The Arty Semite

R.B. Kitaj Returns to London

By Anne Joseph

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Lee Friedlander, Courtesy Frankel Gallery, San Francisco

At the end of this month, selections of work from the exhibit “R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007): Obsessions” will be transferring from its successful run at the Jewish Museum Berlin to two venues in the U.K. It will exhibit concurrently at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and the Jewish Museum London, before returning to Germany. Both British institutions have links with the artist. M.J. Long, the architect whose practice was responsible for the refurbishment of the Jewish Museum as well as the extensions to Pallant House, also designed Kitaj’s London studio.

“Obsessions” is not only Kitaj’s first comprehensive posthumous retrospective, but also the first major examination of Kitaj’s work in the U.K. since his 1994 show at the Tate Gallery, London. Called by Kitaj the “Tate War,” the exhibition triggered a flood of negative reviews and it was this — along with the sudden death of his second wife, Sandra Fisher, which he blamed on the Tate — that led to his abrupt departure to his native U.S. Having lived for more than 30 years in London, he never returned.

The retrospective, which in its entirety encompasses more than 130 paintings, prints and drawings loaned from private collections, museums in Europe and America as well as from Kitaj’s Los Angeles estate and archive, explores the life, legacy and Jewish obsession of the Ohio-born artist. However, the two U.K. institutions have chosen to examine different facets of Kitaj’s work. Pallant House Gallery will be present an overview of his oeuvre, whereas the exhibition at the Jewish Museum London, subtitled “The Art of Identity,” will focus on how Kitaj explored and expressed his Jewishness.

Kitaj described being raised as “a freethinker with no Jewish education.” His mother was the daughter of a Russian Bundist and he wrote that “as a young man I was not sure what a Jew was.” From the early 1970s he began an examination of what it meant to be a “public Jew.” He positioned himself as a Jewish artist and in 1989 he published the “First Diasporist Manifesto,” in which he discusses the Jewish dimension in his art and thought. After the “Tate War,” the increasingly Jewish identity-obsessed Kitaj viewed the experience as further confirmation of his place as an outsider.

Exhibiting just over 20 pieces, the Jewish Museum London is showing key works that reflect Kitaj’s position as a “diasporist” Jew, explained the museum’s Chief Executive Abigail Morris. These include “Cecil Court, London W.C.2. (The Refugees)” (1983-4), a large, vibrant painting that incorporates many images within the frame. Named after Cecil Court, a book alley in London that was home to refugee booksellers who had fled the Nazis and a place that Kitaj regularly frequented. The street is portrayed as a Yiddish theater stage with the characters acting in isolation and Kitaj himself reclining on a Le Corbusier chair in the foreground.

R.B. Kitaj, ‘Cecil Court, London W.C.2. (The Refugees)’ (1983-4), Courtesy Tate London

The Holocaust had a profound effect on Kitaj and is referenced in pictures such as his memorial painting, “Kafka’s Three Sisters” (2004), “If Not, Not” (1975-6) and “Desk Murder” (1970-1984), an image of a 1940s office painted predominantly in red. A tap with gas streaming forth is centrally placed and the shape of a possible crematorium looms large. Kitaj’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, in which she coined the phrase “desk murderer,” had been a key development for him.

Kitaj was also a great collector of books. “Obsessions” curator, Eckhart Gillen, explained that for Kitaj books were “like trees to the landscape.” He took ideas and themes from his extensive library collection and picture titles and quotes often found their way onto his canvases. It was a passion he shared with Walter Benjamin, one of Kitaj’s obsessive virtual relationships. In “Unpacking my Library” (1990-91), he borrowed Benjamin’s essay title and also adopts the role of Benjamin in the painting.

In 1960s London Kitaj had been at the forefront of creating a new figurative art that defied the trend in abstraction. Described as the “School of London” it included Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. Some of them appear in his celebratory painting, “The Wedding” (1989-93), which captures Kitaj’s wedding to Fisher, held at Bevis Marks, an old Sephardic synagogue in the city’s East End.

According to Gillen, Kitaj wanted his pictures to “start a conversation.” Perhaps this time, the conversation British viewers will have about the passion, color and tortured splendor of Kitaj’s paintings will be different than the last time he exhibited in London.

Watch architect M.J. Long discuss her friendship with Kitaj:

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