Jewish Journal


June 19, 2003

Kitaj the ‘Diasporist’


"My Fourth Jewish Abstract" (2002--2003, oil and charcoal on canvas). Photo courtesy of LA Louver Gallery and Marlborough Gallery

"My Fourth Jewish Abstract" (2002--2003, oil and charcoal on canvas). Photo courtesy of LA Louver Gallery and Marlborough Gallery

Six years have passed since painter R.B. Kitaj moved from London to Los Angeles, following a hail of criticism and counterattacks (more on that later). Recently, I visited the artist at his home and studio on the occasion of "Los Angeles Pictures," a breathtaking exhibit at Venice's LA Louver Gallery.

Kitaj's show in Venice includes more than 20 works, paintings, drawings, even a few abstracts. Clearly, Kitaj's time in Los Angeles has been productive. But can a self-proclaimed "Diasporist" ever be truly at home?

Kitaj was born in Cleveland in 1932 and joined the merchant marines in 1949. After studying art in New York, Vienna and then London (where his classmate was David Hockney) in the 1950s, he spent the next 40 years in London. In 1989, Kitaj published his polemical work, "The First Diasporist Manifesto," which argued that the conditions of being a Jew living in the Diaspora were important elements compelling Kitaj, who was struggling to create a "Jewish art."

In 1994, the Tate Gallery in London held a retrospective of Kitaj's works, a great honor rarely accorded non-British artists. The show, which traveled to Los Angeles in 1995 (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and New York (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) made much of Kitaj's very distinctive use of color and figurative elements to achieve a personal iconography.

However, the English critics drew their knives and savaged the show. Schadenfreude filled the art pages.

Around the same time, Kitaj's wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, whom he married in 1983 and with whom he had a son, Max, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 47 (she was 15 years his junior). Kitaj, in his grief, blamed her death on the bad reviews.

"No one knows what caused her hemorrhage, but stress is a contributing factor," Kitaj told me. He also blamed the bad reviews on English "low-octane anti-Semitism" -- whose existence (a question of tone, a comment, a description here and there) anyone who reads the British press regularly would be hard pressed to deny.

But can anti-Semitism, no matter how low octane, explain the bad reviews? Today Kitaj refers to the episode and the accusations he made as "my Tate war."

"I fought back," he says proudly. But shortly thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles. "London also died for me," Kitaj has written.

Los Angeles holds many claims on Kitaj. His parents are buried here. His oldest daughter, Dominie, is in the Navy near San Diego (she recently served in Kuwait during the war in Iraq); his eldest son, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs, lives here with his sons in a house down the street from Kitaj, and Los Angeles is where he first met Sandra, when he was a visiting teacher at UCLA in 1970. Their son, Max, will attend college nearby next year.

Los Angeles also affected Kitaj's work in an unexpected way. "I found a strange, new romantic subject out here." Kitaj writes in the LA Louver catalogue. "Sandra and me."

Kitaj writes: "Sandra and I became lovers again, after her death, in my old age in Los Angeles, The Angels. I could make love to my angel with my paintbrush, fondle her again, caress her contours. This greatest love story ever told, the Woman-Man Story has become quite rare in painting since the death of Picasso.... I've done about 20 of these love stories so far, and our romance need not die...."

A love so great that it transcends the grave has long been the subject of art: Orpheus descended into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice but failed to bring her back. Dante went in search of his Beatrice and was able to bring her back, but he is the exception.

There are long list of movies in which the former spouse returns, from "Blythe Spirit" to "Dona Flor" and "Ghost" (don't get me started on Demi Moore in her T-shirt. Damn you, Ashton Kutcher!). Art Buchwald even wrote a bittersweet novel, "Stella in Heaven," in which the hero's late spouse nags him from the beyond to get a new wife.

The "Los Angeles Pictures" present Kitaj and Sandra in several guises. In one work, Kitaj clings desperately to her; in another, they meet eye to eye (though a tear drips from Kitaj's). In some, they are joined as one; in others, they are separated by a large distance.

In one painting, Kitaj suckles at her breast; in another, he grabs beneath her dress. In some, Kitaj resembles Moses, other times Freud.

In one painting, he seems angry; in others, sad, desperate. In some, Sandra's eyes are closed; in others, she looks straight ahead fiercely. She wears angel wings in some, not in others.

There are vibrant yellows and deep blues, and the canvases have more white space -- all part of the way that the light and air of Los Angeles have seeped into Kitaj's work. The drawings, too, seem to have a freedom not present in his earlier work. But a question hangs over the show: What sort of love is this?

At one point, I suggested to Kitaj that the Jewish mourning process has a set form, stages and that according to Jewish tradition to mourn too much is itself a sin. Kitaj's response: "Since I don't follow all the rules, I don't follow this one either." Kitaj must do it his way.

When I visited Kitaj at his home in Los Angeles, I was led on a very proscribed guided tour -- the rooms, the books, the studio -- there was even a set place for us to sit and for the interview take place. He told me about his daily schedule, which is similarly regimented. Kitaj is obsessive, ritualistic, monomaniacal and his art reflects the breadth, but also the specifics, of his interests, from Aby Warburg to W.C. Fields and Weegee. Kitaj gave me some insight into what drives his critics crazy.

At the infamous Tate show, Kitaj posted text explanations next to many of the paintings, offering his own exegesis. In the reviews, the critics seemed to take particular umbrage at these passages.

For the Los Angeles show, Kitaj has offered the same key to his references, even offering the exact images that his paintings are based on. However, this time, Kitaj has left the commentary in the catalogue, rather than on the walls.

When Kitaj talks about painting in general and his paintings in specific, he talks about artists such as Giotto, Cezanne, Matisse, Munch, etc. Some critics see it as unseemly or arrogant for Kitaj to suggest he is even in the same league as these artists.

Kitaj's work exists very much in the context of his references. It is fair to ask if an art so dependent on sources is itself original.

We are used to looking at a painting, both as viewers and critics, and having a visceral and cerebral response that determines what the work means to us. Kitaj's literal references can appear to undermine, rather than enhance that experience.

There is another way that Kitaj's work is different. Often, an artist's work can be seen as a conversation he is having with his predecessors, his contemporaries, sometimes even his critics. Kitaj's work is more one-sided.

Even as I interviewed him, it wasn't exactly a conversation. I was on the tour. My questions were anticipated, his answers were already formed. Like many an accomplished autodidact, he can no more resist being the docent of his own home than the art lecturer for his own exhibitions.

To me, the work stands on its own. However, as I struggled with what to make of Kitaj's own very specific commentaries, I seized upon Kitaj's "Jewish art." The answer was offered -- no surprise -- by Kitaj himself, who suggested his textual accompaniments are in the tradition of Talmudic commentaries. This begs the question: Is Kitaj the Rashi of painters?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in "Jewish Literacy" calls Rashi Judaism's "greatest teacher." As Telushkin explains, what so distinguished Rashi's commentaries is that when explaining the Bible or the Talmud, he wrote both about the peshat (the literal meaning) and the derash (the sermonic or allegorical meaning).

Kitaj gives us the literal by way of his references. He would like to give us the sermonic as well -- but here he has a blind spot. It's his paintings themselves that are the allegory. In this department, his words carry little weight. It is our own commentaries that matter.

To the extent that Kitaj's references and commentaries overwhelm us, the work is frustrating. However, viewed on its own merit, it engages and challenges us, like a good text or even a good commentary should.

Kitaj, the Diasporist, now calls Los Angeles home. His books, his Cezannes, his Sandra surround him. So why is Los Angeles the best possible home for a Diaporist?

I think the answer can be found in a comment by the French semiotician Tsvetan Todorov, who considered California "the America of the Americas." He explained that immigrants from all over the world come to the United States, and then people from all over the states move to California. In other words, a perfect place for a Diasporist to live.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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