R.B. Kitaj - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Printmaker
Los Angeles, California
Biography of R.B. Kitaj
Robert Brooks was born to a Hungarian father and Russian-Jewish mother in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932. Kitaj's biological father, Sigmund Benway, and his mother, Jeanne Brooks, separated shortly after their son's birth. Robert's mother brought her son up on her own during his formative years, earning her living as a steel mill worker and as a teacher, before marrying the Austrian research chemist Walter Kitaj (pronounced "key-tie") - who, like Brooks was an émigré and a secular Jew - in 1941. Kitaj's interest in art was kindled at the Cleveland Museum of Art where he took art classes in addition to his high school education. On leaving high school in 1949, Kitaj 'ran away to sea' joining the crew of the SS Corona, a Norwegian freighter. He worked as a merchant seaman for some five years; his travels taking him as far afield as Cuba, Latin America, and Europe.
Education and Training
During periods of shore leave, Kitaj was able to pursue his interest in painting and drawing by attending courses at the Cooper Union in New York in 1950 and in 1952, and at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna in 1951. It was in Vienna however, where he learned of the likes of Fritz Wotruba and Albert Paris Gütersloh, that Kitaj's interest in European culture and intellectual life was aroused. Kitaj married his first wife, Elsi Roessler in New York in 1953 before serving two years in the U.S. Army between 1956-58 where his job involved drawing pictures of Russian tanks for war games. On his return, he and Elsi settled in England, they would have a son, Lem, in 1959, and adopt a daughter, Dominie, in 1964.
With the financial support of the US government's G. I. Bill (the Bill offered stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools) Kitaj was able to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. While there, he studied under art historian Edgar Wind, who directed Kitaj towards the Warburg Institute where he learned about the important role history and antiquity could play in interdisciplinary research. It is not surprising then that pronounced historical references became a hallmark of Kitaj's work. Kitaj completed his education the Royal College of Art in London, and while there he met David Hockney, an artist with whom he formed a binding and lifelong friendship.
Kitaj's first solo show, Pictures with Commentary/Pictures Without Commentary was held in 1963 at Marlborough Gallery in London. It was followed two years later with a US exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York. Kitaj's career was then in the ascendancy when in 1969 his wife, Elsi Roessler, committed suicide; a personal tragedy that was thought to have been brought on by the trauma of an earlier stillbirth though Kitaj was known to be a serial adulterer. Indeed, in his memoirs (published posthumously) Kitaj recalled how he would disappear for weeks at a time with numerous girlfriends and was in his words spending "perfect days and nights whoring" in the Barcelona dockyards when Elsi took her own life.
Following his wife's suicide, Kitaj returned to the United States where he took up a teaching position at UCLA. It was Hockney, himself now settled in LA, who introduced his friend to Sandra Fisher, an American artist who would later become Kitaj's second wife. Though he was to continue teaching until the early 1980s (when he settled once more in Europe), it was Fisher who persuaded Kitaj to return to painting. In the early-to-mid 1970s Conceptualism and Minimalism were the dominant art movements in the United States. Kitaj was not swayed by what was fashionable however and he persevered in earnest with his figurative work, with many of his pieces even bearing academic annotations. The paintings from this time proved to be some of his most difficult and experimental and they divided critical opinion.
In 1982 Kitaj and Fisher moved to Paris where, within a period of two years, they had married and had a son. The couple moved to London in 1984 where Kitaj continued to work, producing his First Diasporist Manifesto in 1989. The first major retrospective of his work took place at the Tate in 1994 and it was to prove a turning point in his life. Though a commercial success, the exhibition was roundly condemned by art critics who accused the artist of being a 'pseudo intellectual'. Indeed, writing in the London Evening Standard the notorious critic Brian Sewell described Kitaj as "a vain painter" who was "unworthy of [even] a footnote in the history of figurative art". Kitaj's friends and colleagues signed a public letter of support for the artist (though Kitaj thought this was a bad idea), but amidst the furore, his wife Fisher, aged just 47, and having been instrumental in curating the exhibition, passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Kitaj believed that the fallout from the Tate retrospective had put terrible stress on her and he blamed her death on the vitriolic critics ("They aimed at me and they got Sandra instead" he said).
Only a year later, however, Kitaj won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale. Notwithstanding what was an almost immediate revival in his fortunes, Kitaj decided to move back to Los Angeles in 1997 with his son, Max: "When Sandra died under enemy fire, London also died for me" he declared. In the final ten years of his life Kitaj's often used art to memorialize Sandra and to point an accusing finger at those he blamed for her death. Writing occupied more of his time too and his Second Diasporist Manifesto, in which Kitaj extended the aims of the first book by looking beyond the Jewish question and to ponder the diasporist experience as it touched (or might touch) all artists in exile, was published in 2007. Kitaj took his own life in the same year following a two-year battle with Parkinson's Disease, a condition that had robbed him of his ability to paint. (An unfinished memoir, Confessions of An Old Jewish Painter, was found in his effects and was published posthumously.)
The Legacy of R.B. Kitaj
During a period in the 1970s and 1980s when Conceptual and Minimalist art represented the new avant-garde, Kitaj remained steadfast in his commitment to figurativism: "Don't listen to the fools who say that pictures of people can be of no consequence, or that painting is dead. There is much to be done" he proclaimed. Given his preoccupations with his connection to the Jewish religion and people, his loyalty towards his fellow-travellers in The London School, his love for his second wife and the anger he felt towards the critics who he held responsible for her premature death, one can observe that Kitaj was an artist who made no attempt to separate his personal life from his art.
Kitaj was resistant to the possibility that his art might be misconstrued and this often lead him to annotate and/or footnote his images. That practice however did not endear him to those critics nurtured on the principle that fine art should be allowed to 'speak for itself'. Yet, despite a prickly relationship with a critical establishment (that believed that it was its responsibility to explain art) Kitaj received several significant honors in his lifetime.
Kitaj's legacy was further enhanced through his close associations and friendships with the leading figurative painters of his, or indeed any, generation. David Hockney stated that Kitaj had been "a great influence" on him personally and "a great influence stylistically on a lot of people"; Frank Bowling acknowledging his creative debt to Kitaj by even naming one of his paintings in his honor. One must not overlook his pastel and charcoal sketches either, a number of which helped illustrate his Diasporist Manifestos. Some commentators thought in fact that this was the artist's greatest strength, amongst them the renowned art critic Robert Hughes, who once declared that 'Kitaj can draw better than any man alive'.