to my surprise, Charlie asks me to pose for a photograph with Kitaj. "Would you like something to drink?" Kitaj asks after the flash has gone off a second time, leading me into a large, sunny room off the kitchen. There is a brand-new television set on one side of the room, a brand-new fish tank on the other, and a basketball in the middle of the floor. Out in the garden, light gleams on the turquoise water of the swimming pool, and the sound of hammering comes from the garage, which Kitaj is having converted into a studio.

"I overstayed my welcome," Kitaj says simply when I bring up his departure from London, adding that he had always felt alien in England. "One could be creative about that, or pretend to be creative about it, but there it was. I missed very ordinary things like baseball, which I followed in the Herald Tribune every morning, and slowly America began to seem like the place where I should be. But who knows? I think you take your demons with you wherever you go. I might love it. I might live here happily ever after. Even if I don't love it, it doesn't matter, because I'm going to see Max through high school."

When Max is through with school and out of the house, says Kitaj, he'll see how he feels. "If I'm happy, I'll become the hermit of Westwood and grow a long white beard. If I do yearn for old Europe, I can always get myself an attic in the Place St. Sulpice and die in the old American hospital like Bette Davis did."

For now, he is delighted to be here. Kitaj was born in Cleveland, but L.A. is the nearest he comes to having a hometown. He met his wife here, both his parents died here, and all his children and grandchildren live here, as do old friends like David Hockney. But the city has other associations as well.

  • Expatriate artist R.B. Kitaj's bittersweet homecoming

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