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
To be granted a retrospective at the Tate is a considerable honor for a living artist, particularly an expatriate American, and it was an honor that Kitaj must have been thrilled to receive. His fellow School-of-Londoners, Bacon and Hockney and Freud, had already received theirs; now it was his turn. For 10 years Kitaj had avoided the media, but suddenly he found himself in the midst of a publicity blitz. He was interviewed on television and radio, long articles about him appeared in London's newspapers and journals, and a poster of one of his most recent paintings, Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees), a phantasmagoric and blazingly hued homage to a famous booksellers' row near Charing Cross, blared out its anguish and excitement from the walls of the London Underground all over the city. The laurels, it seemed, were there for the taking.
It did not turn out that way. The critics were in a ferocious mood, and they seemed particularly annoyed by Kitaj's practice of placing explanatory or allegorical texts next to his paintings -- a practice Kitaj sees as part of the Jewish tradition of midrash,or exegesis. ("A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words," wrote one critic sarcastically, "but not one of Ron Kitaj's.") The attacks were often personal; at times they almost seemed to be baiting him. The reviewer for the Evening Standard, having dismissed Kitaj's paintings as "wretched adolescent trash," called him "a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art." He was called "a supreme dilettante" in the Guardian,and accused of having "confused soft-centered egocentricity with self-enlightenment" in the Sunday Telegraph. The reviewer for the Sunday Times mocked "poor, private, pensive Ronald B. Kitaj" for having a head full of "HemingwayGauguin bullshit"; the critic for the Independent,also with waste matter on his mind, began his review by quoting an old French expression, "Il ne se prend pas pour de la merde" (he does not take himself for a piece of shit), and then, not mincing words, went on to make it clear that Kitaj should revise his self-opinion: "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."
Surveying the wreckage nine months later in Time,ä Robert Hughes called it a critical drubbing "such as few artists ever have to endure in a lifetime." But by then Hughes knew what the aftermath had been. While the Tate show was still on, and still provoking bilious fusillades from the critics, Kitaj had flown to Los Angeles to nurse his dying mother. After burying her, he returned to London, only to be told on his arrival that his wife had been rushed to the hospital after suffering a collapse. Two days later, she was dead from an aneurysm at the age of 47. During Kitaj's last conversation with her, by telephone from Los Angeles, she had read him yet another review attacking his show. The two events -- her death and the critical attacks on his show -- then fused in Kitaj's mind, where they have remained stubbornly inseparable ever since. And though the retrospective then traveled to Los Angeles and New York, where it was generally well received ("Kitaj has dared to go where none with his sophistication has gone before," wrote Jed Perl in The New Republic), Kitaj has not been able to forget what happened in London.
"Everything was a coincidence," he says sarcastically, spitting out the words. "It was a coincidence that my wife died at the time of the savagery, as if savagery doesn't ever kill. It's a coincidence that I'm the only outspoken polemicist and writer that they can get their teeth into. It's a coincidence that I'm the only American living in that society who made a name for himself. It's a coincidence that I'm the only Jew who wears Jewishness in his art. Everything's a fucking coincidence."
Kitaj's obsession with the criticism of his show makes many people uncomfortable. The general feeling is that he should lick his wounds and move on. But that's not Kitaj's style. "If someone shoots at me, I shoot back," he says, and in the last two years he has done just that. For a year and a half after his wife's death, he did not paint at all, and in interviews he accused his critics of having caused his wife's death. He also accused them of xenophobia and "low-octane anti-Semitism." The Independent's thenart critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, says Kitaj, "has used the analogy of shit four separate times" when talking about the four leading Jewish painters in London: Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff and himself.
Then, last year, having picked up his brush again, he exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy called The Critic Kills, signing it "Sandra and Ron." This summer, upping the ante considerably, he exhibited (as the centerpiece of an installation of paintings and texts about critics called Sandra Three) a large oil entitled (with a nod to Duchamp) The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even. The painting, which draws on Manet's Execution of Maximilian, shows a two-man firing squad, made up of Manet and a headless Kitaj, emptying their barrels on a hideous, multi-eyed, lizard-tongued monster vomiting reams of bilious prose: a critic. One of the texts accompanying the installation comes from Nietzsche: "A little revenge is more human than no revenge."
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