By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Kitaj's work was changing in other ways as well. At the prodding of Sandra Fisher, he began to draw seriously from the model for the first time since leaving art school. Inspired by some Degas pastels he and Sandra had seen in Paris, he began an ambitious series of drawings in that medium. (With a characteristic desire to connect with the past, he bought his handmade pastels from the granddaughter of the woman who had sold Degas his.) If the desire to draw from the figure was considered retrograde by many, the results felt contemporary -- particularly in terms of sexuality. In one memorable picture (Mary-Ann), a voluptuous woman, naked except for a partly removed tank top, gazes at the viewer through heavy-lidded eyes that seem both to invite coition and to express contempt; in another (His Hour), a dandyish voyeur seems to spy on or recall the coupling of two young lovers who are charcoaled into the background of the picture with the kind of expressive precision (the torsion of the woman's buttocks, the perfectly calibrated weight of the man's penis in her hand) that prompted megacritic Robert Hughes to declare that Kitaj "draws better than almost anyone else alive."
It was also around this time that, together with Hockney, Kitaj began to campaign loudly for an art that depicted people and places. Always a provocateur, he noted the fact that, in a century that had witnessed the liquidation of countless millions of people, the human form was being progressively eliminated from modern art. "Don't listen to the fools who say . . . that pictures of people can be of no consequence," he urged in a catalog essay for "The Human Clay," a controversial exhibition of contemporary British figurative art he curated in 1976. "It seems to me at least as advanced or radical to attempt a more social art as not to." In 1976, minimalism was at its height, and, bucking the tide as usual, Kitaj had emerged not only as an artist, but as a propagandist as well. Impressed by the quality of the painting being done in his adopted city, he posited a "School of London" -- a group of artists including Francis Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Auerbach, Kossoff and himself, among some 30 others -- dedicated to the depiction of the human form. Ironically, it took an American to forge an identity for a group of mediaphobic English artists. Even more ironically, Kitaj's work only occasionally looked as if it belonged in the School of London -- a fact that did not escape the eagle eye of Abstract Expressionism's high priest, critic Clement Greenberg. "Only an American could have painted your pictures," he told Kitaj.
Kitaj does an amusing impression of Greenberg, a "Jewish Mafiosi type" whom he reveres -- even if the art Greenberg championed is poles apart from his own. Although he has sometimes been seen as a reactionary, Kitaj is as fascinated by what Greenberg had to say as by what Duchamp had to say. (Duchamp once presented Kitaj with a book, with the inscription "Between 2 Americans.") It's just that he doesn't agree with them.
"People are going to be depicting the human face until the end of time," he says. "Duchamp isn't going to stop that. Clem Greenberg isn't going to stop that. Neither the assholes nor the distinguished theorists are going to stop that."
Dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans, and Nike sneakers and socks (the words Just Do It encircle each ankle), Kitaj sits opposite me with his back to the window, the light behind him. He hands me a photocopy of several pages of lined paper on which he has written answers to some questions I mailed to him while he was still in London. ("I don't smoke, drink or type," he tells me when I express surprise at receiving handwritten answers.) Forward-leaning in the classic postwar American manner, his handwriting is neat, precise, scholarly. There are no flourishes, just pure concentration: each line so straight it appears to have been constructed with help from a carpenter's level.
Concentration, too, is on Kitaj's face as he speaks. In half-silhouette, his face flooded in a darkness relieved only by the silver of his hair and stubble and eyebrows, his eyes narrow to black slits that suggest an inner focus so intense it is like a form of blindness. Kitaj is fond of describing himself as "the least spontaneous of men," and certainly he rarely looks relaxed. He sits in his chair like an anguished method actor about to launch into an impassioned monologue. It's easy to imagine him playing Julius Caesar, and not just because of his Roman hairstyle. In any case, the subject most on Kitaj's mind these days is war, what he refers to as the "Tate war."
"'What happened in London?' Some distinguished people ask me that," Kitaj says, referring to the critical trouncing of his career retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1994. "And I say, 'What do you mean what happened in London? You're an art historian, have you never heard of artists and writers being savaged in the press?'"