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Still, Kitaj no longer sounds as sure of himself on this point as he used to. Robert Motherwell predicted that art at the end of the 20th century would be a showdown between Duchamp and Picasso, and though he remains firmly in Picasso's camp, Kitaj concedes that it's quite possible that the best modern art may turn out not to involve drawing skills at all -- of which little remains anyway. "If you'll forgive my immodesty," he says, "there are only a handful of people who can draw very well, and I mean above the standard of academic drawing."
But if the alternative is conceptual art ("The whole world has gone Duchampian," he acknowledges), Kitaj remains largely unimpressed. He pours particular scorn on Richard Wilson's installation at London's Saatchi Gallery, where an entire room was turned into what he calls "a vat of sump oil." The room was featured in an English television program about modern art hosted by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Kitaj still sounds enraged when he describes how "Anal Andy" (as he calls him) "stuck his pudgy aristocratic thumb into this fucking oil" and then, pulling it out again, gave a postmodern thumbs-up to the camera.
"I know what it means," says Kitaj, referring to the sump oil and conceptual art in general. "I know the history. Any good artist, any intelligent actor in the romance of modern art, knows exactly what it's about. You've conditioned yourself to enjoy it -- or you've conditioned yourself to neglect it, abandon it, not need it."
What Kitaj doesseem to need these days is his own unique brand of "identity" art, which has occupied him increasingly during the last two decades. His stated ambition now is "to paint Jewish identity like a tree," and some of his best-known paintings, like Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) and the haunting The Jew, Etc., a quasi self-portrait of a man fleeing on a train, have been steeped in his readings in Jewish history.
"I went through a long morbid period where you learn everything you can about what happened in the Hitler years," he says. "You fill your head to the point where it becomes morbid, a morbid pursuit -- if you're inclined, as I was. Then you pass through it. You learn everything there was and you sort of stop."
Jewishness, and the idea of attaining "Jewishness" in art -- though not in the kitschy Chagall sense -- has become both an ambition and an obsession for Kitaj, though he is well aware that both Jews and non-Jews can be touchy about it. "Most people just want to be universal artists," he says, "and I don't blame them. So do I. But I have an overwhelming feeling that it is the particularhorse that drives the universal wagon. And in art schools they teach it the other way around."
As to what might actually constitute specifically Jewish qualities in painting, Kitaj is less clear. For him, the question is a bit like "Is there a God or not?" "It's not a question of verification," he says. "It may become a question of intentionality, which is a distinct area in philosophy. It was certainly intentionality when Marcel Duchamp exhibited a bottle rack and said, 'This is art because I say it is.'"
Kitaj published his ideas about all this in The First Diasporist Manifesto (1989), ä a quirkily good-humored meditation on what he calls "diasporist" painting. The book is chiefly concerned with Jewishness, but one can imagine the interest with which displaced artists of all stripes might greet a statement like this:
I believe there is a spirit or "ego" in a people, as in a man, which compels the creativity of that people, which propels it and inspires it -- openly, secretly, embarrassingly, even modestly.
Although his fellow artists haven't exactly been queuing to sign up, diasporism remains a "movement" Kitaj invites cultural refugees everywhere to join. "I'm right behind black people who want to use their negritude," he says, his voice low and fierce. "I'm right behind them."
One day, when I come by his house,Kitaj is holding a copy of Nan Goldin's book I'll Be Your Mirror, which he has just received from the photographer Lee Friedlander. Kitaj is interested in it because he thinks it may be a sign of how content is going to take precedence over form in the coming century. The book is a collection of simple, seemingly artless snapshots of Goldin's friends, many of them junkies and transsexuals. "The subjects of the pictures are so interesting," Kitaj says, "that form takes a back seat."
In recent years, form has arguably taken a back seat in Kitaj's work as well -- a reason, perhaps, for the lashing he received from the English critics. In 1989, Kitaj had a mild heart attack, and since then ("Time feels short," he says) many of his paintings have been executed with a speed and roughness, but also an emotional immediacy, that would have been unthinkable before. The subject, now, is everything, and like a fisherman laying out parallel lines, Kitaj has all sorts of odd series of paintings going on a variety of topics. These include a series he calls "the Bads" (Bad Back, Bad Thoughts, etc.); a series of oblique meditations on the Holocaust (Germania: The Tunnel, Germania: To the Brothel, etc.); a series on human "types" (The Caféist, The Londonist, etc.); and a series on his early sexual experiences (The First Time [Havana], The Second Time [Vera Cruz], etc.). Now that he is in L.A., he may soon be adding more. One
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