By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Like Hockney, Kitaj is going deaf, and wears a hearing aid in his right ear. His skin is pitted with old acne scars, and his hair is whitish-gray, cropped short and brushed forward over his scalp. Getting up to show me through the as yet unfurnished rooms of his house, Kitaj walks stiffly, like an old soldier. In the room that will eventually be his drawing studio, he shows me a photograph on the mantelpiece of his late wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, whose death, three years ago, has been the great tragedy of his life.
They met in 1971, when Kitaj was teaching at UCLA following the death of his first wife, Elsi. (Kitaj has the unfortunate distinction of being a widower twice over.) They met again, quite by chance, two years later in a restaurant in London and soon began living together. In 1983, they were married in London's oldest synagogue. It was a ceremony that included some of England's finest painters: Hockney, the best man, gave away the bride, and Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff made up part of the Orthodox minyan (10 Jewish men).
"As you can see," Kitaj says, after I have studied the photograph, "she was a great beauty. After 10 minutes, anyone who met her realized she was just as beautiful on the inside. No one could believe how wonderful she was, gracious and kind to everyone."
Also on the mantelpiece are photographs of Kitaj's son from his first marriage, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Kafka, The Hard Way); a photo of his adopted daughter, Dominie, now in the U.S. Navy; and a photo of Lucian Freud making a face for Max on the night before the departure from London. Otherwise, the room, like most of the house, is completely bare, and our voices bounce eerily off the walls. Empty bookshelves are everywhere, in readiness for approximately 10,000 books being shipped from London. Although he never went to college, Kitaj is famously well-read, and his closest friends have included poets like John Ashbery and Robert Creeley, and philosophers like Richard Wollheim and Isaiah Berlin.
"I'm so turned on by books, and pictures in books, and the habit of insinuating that obsession into paintings I make," Kitaj says. "Every single day is tempered by that, and if it doesn't occur in one form or another I feel something is wrong with the day." One of the things that most pleases him is the fact that a large number of books, ranging from volumes of poetry to histories of nursing, are now published with his paintings on the cover. The reason, he believes, is the variety of his work, which gives people an array of images to choose from. "So many artists of this century, even some of the best ones, worked within a narrow range. I never like to repeat anything. I like to think that I can get up in the morning and do something different every day."
When he first arrived in London as a student at the Royal College of Art in 1959, after two years spent drawing from the figure at the Ruskin College in Oxford, Kitaj struck his contemporaries as an exotic. At 27, not only was he several years their senior and extraordinarily well-read, he was also an ex-G.I. who had studied under a pupil of Egon Schiele's in Vienna, and an exmerchant seaman who had lost his virginity in a Havana brothel -- two things few art students in London at the time could boast. Among his classmates were the future pop artist Allen Jones and Hockney, who used to stand in the cafeteria at lunchtime handing out leaflets promoting vegetarianism. When Hockney was having trouble figuring out what to paint, it was to Kitaj that he turned for advice. "Why don't you paint what you're interested in?" Kitaj suggested, and apparently Hockney did.
In 1963, Kitaj was given his first exhibition ("Pictures With Commentary, Pictures Without Commentary") at Marlborough Fine Art in London. Even before the show, his paintings, with their industrial-strength color and surrealist-collage technique, had attracted attention as something completely different. "Mr. R.B. Kitaj's first exhibition, now that it has at last taken place, puts the whole 'new wave' of figurative painting in this country during the last two or three years into perspective," wrote the reviewer for the London Times, effectively putting an American at the forefront of a new generation of English painters. For the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, then an art student who had repeatedly been told that his paintings were too "literary," the show was a revelation. Kitaj's work "legitimised all I had hopes of one day doing," Greenaway has stated. "He drew and painted in as many as 10 different ways on the same canvas; he threw ideas around, like confetti . . . His ideas were international, far from English timidity and English jokiness, and that timid and jokey English pop-art."
After the death of his first wife, Kitaj's work changed. Though still fragmentary and de-centered, his paintings began to cohere. In If Not, Not (197576), probably his most famous painting, he attempted a grand visionary depiction of 20th-century hell: an idyllic, almost Californian landscape of palm trees and sunsets, but littered with alienated ä bodies drifting inexorably toward the gaping maw of the Auschwitz gatehouse; in The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin) (197273), he tried to fuse all the currents of modernism into a single café scene.
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