This story, originally published in the September 18, 1997, issue of L.A. Weekly, was reposted when R.B. Kitaj passed away October 21, 2007.
Photo by Slobodan DimitrovThere are certain phrases that, once you've spent a few afternoons in the company of the painter R.B. Kitaj, rapidly become familiar. “I overstayed my welcome” is one of them; “I try to follow my passions wherever they lead me” is another. Then come the names, that roll call of great 19th- and 20th-century artists reverently and passionately recited, like a painter's mantra: Manet, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Giacometti, Brancusi, Mondrian . . . And if he forgets somebody — Picasso, say — he'll interrupt himself, two sentences later, to stick the name back in. Such is his devotion to the past.
No doubt about it, Ronald Brooks Kitaj (pronounced Kit-eye) is, as he likes to say, an “odd fish,” and not just because he is an American painter who chose to spend four decades of his life submerged in London. When he left America in 1957, after first traveling the world as a merchant seaman and studying art in New York and Vienna, Kitaj was a newly wed 25-year-old ex-G.I. with a crew cut and romantic ideas about Europe. Now, returning to his own country after 40 years abroad, Kitaj is a chastened, white-haired widower of 65 who has left his mark on the artistic life of London like no American painter since James McNeill Whistler a century before him. Only the third American to be elected to England's Royal Academy, he has won scores of prizes, doctorates and awards while charting his own idiosyncratic course, from his beginnings as a bookish pop artist to his current status as a Jewish “identity” artist. And if he is not, as he says he is, “the most controversial artist alive,” he certainly makes waves like few painters around.
In 1878, Whistler sued the celebrated English art critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Over the last two years, Kitaj has gone further: Effectively, he has accused several English art critics of murder.
Six days after his arrival in Los Angeles, Kitaj greets me at the door of his house in Westwood with a taut smile and a handshake that has some Yankee swing and gusto to it. His face is ashen but handsome. “Call me Kitaj,” he says in an accent that remains fully American. “That's what my wife called me. I've never liked the name Ron.”
Inside, Kitaj introduces me to his 12-year-old son, Max, who seems shy and polite and thoroughly English, and Charlie, a young woman from London who has come over to help with the move. Apparently, I am the first visitor to the house, so, to my surprise, Charlie asks me to pose for a photograph with Kitaj. “Would you like something to drink?” Kitaj asks after the flash has gone off a second time, leading me into a large, sunny room off the kitchen. There is a brand-new television set on one side of the room, a brand-new fish tank on the other, and a basketball in the middle of the floor. Out in the garden, light gleams on the turquoise water of the swimming pool, and the sound of hammering comes from the garage, which Kitaj is having converted into a studio.
“I overstayed my welcome,” Kitaj says simply when I bring up his departure from London, adding that he had always felt alien in England. “One could be creative about that, or pretend to be creative about it, but there it was. I missed very ordinary things like baseball, which I followed in the Herald Tribune every morning, and slowly America began to seem like the place where I should be. But who knows? I think you take your demons with you wherever you go. I might love it. I might live here happily ever after. Even if I don't love it, it doesn't matter, because I'm going to see Max through high school.”
When Max is through with school and out of the house, says Kitaj, he'll see how he feels. “If I'm happy, I'll become the hermit of Westwood and grow a long white beard. If I do yearn for old Europe, I can always get myself an attic in the Place St. Sulpice and die in the old American hospital like Bette Davis did.”
For now, he is delighted to be here. Kitaj was born in Cleveland, but L.A. is the nearest he comes to having a hometown. He met his wife here, both his parents died here, and all his children and grandchildren live here, as do old friends like David Hockney. But the city has other associations as well.
“L.A. symbolizes the greatest visual art of the century — the movies,” Kitaj says. “It also symbolizes a city of refuge in my way of thinking. I love the idea that Schönberg, Stravinsky, Mann, Brecht, Lang, Wilder, Renoir and a thousand others settled here, however nervously! The idea that Moses und Aron and Doktor Faustus and Some Like It Hot were created here turns me on. And an émigré blond Yorkshireman painted what must be the most memorable depiction of Los Angeles and its elusive sense of place.”
Like Hockney, Kitaj is going deaf, and wears a hearing aid in his right ear. His skin is pitted with old acne scars, and his hair is whitish-gray, cropped short and brushed forward over his scalp. Getting up to show me through the as yet unfurnished rooms of his house, Kitaj walks stiffly, like an old soldier. In the room that will eventually be his drawing studio, he shows me a photograph on the mantelpiece of his late wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, whose death, three years ago, has been the great tragedy of his life.
They met in 1971, when Kitaj was teaching at UCLA following the death of his first wife, Elsi. (Kitaj has the unfortunate distinction of being a widower twice over.) They met again, quite by chance, two years later in a restaurant in London and soon began living together. In 1983, they were married in London's oldest synagogue. It was a ceremony that included some of England's finest painters: Hockney, the best man, gave away the bride, and Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff made up part of the Orthodox minyan (10 Jewish men).
“As you can see,” Kitaj says, after I have studied the photograph, “she was a great beauty. After 10 minutes, anyone who met her realized she was just as beautiful on the inside. No one could believe how wonderful she was, gracious and kind to everyone.”
Also on the mantelpiece are photographs of Kitaj's son from his first marriage, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Kafka, The Hard Way); a photo of his adopted daughter, Dominie, now in the U.S. Navy; and a photo of Lucian Freud making a face for Max on the night before the departure from London. Otherwise, the room, like most of the house, is completely bare, and our voices bounce eerily off the walls. Empty bookshelves are everywhere, in readiness for approximately 10,000 books being shipped from London. Although he never went to college, Kitaj is famously well-read, and his closest friends have included poets like John Ashbery and Robert Creeley, and philosophers like Richard Wollheim and Isaiah Berlin.
“I'm so turned on by books, and pictures in books, and the habit of insinuating that obsession into paintings I make,” Kitaj says. “Every single day is tempered by that, and if it doesn't occur in one form or another I feel something is wrong with the day.” One of the things that most pleases him is the fact that a large number of books, ranging from volumes of poetry to histories of nursing, are now published with his paintings on the cover. The reason, he believes, is the variety of his work, which gives people an array of images to choose from. “So many artists of this century, even some of the best ones, worked within a narrow range. I never like to repeat anything. I like to think that I can get up in the morning and do something different every day.”
When he first arrived in London as a student at the Royal College of Art in 1959, after two years spent drawing from the figure at the Ruskin College in Oxford, Kitaj struck his contemporaries as an exotic. At 27, not only was he several years their senior and extraordinarily well-read, he was also an ex-G.I. who had studied under a pupil of Egon Schiele's in Vienna, and an exmerchant seaman who had lost his virginity in a Havana brothel — two things few art students in London at the time could boast. Among his classmates were the future pop artist Allen Jones and Hockney, who used to stand in the cafeteria at lunchtime handing out leaflets promoting vegetarianism. When Hockney was having trouble figuring out what to paint, it was to Kitaj that he turned for advice. “Why don't you paint what you're interested in?” Kitaj suggested, and apparently Hockney did.
In 1963, Kitaj was given his first exhibition (“Pictures With Commentary, Pictures Without Commentary”) at Marlborough Fine Art in London. Even before the show, his paintings, with their industrial-strength color and surrealist-collage technique, had attracted attention as something completely different. “Mr. R.B. Kitaj's first exhibition, now that it has at last taken place, puts the whole 'new wave' of figurative painting in this country during the last two or three years into perspective,” wrote the reviewer for the London Times, effectively putting an American at the forefront of a new generation of English painters. For the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, then an art student who had repeatedly been told that his paintings were too “literary,” the show was a revelation. Kitaj's work “legitimised all I had hopes of one day doing,” Greenaway has stated. “He drew and painted in as many as 10 different ways on the same canvas; he threw ideas around, like confetti . . . His ideas were international, far from English timidity and English jokiness, and that timid and jokey English pop-art.”
After the death of his first wife, Kitaj's work changed. Though still fragmentary and de-centered, his paintings began to cohere. In If Not, Not (197576), probably his most famous painting, he attempted a grand visionary depiction of 20th-century hell: an idyllic, almost Californian landscape of palm trees and sunsets, but littered with alienated ä bodies drifting inexorably toward the gaping maw of the Auschwitz gatehouse; in The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin) (197273), he tried to fuse all the currents of modernism into a single café scene.
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?'”
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.”
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 Manet get 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 are worth 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 Observer who 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 Deception and 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 weeks in 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.
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 does seem 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 particular horse 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
possibility is what he calls “revenge paintings,” a visual counterpart to revenge tragedies, whose “noble lineage” he traces from ancient Greece through Shakespeare's Hamlet and 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 know about things like that?”