By Catherine Wagley
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possibility is what he calls "revenge paintings," a visual counterpart to revenge tragedies, whose "noble lineage" he traces from ancient Greece through Shakespeare's Hamletand on into the California of Philip Marlowe and Dirty Harry.
Over five weeks have passed since I first came to see Kitaj, but he's not settled in yet. (Max, however, is already boogie-boarding.) His books and paintings are only just now arriving, and he's had trouble leasing a car because he has no credit history in the United States. ("I'm a nonperson," he says.) As for the house, most of it remains completely unfurnished. Since our first interview, we've talked while sitting on the floors of different rooms, some carpeted, others bare, and it is a situation Kitaj seems perfectly happy with. On the whole, he does not give the impression (as one might expect of a painter) of living in a particularly visual world. The impression is that he lives in an inner world, from which he makes occasional, darting raids on the universe outside. "Look at that squirrel!" he'll exclaim suddenly, breaking off in the middle of a sentence to point out the window; or, glancing at his son's fish tank: "Look at those fish! Aren't they amazing?"
At moments like these, when he is seeking confirmation of a point, Kitaj looks at you straight on, and the pupils in his eyes shrink to dots. He smiles, baring some teeth. He seems wholly alert, paying full attention to "external phenomena" (as Ezra Pound once advised him to do), his blue eyes riveted to yours in an orgy of communication. Then a shadow seems to fall across his face. The lips close over the teeth; the eyes narrow to slits; vertical and horizontal lines crisscross his forehead; the entire face fills with pain.
Both on canvas and in person, Kitaj is unique -- and seems fated to provoke wild swings of opinion. Some people consider him a throwback to the 19th century, a kind of annoyingly interesting freak who is doing the wrong paintings at the wrong time and making way too much noise about it. Others consider him contemporary. "Kitaj is the antithesis of our laconic, supercool culture heroes like Johns or Stella," John Ashbery once wrote. "Yet he is as important an artist as they and, despite his romantic involvement with things past, as modern as they are too."
Either way, Kitaj is undeniably retrograde in certain respects. Technology, for one thing, seems to baffle him, a fact that became comically apparent when we were interrupted, one afternoon, by a loud buzzing noise from the adjacent laundry room.
"Was that the side door?" Kitaj asked, fiddling with his hearing aid.
"I think that was the dryer shutting off," I replied.
Kitaj's strange blue eyes opened wide with wonder. "How did you know that?" he demanded, as if I had just let drop the secret of the pyramids. "You knowabout things like that?"