LONDON — How European a painter was Ron Kitaj (1932–2007)? Though born in Cleveland, Ohio, his ancestral roots were certainly on the other side of the water: His father was Hungarian, his grandparents Russian Jews, and his stepfather a Viennese Jew. 

And by the late 1950s, he was pretty well based in London — to such an extent that he is often associated with both British Pop Art (David Hockney was a close friend at the Royal College of Art) and a broader church called The London School, which included Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. 

His reputation prospered. Kitaj’s first show at the Marlborough was in 1963. Then, in 1994, things went awry. A major, career-spanning retrospective at the Tate Gallery was panned by some — though not all — London critics. Kitaj, deeply wounded, went back to the United States, to live in Los Angeles. 

The last big show of his work took place in Berlin in 2013, but its London stop wasn’t especially well managed; it was split between two venues. Now he’s back in London with a new estate management team — the Piano Nobile Gallery in Notting Hill — and London to Los Angeles, a substantial, largely chronological overview of around 50 paintings and drawings, most of them loans from institutions and private collectors, and all assembled to re-familiarize ourselves with what he was up to from the late 1950s on. 

R. B. Kitaj, “Los Angeles No. 28 (Hug)” (2004), oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

The catalogue is hefty, and the made-for-the-occasion maroon tote bag handsome. The show is presented in two gallery spaces directly across the street from each other. The message is “Kitaj is back.”

Piano Nobile thinks that Kitaj can mean big business again. Does he deserve it? Yes, by and large.

The Kitaj on display here begins conventionally enough, with a series of academic figure drawings from the late 1950s. Then he quickly starts to move in different directions. The show reminds us of his friendships, the social circles through which he danced, and of his back-home hankerings, too — a painting of a brace of major-league baseball players called “Stanky and Berra,” for instance. In a diptych called “Synchrony with F.B. – General of Hot Desire” (1968–69) is a puffy-jowled Francis Bacon looking like a menacingly top-hatted ringmaster presiding over a scene of visual excess. It’s a wild, collaged piece, with snatches of references, visual and literary, from here and there. “General of hot desire” is lifted from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s a patchy, colorfully shrieky piece of work that just about hangs together. It positively reeks of free-for-all sex and the ’60s. 

Kitaj liked to make works that look as if they are being seen through the keyhole of other works — the angle of a body, for example; the curiously rhapsodic leaning head of “Red Eyes” (1980) is a straight steal from a fresco by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel in Florence. One of the finest pieces the artist ever made greets you as you enter the gallery containing the later work. It’s called “The Architects” (1981), and the sheer thickness and density of the color ravish the gaze. The whole is a kind of extravagant layering of several images into one. Everything threatens to fall apart, but finally, here, it all holds. 

R. B. Kitaj, “Stanky and Berra at St. Petersburg” (1967), oil on canvas, 14 x 9 7/8 inches
R. B. Kitaj, “Annabel on her Back” (1980), pastel and charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 inches
R. B. Kitaj, “Monsignor Ungar” (1958), oil on canvas, 10 1/4 x 8 1/8 inches
R. B. Kitaj, “Dominie at San Felíu” (1978), pastel and charcoal on paper, 21 3/8 x 15 3/8 inches
R. B. Kitaj, “Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem” (2007), oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches
R. B. Kitaj, “Red Eyes” (1980), pastel and charcoal on paper, 30 x 22 inches

R.B. Kitaj: London to Los Angeles continues at the Piano Nobile Gallery (96/129 Portland Road, London, England) through January 26, 2024. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...

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