The Afterlife of R. B. Kitaj

‘I could come back to America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die,’ the ailing Henry James wrote in a letter from England in 1913, ‘but never, never to live.’ When the American painter R. B. Kitaj departed England for good in 1997 — his adopted homeland for nearly thirty years — he set out to do both.

On the one hand, Kitaj had no delusions that his return to his native country was a step closer to the grave. In 2000, he titled an exhibition of his work at Marlborough Gallery in New York, How to Reach 67 in Jewish Art. In 2005, seemingly surprised at having managed to tack on another half-decade of creative life, he unveiled How to Reach 72 in Jewish Art at the same gallery. Yet if Kitaj’s last decade in America was spent preparing ‘to die the death of the misunderstood’, as he put it shortly before his death at his Los Angeles home on October 21, 2007, the works which he produced in these final years — largely ignored by the British press — are also vibrant expressions of life. Perhaps, more accurately, they are the fruits of an afterlife which the artist had already begun to live out within paint: an ‘American dream’ set in motion, no less, in the City of Angels.

Kitaj’s ‘Third Act’, as he frequently referred to his years in Los Angeles, returned him to the country he had largely abandoned as a teenager. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932, after what he described as a ‘boring’ childhood, Kitaj spent his early adulthood travelling the Caribbean and continental Europe before settling in England. In the mid-sixties, Kitaj announced his mature style with paintings comprised of disparate, often referentially obscure images. The pièce de résistance of this period, and Kitaj’s best-known work, is If Not, Not from 1975–76, a tapestry version of which hangs in the British Library. In the upper left of the painting, the gatehouse of Auschwitz presides over a swirl of imagery culled from Matisse, Gauguin and Giorgione: the fruits of Western culture seemingly inhaled by the gaping mouth of the concentration camp.

Reading intently about the Holocaust at the time and discovering ‘that it didn’t matter if you thought you were a Jew or not […] they’d kill you anyway’, Kitaj came to see the Shoah as the central experience uniting modern Jews. More specifically, Kitaj seized upon it as the orientating condition for his artwork. Rephrasing Cézanne’s desire to do Poussin over again after nature, in 1980 Kitaj commented that it was his own ambition ‘to do Cézanne and Degas and Kafka over again, after Auschwitz’. As the decade progressed, Kitaj broadened this project to encompass what he perceived as the defining condition of contemporary Jewish life: Diasporism. In his First Diasporist Manifesto of 1989, Kitaj defined a Diasporist work of art as ‘one in which a pariah people, an unpopular, stigmatized people, is taken up, pondered in their dilemmas’, resulting — in Kitaj’s characteristically elliptical language — in ‘views wrapped around […] the contradictions of Diasporic life, apotheoses of groundlessness’.

The same year his manifesto was published, Kitaj suffered a heart attack, hastening his sense that he was approaching a final chapter in his career. He had just begun to define his ‘old-age style’ — exposing underdrawings beneath thin, sweeping strokes of vibrant colour — when the Tate mounted a retrospective of his work in 1994. When the show opened, several critics took aim at what they perceived to be a contrived obscurantism in Kitaj’s references to artistic precursors from Giotto to Picasso, as well as scores of literary idols. Kitaj, detecting a whiff of anti-Semitism in these charges of ‘cosmopolitanism’, struck back at his critics. At the height of these skirmishes, Kitaj’s wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, died suddenly from an aneurysm. Blaming his detractors for Sandra’s death, Kitaj declared that England had died for him, and — after exhibiting his ferocious The Killer–Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1997 — he boarded a plane for Los Angeles.

‘In the end,’ Kitaj wrote in his First Diasporist Manifesto, ‘the Diasporist knows he is one, even though he may one day settle down and sort of cease to be one.’ This insistence on ‘Diasporism’ as a state of mind found an even greater relevance for the artist ‘back home’ in America. Departing for his native country felt as much like an exile to Kitaj as it did a homecoming. Moreover, as he started to shape the story of his resettlement in writings and interviews, Kitaj increasingly drew affinities with Jewish narratives of expulsion. Immersing himself in the study of traditional Jewish texts in the years following Sandra’s death, Kitaj came to identify his wife with the figure of the Shekhina, the female presence of God. Where, according to the Talmud, the Shekhina had followed the Jewish people into exile after the destruction of the First Temple, in his last years Kitaj believed that Sandra had similarly accompanied him to his own personal Babylon: Los Angeles. This sense of Los Angeles as a site of Jewish exile was reinforced for Kitaj by the city’s history as a refuge for Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Lorre and a host of other Jewish artists and intellectuals who fled Europe during the thirties and forties. Most of all, as the birthplace of the America film industry, Los Angeles provided fecund soil for Jewish self-invention. ‘Hollywood is its own Diasporist Manifesto,’ wrote Kitaj in a draft for his Second Diasporist Manifesto, published just weeks before his death, ‘100 years old, made largely by Jews’.There was no more perfect setting for staging the ‘Third Act’ in his Diasporist drama.

In 2000, in response to a call from the National Gallery in London to create a series of works reacting to its collection, Kitaj began the masterpieces of his late period, the nearly three dozen paintings of his Los Angeles series. While several artistic forbears provide models for the angelic figures which swoop through these light, breezy canvases, the series’ most consistent inspiration comes from the late bather paintings of Paul Cézanne. When Cézanne died in 1906 he left three expansive bather compositions in ambiguous states of completion: one now held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one at the Barnes Foundation and another — Kitaj’s long-professed favourite — at the National Gallery. ‘He may never have finished them, he may never have wished to have finished them,’ Kitaj mused in an interview for his 2001 exhibition at the National Gallery, and it was this indeterminacy which resonated with his Diasporist project. In 2004, Kitaj wrote to Andrew Lambirth: ‘In art, I still fail to gain the Promised Land, which the great leader of the Hebrews never did — Cézanne said that in one of his last letters. I’ll never get there but I can dare it before I die.’ For Cézanne, the intangibility of the Promised Land describes an aesthetic goal, a visual perfection just beyond reach: for Kitaj, this untouchable Jewish vista was also, more literally, the subject of his paintings. Stylistic ‘unfinish’ provides the expressive means by which to articulate his Diasporist vision: the idea of a home hovering at the horizon, forever out of reach.

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Aside from images of his house and studio, there are few landmarks in Kitaj’s Los Angeles series. Rather than broad, descriptive views of the city he inhabits, Kitaj’s Los Angeles becomes a more intimate haven — an imagined dwelling place he sets out to create afresh for himself and Sandra in each new canvas. The fleeting nature of this artistic act is already evident in Los Angeles No. 1. As Sandra curls over a table, her rainbow-coloured wings beating furiously, pulling her back to the heavens, Kitaj leans over her, attempting to stay her departure. In contrast to the pale blue clouds which billow beneath her, Kitaj stands rooted to the bottom of the canvas. While he too has wings — one orange, the other a moribund black — they lie inert along his back, seemingly incapable of pursuing Sandra into the ether. As Sandra pulls away, however, Kitaj does, if only momentarily, manage to connect with her. With his right arm he reaches across the table, and — finding Sandra’s left — the two fuse seamlessly into one, a motif which recurs throughout the Los Angeles series. In this act of ‘drawing’ Sandra to him, Kitaj’s hunched position over the table and his wide-eyed, concentrated stare take on a new significance. The table reveals itself as the artist’s workbench, and it is Kitaj’s feverish act of ‘Painting-Drawing’ which summons Sandra’s angelic presence. In a revision of the life drawing which he practised so avidly earlier in his career, the artist draws his wife not so much from life, but into life.

The unfinish of the process is integral to its magic. Where a completed image would fix her motionless in the past, Sandra lives for Kitaj in these late images in the daily process of creation: entering his studio with him in the morning and departing it each evening as he closes up. Several lines from Emily Dickinson, a collection of whose poems Kitaj kept beside his easel in his Los Angeles studio, come to mind:

God permits industrious Angels —
Afternoons — to play —
[…] God calls home — the Angels — promptly —
At the Setting Sun —

Ever in search of these afternoons, Kitaj imagines Los Angeles as a place perpetually suspended in the moments before God’s evening summons. At the top of the canvas, the orange circle that forms the crest of Kitaj’s wing is — at the same time — a double image for the smouldering Californian sun, seemingly poised on the verge of making its descent. Twilit shades of blue and purple have just begun to gather in tiny pockets within the painting, but they have not yet won out against the sun. The day’s last sunlight — captured in wide patches of ruddy pinks and golden yellows — continues to radiate through the picture, alighting intently on the connected arms of Kitaj and Sandra. If the white, untouched stretches of the composition seem to leave the drama unresolved, this only serves to prolong the couple’s reunion. Even beyond its own canvas, in the open-endedness of Los Angeles No. 1 we glimpse the animus for Kitaj’s Los Angeles series at large. Each unfinished canvas calls forth the next, another City of Angels to be assembled out of paint.

Kitaj’s depiction of Los Angeles as an imagined, paradisal space draws upon the Edenic atmosphere which Cézanne himself cultivated in his trio of late Bathers. While Cézanne was obsessed with describing the landscape of his native Provence — he painted his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire over sixty times — his three late Bathers are set less in any specific locale than in timeless, arboreal grottos. Just so, rather than the product of direct observation, the figures in these canvases are derived entirely from memory, imagination and artistic precedent — including the artist’s numerous earlier bather compositions. In Kitaj’s imagination, Cézanne’s recurring ‘repertory company’ of figures becomes a kind of Jewish theatre troupe. Playing on the outdoor setting of the paintings on the one hand, and what he sees as the liminal nature of Diasporist life on the other, Kitaj identified these figures as an ‘imaginary race of Outsider-Bathers’. If all art history is a stage for Kitaj, in his late works — and nowhere more clearly than in the Los Angeles paintings — all its players are Jewish. Between them, Kitaj and Sandra — ‘Los Angeles Judios’ as he calls them, the Jewish angels — play every role, sliding from one pair of bathers to the next as the series progresses.

In Los Angeles No. 1, Kitaj is the so-called ‘Strider’ who appears in each of the three grand Bathers. Sandra, meanwhile, is a combination of two figures drawn specifically from Cézanne’s London Bathers, her curling posture recalling the seated figure at the far right of the canvas, and her pendulous breasts evoking the ‘Temptress’ at the far left. This connection with London returns Kitaj — or at least his angel, his artistic alter ego — to the scene of Sandra’s death in 1994. London, and the loss which the city signifies for Kitaj, clings to the artistic past from which he seeks to fashion his imagined paradise. At its heart, Kitaj inscribes Los Angeles with the memory of his displacement, scumbling together his sensations of exile and of homecoming. As so often in Kitaj’s painting, however, what begins as the depiction of a personal narrative ends by gesturing towards a vision of the wider Jewish condition. The hazy frontier he depicts between a remembered home and an imagined one is ultimately not merely a tension between London and Los Angeles, but a more fundamental description of the Diasporist’s wayfaring. The home left behind leaks into the vision of a home not yet, nor ever, fully attained. Jews may have invented Hollywood, as Kitaj claimed, but for the Diasporist — his last paintings insist — there can never be a true ‘Hollywood ending’.

Of all Kitaj’s reasons for going to Los Angeles, perhaps the most important was his need to put Diasporism to a final test. Seated together at Kitaj’s kitchen table in the late autumn of 2005, Kitaj leaned over to me and said, ‘You go back and tell people in England that Kitaj’s not crazy.’ I think I can do better: if there is something undeniably ‘crazy’ in Kitaj’s late works, and the fantastic terms in which he couched them, his wild insistence on Jewish unhomeliness might just be something Jews need more of, not less. At a time when Jews as a whole live more comfortably and more securely than they have in any other period, Kitaj reminds us that the Jewish instinct for looking inwards to find a home is a gift still worth preserving.

Aaron Rosen, Ph.D. is preparing a book entitled Brushes with the Past: Art History and Jewish Imagination. In September, 2008 he will take up residence as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University.

© The Estate of R. B. Kitaj, photography courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd.

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