Critics’ Picks

R.B. Kitaj, How to Read, 1969, print, screenprint, 31 x 23".

R.B. Kitaj, How to Read, 1969, print, screenprint, 31 x 23".

Los Angeles

R. B. Kitaj

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
December 10, 2010–July 4, 2011

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, a stretch of Fourth Avenue in Manhattan known as “book row” was considered by some to be the greatest book street in the country. Several blocks teemed with labyrinthine rare and used book shops and their attendant ilk of bibliophiles. R. B. Kitaj was one of the latter. His self-professed bibliomania led to the portfolio titled In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969, for which photographs of the covers of fifty books from his library were enlarged into screenprints, forming a winsome index of idiosyncratic design, typography, and illustration.

The wear of his (and previous owners’) ardent handling is conspicuous in this exhibition, from the frayed threads of cloth binding to tea stains or dog-eared edges. Trotsky, Henry Miller, and Isaac Babel neighbor a 1943 issue of the Partisan Review, a pamphlet on poverty, and a 1919 blue-marbled cover of a volume by Wyndham Lewis subtitled “Architects! Where Is Your Vortex?” Such eclecticism extends to the covers themselves, which are plain or fancy, with nods to Art Deco or Constructivism: A stark black square graces an Edward Weston monograph. The eccentric range of Kitaj’s books gestures toward the (ever rarer) serendipity of browsing through a used book shop, and his reverence for books as objects is affecting. From today’s vantage, the portfolio radiates a heightened poignancy—will such screenprints, safe in a museum, one day be all that remains of books?