R.B. Kitaj, The Jewish Rider, (1984-85), oil on canvas 60 X 60 inches (courtesy Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo, Norway)

A few years ago I watched a documentary film, Kitaj…In the Picture (1994) by Jake Auerbach, which contained a number of memorable scenes, particularly if you knew what happened after the film ended. One haunting scene came at the end of the film, when R. B. Kitaj’s works are shown leaning against the walls of Tate Gallery waiting to be installed for his 1994 retrospective. What should have been a high point in Kitaj’s career turned into a disaster, as many English critics appeared to find a sadistic glee in being nasty and dismissive of Kitaj and his work, its heady allusions and obscure citations. Mercifully, Auerbach ends the film and does not show us what happened after the exhibition opened to the English public, who, for the most part, adored him.

The other scene that stays in my mind is from a home movie of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. In 1983, after living together for twelve years, Kitaj and the American painter Sandra Fisher were married in London’s oldest synagogue. The movie shows his friends and fellow painters, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, and Lucian Freud donning yarmulkes and joining the happy couple under the huppah. No doubt, that scene and knowing that Fisher would die of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of forty-seven, two weeks after Kitaj’s retrospective opened at the Tate Gallery, colors my view.

Both scenes were on my mind when I went to R. B. Kitaj: The Exile at Home at Marlborough Contemporary (March 4 – April 8, 2017), which I did not know was curated by my friend, the poet and critic Barry Schwabsky, until I saw the show. I find this strange because Barry and I have known each other for more than thirty years and I do not remember us ever talking about Kitaj — and we have talked about a lot of artists and poets. For a brief moment I wondered if I should review this show because I have published two collections of Barry’s poetry and intend to publish a selection of his essays on poetry and art. But then, perhaps in honor of Kitaj’s unabashed confessional spirit, I decided to throw caution to the wind.

Barry lays out Kitaj’s contrarian singularity in his opening paragraph, as well as describes the obstacles many critics could not overcome:

B. Kitaj was passionately–one might almost say, defiantly–a literary painter. That was not a politic thing to be in the postwar art world, when abstraction became the mainstream and even most representational painting had a factual, empirical, or formal rather than an illustrative bent; consider such contemporaries of Kitaj’s as Lucian Freud, Philip Pearlstein, or Antonio Lopez Garcia: none of them admits overt narrative, metaphor, myth, or symbolism.

R.B. Kitaj, “Self-Portrait (Black on Sheep)” (2001-03), oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches (courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York)

Instead of rejecting these sins, as his contemporaries did, Kitaj embraced them, wrote about them, and celebrated them. As Barry rightly sees it, Kitaj “helped clear” a path for artists such as “Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Magnus Plessen, or Dana Schutz.” One way he did this — which is not explicitly addressed in the essay — is through the lens of identity. Kitaj defined himself as a Jewish painter perpetually in exile, whose work could be understood through exegesis, which is a far cry from the literalness and “what you see is what you see” attitude that has long been prevalent in the American art world.

The exhibition is a mini-survey. There are well-known paintings from the 1960s through the 1990s, many of which I had seen before. I went to see the paintings which I had not seen, and which Kitaj did between 1990, when he painted “I Married an Angel” and the ones he did in 2007, the year he committed suicide, one week short of his 75th birthday. Mostly, I wanted to see paintings from his “Los Angeles” series, which I knew only from reproductions. In the catalogue, which was published when this series was first shown in the exhibition R. B. Kitaj: Los Angeles Pictures at LA Louver (April 21 – May 7, 2003), Kitaj wrote:

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….

Kitaj’s immodesty aside, did he make paintings that stood on their own? Or did you need the backstory to appreciate them?  Despite all of his literariness and penchant for allusions to towering artists as disparate as Giotto, Chaim Soutine, Edgar Degas, and Rembrandt, would Kitaj’s own work hold up, stand — as they say — on its own two feet? That is always the question, isn’t it?

One thing that has bugged critics of Kitaj is that his work can be simultaneously accessible and full of allusions. It is easy to think that he is showing off, but he is not. You might say he is possessed of a kind of memory that is becoming increasingly rare. He literally remembers or, as the  word “re-member” implies, puts back together a lot of what he has experienced in art and literature. He makes connections. A collagist in paint, he is able to bring different images and citations together because he has absorbed a lot of art history with a devotion that one might expect from an autodidact in love with art and literature. Sometimes this leads to making work that is top heavy, which is hardly a sin. It is easy to see why he so loved the work of Ashbery, Creeley, and Duncan, all of whom had phenomenal, lightning-fast memories about vast treasure troves of stuff. They too made surprising connections and challenged convention.

R.B. Kitaj, “I Married an Angel” (1990), oil on canvas, 48 x 47 3/4 inches (courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London)

Unbeknownst to Kitaj, he set the terms of his love story when he painted “I Married an Angel” (1990) four years before Fisher died. Not one to be coy, the artist declares the painting’s subject in the title. This could easily have devolved into a bombastic, kitschy, sentimental, corny, or just plain awful painting, but it does not. This is why it is time to rethink our understanding of Kitaj’s work. One reason why the painting works is because Kitaj, a collagist at heart, had attained mastery when it came to depicting a compartmentalized space in which unity and fracture coexisted.  This compartmentalized space suited Kitaj’s sense of the world as broken place, impacted by colliding forces, a recognition that everyday life was essentially violent and tragic. It was not a pose. His first wife committed suicide and his second child died shortly after he was born.

In “I Married an Angel,” a bed, which stretches from the painting’s top edge to its bottom edge, takes up most of the middle of the painting. On the left side, a winged, blue-haired young woman in a see-through white gown is walking, as if in a dream, into the side of the bed. Cropped by the painting’s bottom edge, and rising nearly to the top, she feels larger than life-size, as the top of her head coincides with the top edge of the nearby pillow. The ground of the space the angel occupies is mottled aquamarine.

On the other side of the bed, in the upper right-hand corner, a man is seated in profile, his head cropped by the painting’s top edge, facing toward the empty bed. He has grayish-white hair and is older than the blue-haired angel. He is wearing a reddish-brown suit, red shirt, and yellow tie and boutonirre. The ground on the right-hand side of the painting, where the man is seated, is red.

“I Married an Angel” has three distinct spaces (or realities), with the empty bed both separating and joining the angel and the man. While Kitaj collaged different images together in his work of the 1960s, he had figured out how to compartmentalize the surface/space of a painting by the time he finished “The Jewish Rider” (1985), which is included in the exhibition. As with “I Married an Angel,” it is useful to see what Kitaj places in each compartment and how he depicts the space, as well as see how they go (and don’t go) together.

The other thing I want to address is the relationship between drawing and painting, particularly in the work from the “Los Angeles” series. In 1974, after seeing an exhibition of Edgar Degas in Paris, which included his pastels, Kitaj took up this medium and within a remarkably short time mastered it. Like Degas, whom he admired, Kitaj used pastel to focus on the human figure. This is what he said about the medium:

Pastel is quicker than oil, which is not the same thing as ‘in a hurry’. Also, drawing on paper suddenly attains color.

R.B.Kitaj, “Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed)” (2001-02), oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches (courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London)

At a certain point, Kitaj seems to want that quickness in oil paint, perhaps in an attempt to undo the mastery he had gained in pastel. Always drawn to using a dry brush, it seems to have gotten even drier after he left London and moved to Los Angeles in 1997. Known for working on paintings for years, I do not think that he felt he had that luxury after turning sixty-five, which coincided with his being grief-stricken and resettling in Los Angeles, where he had first met Fisher in 1970.

In “Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed)” (2002), Kitaj returned to the composition he used in “I Married an Angel.” In this painting, the space occupied by the blue-haired angel is narrow and cramped; the ground is black and she is naked, her body marked by dry patches of yellow and orange. The white haired, bearded man with the red eyes on the other side of the bed is the artist. The ground on the right side is a solid green. The angel and artist are joined together by her arm reaching across the bed and touching his shoulder. The arm is essentially a band filled with thinly applied strokes of mostly flesh-colored paint. A lot of white, unpainted ground is visible throughout the painting. I feel like Kitaj wanted to get down to only what was essential, and that he did not want to make a beautiful painting, something closed, and in that regard perfect, to compete with his memory, which would always exceed his feelings.

In “Los Angeles No. 1” (2000), presumably the first in the series of what he called “love stories,” Kitaj has drawn in the figures — an angel on either side of a table, with the female on the right seated with her head on the table, and the male on the left half standing, half kneeling, bent over with his head overlapping hers: all this sketched in contour. As in “Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed),” one arm joins them, as well as supports her head and his. Again, Kitaj places thin strokes of color within the outlines, so that the bright white ground becomes light, and the flesh-colored shading suggests that their bodies are fading. These stark paintings, where color functions as an accent, brought to mind the poem, “They are all Gone into the World of Light” by Henry Vaughan, which opens with this stanza:

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

R.B. Kitaj, “Self-Portrait As a Punchbag” (2004) oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 24 inches (courtesy Marlborough Gallery, NY)

Sandra became Kitaj’s Shekinah, a divine female presence often represented as light. In leaving parts of these works unpainted, he seamlessly merges the formal with the personal and symbolic. Everything feels necessary and urgent, tender and memorializing.

A final note: this show includes two of the saddest and scariest self-portraits done in modern times: “Self-Portrait as a Punchbag” and “Self-Portrait After Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portrait” (both 2004). In the first one, a speed bag hangs down from its hook, like a blackened, featureless head. The painting is 24 by 24 inches, and the surface comes across as thinly painted and dusty, with the muted colors further evoking pastel. In the painting after Rembrandt, which is also 24 by 24 inches, he depicts himself with a thick red magenta beard and hair, wearing a blue baseball cap with the letters LA on it. He is wearing round spectacles and the area on his face they cover is yellow, as opposed to the rest, which is ruddy. Kitaj is moving from left to right, from present to past, and from a red ground to a black ground. He is wearing a black jacket and a yellow scarf or shawl is draped around his shoulder. His head turned slightly, as he faces the viewer, looks crazed and inward. In the upper left corner, he has drawn Sandra’s face in profile on raw linen, a touch of pink on her lips.

R.B. Kitaj, “Self-Portrait After Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portrait” (2004), oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches (courtesy Private Collection)

How do you depict the subjective state of grief while being objective? Or, in the punchbag painting, how do you depict the state of being wounded by the world while being objective? Neither painting asks for the viewer’s sympathy. And yet only someone with a cold heart would not feel compassion.

In “Self-Portrait After Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portrait,” Kitaj recognizes that he is moving closer to Sandra, who exists in another world. He has paused for a moment in his grief. Three years later, he decided that the grief was too much and he decided to join Sandra in eternity.

R. B. Kitaj: The Exile at Home continues at Marlborough Contemporary (545 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 8.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...