Jewish Journal

R. B. Kitaj, 1932-2007—An Appreciation

Joey Bishop, Sara Goldberg Morguelan

by David N. Myers

Posted on Oct. 25, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The world of art, of ideas and of Jewish culture lost a towering figure this past week. R. B. Kitaj died Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 74. Heralded as one of the great figurative painters of his generation, he was also one of the most erudite and provocative Jewish intellectuals of his era. As he often admitted, Kitaj was obsessed, both in his work and life, with the "Jewish Question," a complex forged at the intersection of a seemingly timeless anti-Semitism and the uniquely creative cultural genius of Jewish intellectuals, especially that of his favored late 19th- and 20th-century Central Europeans (among them Kafka, Buber, Benjamin, Scholem, Einstein, and Freud).

As a response to this Question, Kitaj self-consciously engaged in the creation of "Jewish Art" -- not in order to recreate or celebrate traditional Jewish rituals, but rather to depict personalities and themes that embodied the marginality, iconoclasm, and inventiveness of the modern Jewish condition.

Recognized as a master draughtsman, Kitaj delighted in appending to his pictures written commentaries, learned and witty meditations that he saw as continuous with the great interpretive tradition of the Talmud. This tendency drew the scorn of some art critics, who believed that he had surrendered the integrity of the visual image to ideas and words. One critic, responding to his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London, asserted that "no amount of exegesis will improve paintings that fail for pictorial reasons." Kitaj regarded such criticism as motivated by a thinly veiled anti-Semitism, and moreover, responsible for the untimely death of his wife Sandra Fisher a few weeks after the closing of the Tate retrospective.

Enraged at the critics, Kitaj left London in 1997 after nearly 40 years in that city. He moved to Los Angeles, where he led a largely reclusive life, dwelling in proximity to his three children and actively painting and writing until his death. His days had a highly regimented quality, beginning with an early morning walk to a Westwood café, an hour of writing, a return to his art studio to paint, a later afternoon hour to receive visitors, and finally, an evening devoted to reading before retiring for an early bedtime.

Ronald Brooks Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. After growing up in Troy, New York, he sought adventure by joining the merchant marine at the age of 17. Four years later, Kitaj commenced studies, first at Cooper Union in New York, then in Vienna, Oxford, and finally in 1959, at the Royal College of Art in London. In London, he met David Hockney, who would remain one of his closest friends throughout life. He also befriended fellow Jews Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff, and together they gained renown as the "School of London."

Following his first major shows in the 1960s, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1965, Kitaj won wide acclaim for his brilliant use of color, as well as for his willingness to resist the allures of Pop Art for the weightier traditions of Degas, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse. At the same time, Kitaj nurtured his insatiable intellectual curiosity, making the acquaintance of a vast array of friends, including Isaiah Berlin, Philip Roth, Adin Steinsaltz, Susan Sontag and Leon Wieseltier.

Those who knew him were drawn to his broad and often wild autodidactic learning, thrilling conversation, keen humor and deep compassion. He was as well-read in art history, philosophy, literary and art criticism, and intellectual history as many practicing scholars in those fields. Moreover, he loved and felt compelled to write, as in his two manifestos on "Jewish Art" -- the "First Diasporist Manifesto" (1989) and the "Second Diasporist Manifesto" (2007). The latter, written in Los Angeles in the last years of his life, expressed the hope that "Jewish Art can be new, daring, unusual and risky." Kitaj art
Notwithstanding his own fealty to great interpretive and artistic forebears, Kitaj possessed all of those qualities in his own work. He was a gigantic innovator, a seminal figure in modern Jewish culture, and a loyal friend.

In January 2008, a pair of exhibitions devoted to Kitaj will open in tandem in Los Angeles. The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies will sponsor an exhibition based on Kitaj's newly received papers, "Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R. B. Kitaj in Word and Image," at the Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections. In parallel, the Skirball Cultural Center will present "R. B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory -- Jewish Works from His Personal Collection."

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and directs the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

Remembering an Angry Call From a Jewish Rat Packer: Dies at 89

Nearly a decade ago, back in my days at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, a co-worker and I were working late. His phone rang and he picked up.

The caller was screaming. My fellow editor kept saying, "Yes, Mr. Bishop. Sorry, Mr. Bishop."

Sure enough, it was the Joey Bishop.

If memory recalls -- the Web is of no help on this one -- we had published a reader's letter complaining that Bishop didn't stick with his given name, Joseph Abraham Gottlieb. The letter-writer suggested that the Rat Packer, who died last week in Newport Beach, at 89, must have been embarrassed by his Jewish roots.

The hell he was, Bishop let my fellow editor know.

Bishop was one of two Jews in the Rat Pack, the other being Judaism's most famous convert since Ruth, song-and-dance-man Sammy Davis Jr. Best known for their movies and Las Vegas appearances, the group's five singers and comedians epitomized the relaxed machismo of the early 1960s.

A low-key standup comedian, Bishop was in the group by dint of his friendship with Frank Sinatra, who often was the brunt of Bishop's jokes.

"They know you can sing," Bishop would tell Sinatra. "Why don't you tell them about some of the good things the Mafia has done?"Singer Dean Martin and Peter Lawford, the actor and in-law of the Kennedys, rounded out the group.

Bishop, a TV star in the '60s who for a while had his own late-night talk show, was born in the Bronx in 1918. His parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, later moved the family to Philadelphia. Bishop caught the bug for entertaining from his father, who taught him Yiddish songs.

And in reality, even after he hit the big time, a Jewish sensibility informed his act. Roasting his rival and friend Johnny Carson, Bishop said he would reveal a secret about the phlegmatic Nebraska-born talk-show host: "Johnny Carson is Jewish," he said, and pulled a yarmulke out of his pocket, placing it on Carson's head.

So, one last time: Sorry, Mr. Bishop.

-- Ami Eden, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Sara Goldberg Morguelan, Later-in-Life Bat Mitzvah, Dies at 93.

Sara Goldberg Morguelan, 93, beloved wife of the late Jacob Morguelan, died peacefully in her sleep Oct., 22, in Tarzana.

Born in Louisville, Ky., she was raised among tight-knit families who created a vibrant Jewish community. She and her husband moved to Southern California, and were eventually joined by their entire family. A tenacious Scrabble player, she took great pleasure in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was proud to become a bat mitzvah at age 86.

She is survived by her sons, Murray and Fred Morguelan; daughter, Barbara Katz; eight grandchildren; and great-grandchildren Jamie and Daniel Weisenberg, Megan and Liam Young, Benjamin, Samantha, Shauna and Rebekah Katz, and Jacob Lavine.

Myra Brown died Sept. 19 at 87. She is survived by her daughter, Rene (Roger J.) Holt, and granddaughters, Meryl and Sheri Holt. Mount Sinai

Dr. William Dasher died Sept. 21 at 92. He is survived by his daughters, Diane (Bruce) Ward, and Deborah (G.S.) Hart; sons, Richard and Robert (Rudy); five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sybil Glickman died Sept. 21 at 91. She is survived by her sons, Peter and Raymond; daughter, Harriette (Murray) Finebaum; brother, Myer Scher; four grandchildren; and five great grandchildren. Hillside

Clara Goldie Goldstein-Lees died Sept 21 at 88. She is survived by her husband, Herbert Lees; son, Andrew Goldstein; and daughter, Susan Larkin. Hillside

Louis Harris died Sept. 18 at 82. He is survived by his children, Shelle (Jack) Daniels, Barbara (Rabbi Dr. Kenny) Klaristenfeld, Avery (Barabara) and Hartley; grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Sholom Chapels

Ronnie Hirsch died July 19. She is survived by her sons, Eric and Robert; daughter, Ellen Denholtz; and eight grandchildren.

Zenia Katz died Sept. 20 at 79. She is survived by her daughter, Marla Westover; sons, Dr. Archer and Dr. Ronald; and three grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Lyudmila Khoras died Sept. 18 at 84. She is survived by her son, Andrey (Marina); and grandson, Alexander. Mount Sinai

Clara Livian died Sept. 18 at 83. She is survived by her sons, Peter (Lourdes) and Andy (Tracy) Livian; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Ann Meselson died Sept. 19 at 102. She is survived by her son, Matthew (Jeanne Guillemin); grandchildren, Zoe and Amy; and three great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Barbara Sugarman Mittler died Sept. 18 at 63. She is survived by her daughters, Lisa (Tony Smith), Diana and Debra; and grandchildren, Sam and Hailey Smith. Hillside

Leo Newman died Sept. 20 at 83. He is survived by his sons, Jeff and Mark; daughter, Rochelle Newman; and two grandchildren. Hillside

Felix Orbach died Sept. 19 at 88. He is survived by his sons, Clifford (Roberta) and Barry; and daughter, Stacy (Stewart Kayle). Mount Sinai

Heinz Petzall died Sept. 19 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Harriet Kahn; daughter, Joan (Richard) Seder; and two grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Margot Charlotte Posnansky died Sept. 19 at 96. She is survived by her daughter, Susan; son, Peter Herz; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Claudie Rubin died Sept. 18 at 67. She is survived by her husband, Simon; sons Larry and Damon; and one grandchild. Hillside

Toby Waxman-Root died Sept. 19 at 77. She is survived by her husband, Sherman; and nephews Jeff (Grace Won) Stone and Mark (Sharon) Friedman. Mount Sinai

Paul Wolfish died Sept. 20 at 60. He is survived by his wife, Toby; daughters, Melissa and Erica; brother, Arthur; and sister, Rosalind Liebenthal. Mount Sinai

Rachel Wrobel died Sept. 20 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Ahuva Einstein; son, Avi (Nora); four grandchildren; and three great-grandsons. Malinow and Silverman

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