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
Kitaj does seem genuinely to believe that his wife's death was caused by stress resulting from the critics' attacks, but one suspects there is more to it than that. Kitaj is nothing if not historically minded, and this too can make people uncomfortable. The kind of modern artist we favor now is one who (as John Richardson recently wrote of Robert Rauschenberg) "is too absorbed by the future to bother about the past." In Kitaj's case, the opposite would be nearer the truth. Receiving a set of spectacularly bad, often abusive reviews only got him thinking. Didn't Manetget bad reviews? Didn't Cézanne?Didn't his Yankee forebear in London, Whistler? Aren't bad reviews actually a rather interesting part of art history? Aren't critics? Wasn't this in fact . . . a subject?
All this makes Kitaj's critics roll their eyes even farther back into their heads. For one thing, talking about Manet and Cézanne seems perversely old-fashioned; for another, it suggests that Kitaj thinks he belongs in their company. And then, what kind of subject for a painter is criticism? How can you paint something like that?
But being told that something is unpaintable only gets Kitaj's juices flowing. "If someone says you can't do something, it's the most wonderful challenge in the world," he says, leaning forward eagerly. "My God, anybody worth his salt is going to want to do it, but it's amazing how few people areworth their salt, who don't live that way, who don't take up the baton, you know?"
Kitaj, one suspects, longs for the epic political and cultural battles he read about as a young man. When he told me that in the last few months "a few Zolas" had appeared in the press to defend him, as Zola had once defended Dreyfus and Manet, it was hard to know whether to laugh or be moved that anyone still thinks that way. Born in 1932, shortly before Hitler came to power, Kitaj idolizes writers like Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide on the run from the Gestapo. Everything, one senses, is life and death with him, and when London's art critics decided to turn on him and denounce his paintings, to call him a fake and a "Wandering Jew," he took it seriously. Most people would say, much too seriously.
Hilton Kramer, an art critic for the New York Observerwho attended Sandra Fisher's funeral in London, sympathizes with Kitaj -- up to a point. In his view, the reviews were not anti-Semitic or anti-American, but "anti-intellectual." Whereas the critics who were writing when Kitaj first arrived in London prized him for his "range of literary, cultural and political reference," Kramer says, the current generation of critics "can't stand the idea of an artist who is smarter than they are. They aren't interested in painting. They're into all this postmodern crap. Someone like Waldemar Januszczak [one of Kitaj's critics] wouldn't know a good painting if he fell over one on the street. He would rather be reviewing potholes."
But when it comes to Kitaj's paintings about critics, Kramer draws a line. "I haven't seen them, and I don't want to see them," he says, calling Kitaj's charge that the critics killed his wife "a great mistake" and "a naive form of paranoia."
If there's one person who might agree with Kitaj -- at least when it comes to his charges of latent English anti-Semitism -- it is probably his friend Philip Roth. Roth lived in London for most of the 1980s, and in his novels of the period, such as Deceptionand The Counterlife, there are several passages in which an American Jew will furiously claim that he detects subtle forms of anti-Semitism all around him, while an English gentile replies that he is just being paranoid.
"[Roth] was more meshuggeneh about that stuff than I'd been," Kitaj says. "I only became that way. He spurred me on to it. Then with the Tate war, I could see what was going on. But he got to the point where [he imagined] people looked at him on the street and thought, 'Jew.'"
After two weeksin his new home, Kitaj shows signs that he may be tiring of his role as a one-of-a-kind victim artist. Over the phone one morning, he tells me that he would like to "de-emphasize" the Tate controversy and start putting the past behind him -- the reason, after all, that he moved to Los Angeles. Not that he plans to give up his paintings on the subject of critics. "I follow my passions wherever they lead me," he says, "and sometimes they lead me into deep shit."
One of Kitaj's most lasting passions has been drawing, and though he is not as fired up about it as he used to be, the lack of drawing in art schools still dismays him. "We've come to the point at our fin-de-siècle where two generations have grown up who can't draw, and now they're very proud of the fact that they can't draw, and their intellectuals have told them it's okay," is how he puts it.
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