PRINT January 1982


Nevertheless, with the approach of the nineteenth century, didactic subjects began to repel the artistic imagination; and the causes of that aversion are clear enough. As art withdrew into itself and receded toward the margin of life where it could reign as its own master, it began to lose touch with learning, as it lost touch with other forces that shape our experience.
—Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy, 1964.

We are all familiar with pictures that interest us and excite our admiration, but do not move us as works of art. To this class belongs what I call “Descriptive Painting”—that is, painting in which forms are used not as objects of emotion, but as a means of . . . conveying information. Portraits of psychological and historical value, topographical works, pictures that tell stories and suggest situations, illustrations of all sorts, belong to this class.
—Clive Bell, Art

If some of us wish to practice art for art's sake alone, so be it . . . but good pictures, great pictures, will be made to which many modest lives can respond. When I am told that good art has never been like that, I doubt it and in any case, it seems to me at least as advanced or radical to attempt a more social art as not to. . . . No one can promise that a love of mankind will promote a great art but the need feels saintly and new and somehow poetic to me and we shall see . . . maybe it will never happen.
—R.B. Kitaj, The Human Clay (catalogue introduction), 1976.

Letter to R.B. Kitaj (Unsent, June 1981)
So you are returning to America this fall and this time the critical currents may be with you, though I suppose for the wrong reasons. At least reasons I would cite as wrong. The wave of new figuration, German, Italian, American, that marked the end of the Spring ’81 season in New York, may well encourage reactionaries and esthetic barometers to focus their attention on you, another case of mistaken identity.

Rarely has our contemporary culture been so awash with the debris of shipwrecked ideas, the flood has swept these wrecks of ships, masts, rudders, shards of broken mess plates, right up to the doors of the smart galleries whose owners rush to open them to the flow. And I fear they shall mistake your honest logs of days sailed for the floating trash bobbing round them.

My tone here startles me. Why so edgy and why so sharp? After all, part of me wants to be reasonable and simply set down in the clearest way what it is I have thought and felt about your work during these past 15 years, but a fit comes over me now and again when I think of the spurious junk marketed and praised during these same 15 years, all the KorpArt Masters, and the intellectual bullies who hawked them in the name of Neoplatonism and other modes of profitable transcendentalism. Neither innocence nor grace nor wonder nor fineness. Screens, ratter, to conceal individual emptiness, to screen the empty vistas just beyond our windows.

Which Kitaj are we talking about?

The man about whom I know some things, having been a friend, a correspondent, a sometime catalogue introducer and “critic.” The artist whose work originally shook me before I met him in New York, 1965 (his first New York Marlborough show), having seen in an art magazine a small reproduction of Dismantling the Red Tent, the painting that evoked for me the fiction of Isaac Babel, and the martyrdom and collapse of the humane Left.

Does your friendship over these years give you special insight into his art?

Yes and no. For instance, only in the summer of 1980 did I learn that Kitaj is a Jew. After dinner one evening in London he said he wanted me to read an interview with him in London Magazine. “There are some things about me there that you may not know,” he said. In truth, I do not view his work much differently now than I did before, although I’m now aware of a greater pattern of consistency. His newfound or newly rediscovered identity does, however, seem of major importance to him, as we shall see later below.

Well, in what ways can you answer “yes” to the above question? In a way that living in New York at the edge of the end of a miserable century in a city stinking of cynicism and venality makes me feel almost embarrassed to say: he is a man for whom the enterprise of making art is not divorced from the enterprise of making a better, more just, more promising world. In this he is neither a fool, nor naive, nor a poseur-saint; he simply has struggled to resist the temptations of facility, redundancy, intellectual vacuity, and, at the risk of embarrassing him, I suggest that he is one of the few artists who still strive after moral and creative integrity. As an artist, he believes in the ennobling value of art while knowing full well the debased history of our age. And I say that his own art reflects this integrity and this belief. Most artists have no idea of what this means (neither would most novelists, politicians, art collectors, gallery dealers, museum curators) having, as their main concern, their income and their self image.

Aren’t you being a bit sententious?

A bit? Yes. That is the virtue of a Catholic upbringing and of an unregenerate idea of socialist morality.

Shall we return to Kitaj?


The ideas of men go buzz and die like gnats; men change their institutions and their customs as they change their coats; the intellectual triumphs of one age are the follies of another; only great art remains stable and unobscure. . . because the feelings that it awakens are independent of time and place, because its kingdom is not of this world.
—Clive Bell, Art

Giotto, Cimabue, and others of unfamiliar names to me, are among the earliest; [in the origin of Italian painting] and, except as curiosities, I should never desire to look once at them, nor think of looking twice. . . . The trees are no more like real trees than the feather of a pen, and there is no perspective, the figure of the picture being shadowed forth on a surface of burnished gold.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the French and Italian Note Books, 1872

KITAJ’S RETROSPECTIVE MAY WELL BE just that—a look backwards, a look at work that he has consigned to his past and that he may never again repeat. Already there are signs of that in his most recent paintings and in the groups of pastels and charcoal drawings that mark the emphasis of his preoccupations over the past three years. There is the possibility that what Kitaj is moving into may well be a rejection of the earlier (1963–1975) work in its entirety. Reject what he may (he speaks of repenting his early sins), we are still left to deal with that which he has produced and for which so far he is best known. Actually, I realize that for an American audience, the exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum is an introductory show, for, while Kitaj has had wide exposure and critical acceptance in England and on the continent, he has been relatively unknown in this, his native country.

For the most part, the early paintings are notations, fragments, visual (and intellectual) puzzles somewhat dependent on the strategy of radical juxtaposition of textures, images, forms, words. This is the surrealist influence on him, but even from the earliest, the surrealist elements of influence are incorporated into a larger historical and cultural body of information. André Breton, in his 1924 manifesto, asked artists to visit their dreams and return from them renewed, fresh with powerful, unmediated, unapprehensible imagery, the flowing narratives of self.

Kitaj may have used surrealist structural devices (especially those of Max Ernst) but his discourse went outward, not inward. Both Kitaj and Breton borrow images (indeed, literally appropriate them) from the public world (catalogues, cheap woodcut book illustrations) but for Breton, these images serve to create a private, hauntingly individualist sphere whose reference is our dreams. Kitaj’s painting-narratives, like film trailers, hint at the larger, more complete work to come. They tantalize in their suggestiveness of whole stories and they point outside of themselves to “stories” we may pursue, elsewhere, outside of the painting in the realm of our immediate social and cultural history. I’m thinking especially of Kitaj’s early oil and collages on canvas, The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, 1960, Reflections on Violence, 1962, Dismantling the Red Tent, 1964, The Baby Tramp, 1963–64, as the early grouping of works patently indebted to the surrealists’ idea of poem/object and that, with the exception of Red Tent, bear, as part of the collage elements, notes—texts both obliquely and indirectly related to the paintings’ imagery. These works and others to follow well into 1976 and 1977, including The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin), 1972–74, and culminating in the two great allegorical paintings, If Not, Not, 1975–76, and Land of Lakes, 1975–77, though not “history” paintings, strictly speaking, are works that allude and refer us to crucial moments and figures, political and philosophical, in the social(ist), humanist ethos and myths of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny (not included in this show), and the two Walter Benjamin paintings, for example, are commemorative icons in the hagiography of martyred radicals, something on the order of Jacques-Louis David’s “martyr” canvases, as Walter Friedlander calls them—the pictures of Marat, Bara, and Lepeletier—except that in these paintings and elsewhere in his work of this period (Junta, Kennst Du das Land?), Kitaj not only eulogizes the individual dead but evokes the atmosphere of ideas in which they breathed. (Kitaj, however, would later come to see Luxemburg, Babel, and Benjamin more in the Jewish than in the radical tradition.)

Whatever the sources, Kitaj’s work overall seems the history of his personal construction of a work of ideas, made from the various, if not all of a piece, blocks of our Western culture. From his earliest work to the present, Kitaj has been very much against the grain and the temper of the art of the past 20 years; his very aspirations to make art connect to and resonate the life of our times, while maintaining a coherent relationship to the disparate modernist lessons, from the Post-Impressionists through to Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and even Balthus, has earned him, in America at least, the status of the loner, prospecting in depleted mines, an artist inured to the most stylish advances of the hour, or an obscurantist trafficking in indecipherable symbols and allegories, mainly literary and of suspect political persuasion.

The paintings and especially the drawings of the past five years are no less concerned with social, human issues than was his earlier work, but it is apparent that a new pattern—new figures, characters, if you will—are emerging to populate Kitaj’s narratives of human tragedy. These additions to his iconographic vocabulary have been set off by the simplifications in structure. Paintings such as The Orientalist, 1976–77, The Sailor, 1979–80, focus on single figures, and even more complicated pictures such as Smyrna Greek, 1976–77, keep within severe formal restraints.

There are other new features, or a return to earlier ones. In the very recent paintings, The Jewish School being the pivotal one, the paint is laid on thickly, resembling the creamy, painterly surfaces found in areas of his very early pictures (Kennst Du das Land? or Erasmus, 1958) and which for the most part disappear in favor of the matte, silk-screened-looking surfaces that for years seemed Kitaj’s trademark. Paintings such as The Garden and Rock Garden (The Nation) hark back to the expressionistic flavor of some of Kitaj’s earliest work. We have yet to see where this direction will take him. But there are no doubts about the course of the pastels and the charcoal drawings that he began to produce about 1974 and that continue to the present.

It is these drawings that indicate how Kitaj has grown through these twenty-odd years, unlike many artists of his generation and many older than he. He has reinvigorated the tradition of drawing and of drawing from the figure (the earliest work in the show is a 1958 pencil-on-paper drawing of a nude), a practice to which he has returned with increasing intensity during the past five years. Lest that seem a merely academic consideration, let me add that these drawings are among the most beautiful we have seen in decades and their existence at this time raises substantial questions about where we have been in the past 30 years and where, if anywhere, our art is going.

The serious emphasis on drawing began in about 1974 with Study for the World’s Body and Femme du Peuple II, 1975, pictures akin to movie posters. The major phase began in 1978 with Bad Faith (Chile) and coheres in a series of bather pictures begun in about 1978. Kitaj is keenly aware of the tradition of bather paintings and drawings, from those of Puvis de Chavannes, to Paul Gauguin and Pierre Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne, pictures of the body as sublime form. But Kitaj wanted to make a series of terrifying bathers, the body broken, tortured. Bather (Tousled Hair), 1978, leads in a straight-line vision to Bather (Psychotic Boy), 1980; it is in these demented, wracked figures and in the master drawing, His New Freedom, 1978, that we see best realized Kitaj’s wish to make an art that resonates the life of his time as well as to express the fundamentally grim and beautiful nature—beyond culture—of humankind.

It is in his drawings that we are principally reminded of how much we have lost, in our abandonment of drawing, and especially the drawing of the figure, of a sense of life in art. Look at these drawings carefully and you will see something of an arcane, now almost extinct art, surviving mostly in museums and private collections and seldom seen on the walls of contemporary galleries. Few today know how to create drawing of this type, for it comes about through immense self-discipline and education and from a profound belief in the continuity of our very fragile culture. This is not the same as a knowledge of art history. There has been nothing more commonplace in recent times than art that has art for its reference and subject, and whose mode of feeling is parody and irony. Nowhere in this kind of art will you find what is here in Kitaj’s drawings—that courage to risk sentiment, to set down reflections of life lived, as once when artists such as Francisco Goya and Vincent van Gogh took such reflections into their passionate ken.


[The following represents a synthesis of questions put to R.B. Kitaj in conversation and correspondence during the late summer and fall of 1981. My comments and notations were appended in response to Kitaj’s replies after his text had been submitted.]

FT: What specific elements of your earlier work do you now repudiate?

RBK: I don’t mean to repudiate like de Chirico. Many of the passions of my youth are still dear to me. One problem, however, which still confounds young artists and which was my undoing is the freedom one has to plunge right into sophisticated modernist practice at an impressionable age. Our advanced milieu is so engaging and seductive and progressive that we are impatient to stand toe to toe with our exemplars and so, at a tender age, someone like me would think that if Eliot could append notes to The Wasteland and Dadaists had glued God knows what onto their pictures, then I could paste quasi-scholarly notes onto my pictures. If Duchamp or Pound or Breton or Picasso could shock Mencken’s “Booboisie” and leave a trail hard to follow, so could I. The same freedoms and license exist to curse young artists who are attracted to the abstract persuasion, I guess. Heroic modernism had become like a school or academy in which we could all practice a kind of passionate, idealistic, even monkish jerking-off which doesn’t carry the threat of hellfire. I always thought Greenberg’s curse on what he called “novelty art” was not entirely inapposite.

As I grew older it began to dawn on me that I may have acted in bad faith in the sense Sartre described where freedom of action is impaired by myths of necessity, nature, or what he called “things as they are.” In that view, one’s liberty is actually diminished by a myth of historical necessity which has been so widespread in our art and political circles and which youth is particularly prone to buy and cherish. It becomes attractive, then, to redefine myself out of fear that my real freedom will be denied if other forces define me.

FT: Why have you relinquished the use of written texts in your work?

RBK: Because I didn’t want to become a Village Explainer, which is what Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound; OK if you’re a Village, she said; if not, not.

I was just a boy when I committed those indecencies but some of our fundamentalist art mullahs haven’t forgiven me such pretensions.

I regret your repudiation of such fine work. Don’t know why you care for the “fundamentalist art mullahs” anyway—have you taken up the Koran à la Judd and Greenberg? It’s the Talmud and the Cabala you seem to be leaning toward these days, as you yourself keep saying. I find you more of an off-stage (so to speak) explainer these days than in the past, when your texts were embedded and integrated in the structure of the work. Once in conversation you told me the reason you wrote these texts (in The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Reflections on Violence) was your fear that the picture alone could not speak for itself. And now you renounce such earlier work as part of your youthful, immature iconoclasm. Frankly, I don’t take either explanation too seriously. Some of the artists you most (and still) admire have made pictures-with-texts. William Blake, Nicolas Poussin, and above all Ambrogio Lorenzetti, after whose great allegorical fresco you’ve modeled your own fairly recent major paintings, If Not, Not and Land of Lakes.

You have always wished to make an art that stretches beyond the confines of mere painting, and your early collages and text-pictures really were an attempt to balance your social and esthetic concerns. These were the fragments you were shoring up against our culture’s ruins. Your new work of the past five or six years is no less committed than before, but I suspect you now believe that unlike the collages, your drawings of the figure, the face, your more “simplified” paintings, have a wider base of recognition, are more broadly understood by that modest, intelligent Everyman you hope to reach.

FT: So you think you ran before you could walk?

RBK: Yes. Pound said Americans are impatient. They think they can leap to a place instead of taking proper steps. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and impatience has its charms. My disjunctive compositions have no doubt been true to some of the aspects of my life—to the life of a displaced, recalcitrant cosmopolite—but I’ve felt my pictures have been far too difficult. So I mean to “straighten myself out” as Martin Buber would say. There is a conflict which I don’t know if I can ever resolve. On the one hand, I am glad I have forsworn the seamlessness in art which is the result of correct behavior, because I do believe in the infinite complexity of life—which I suppose to be the very stuff of art. On the other hand, as I grow older, I yearn for a deflation, not of mystery or complexity, but of opacity. And so I’ve tried to start all over again—by dealing with single figures more often, by learning, now, new and also traditional ways of using oil paint, by abandoning flat, unbroken surfaces, by increasing my interest in modeling after life and, above all, by drawing every day in the hope that these more straightforward practices will be a preparation for the clearest expression of my condition I can manage. I take it that one’s condition is the truest subject of one’s art.

FT: You have spoken with me about your great interest in Jewish matters. You told me you are not religious. Can you speak about what this new impetus has to do with your art?

RBK: This Jewish thing has been growing slowly in me, and during the last few years I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about Jewishness. Some quite blind devotion to picture-making which I can’t explain, a dumb faith in drawing and oil-painting I don’t wish to explain, has been the paramount instrument which I want for this growing immersion in a Jewish romance. I’ve had no training or cultural background, unlike most Jews I know, and so everything was quite new and fresh for me except that the Jewish “condition” always exercised me. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be a believer and I’m still a very suspicious reader but I got into the history of “my people.” As I began what was for me a real education and a great journey, I rather quickly saw what would interest me most. Although I’ve been reading the great poetry for the first time—Isaiah, Job, Psalms and suchlike, I really got off on the period which begins with the (relative) liberation of the Jews in Europe 150 years ago and the enormous implications of the questions of assimilation and exile and most especially of those tremors, those “negations of exile” which way back then were foretastes of what would transpire in our lovely century. Many people will know that all this stuff can have everything to do with art, Some will doubt that. So be it. Somewhere in Middlemarch, someone says, “It’s not possible that you should think horsemanship wrong.” And the other replies, “It is quite possible that I should think it wrong for me!”

FT: In fact, the Jewish “condition” is not really a new subject in your work. Even though such recent paintings as The Jew, Etc., The Jewish School, and Rock Garden (The Nation) coincide with what you call your self-education, you have always treated of this theme. I’m thinking of Isaac Babel and The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, both in the Tate Gallery, your very early Warburg Institute inspired pictures, Marrano, the Walter Benjamin paintings, and many others.

RBK: The truth is it was always my subject and I’ve just known better where I’ve been rowing, or at least I’ve become more interested to prepare an art about what was happening to me in the world. Francis Bacon told me many years ago he wakes up unhappy and thinks about death every day. He says that in print, so I’m not betraying a trust. For my part, I think about the Holocaust every day and had done so for many years before my self-education in Jewish identity began. I’m really very glad I didn’t have to go through it but I’m not so sure it couldn’t happen again. Boris Pasternak called the great war in his life a cleansing storm, a vast mutation, a storm as transforming. He said one must think and think about such mutations all one’s life, and that is what I find myself doing. Is it not salutary to expect the worst? Many of us are still trying to grasp the full implications of what the Nazis did to the Jews and I am really absorbed by this question for art, for painting, where the issue is never mentioned. And yet one’s art must be touched in some way by a mutating, transforming storm. I know at least four Jewish artists of world-class, who live in London. One practices abstraction, the others don’t. Only one of them would be deeply, personally marked by the Holocaust. Although I know them all well as friends and love their work, I doubt if any one of them would wish to associate their work with what happened in Europe 40 years ago, so deeply felt and pervasive are the modernist fears of “literary” art, of “illustration,” of social-sentiment; so attractive are the concepts of art-as-such, of an art free from “extra-art” crap. They’re probably wise. I’m sure to look ridiculous or worse.

See Kitaj’s The Jewish School (Drawing of a Golem), 1980.

Kitaj speaks to me of the painting thus: the painting is based on a 19th century antisemitic German engraving (which he found in a Warburg Institute book) intending to show the chaos of a Jewish school. In this version, the teacher is shown as unable to control his students, and an inkpot at his desk has been turned over. In Kitaj’s painting, the inkpot has been changed to a pot of blood—a symbol of the blood-accusation. The boy in blue banging his head against the wall is a rebel figure. The boy in the middle studying his text is one of those who will die in the Holocaust. The boy at the blackboard is drawing a Golem in chalk in hopes that the creature will materialize in time to save the Jews. In fact, the drawing does begin to come to life (lower half of the figure) but it will not reach full incarnation in time to save the children.

I take exception to this business of modernist fears: it is neither the “literary” nor the elements of “social sentiment” that I and others find abhorrent in art; only when the work depends on such literary and social elements for its raison d’être do I find the work suspect and meretricious. I cite you on how the Jewish School may be read because I believe your reading gives accent and dimension to your work, but your painting—from my point of view—does not require the allegorical key to give it life.

Neither of us, in reaction to the excesses of “art for art’s sake,” would want to install the tyranny of an art that required that the artist teach philosophy, make political statements, illustrate his moral and social rectitude on canvas. One of the great outcomes of the early modernist struggles was the victory over the need to create (and to interpret the symbols and iconography of) narrative and allegorical art. (Peace. Let many voices contend.) Let’s conclude this matter with Edgar Wind’s balanced case:

The great religious cycles of the past were almost all didactic, the sculptures and the coloured glass of the French cathedrals, for example, or the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, or the tapestries designed by Rubens of The Triumph of the Sacrament. Parts of these cycles are often enjoyed as narratives, but they illustrate doctrine and the doctrinal point must be learned and understood if the visual phrase is to be spelled out correctly, and the plastic articulation fully mastered. An equal degree of intelligence was needed to design the great humanist allegories.
—Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy

FT: In what specific ways has your reading . . . poetry, fiction, essays . . . influenced or directed your work? Let’s take Kafka as an example.

RBK: What I have to say about Kafka follows what I just said about Jewishness. Kafka was the only artist I’ve ever heard of, the only artist I know, who assumes the condition of Jewishness in forms which speak to me. I think I’ve read just about everything of his now. I just finished his wonderful Travel Diaries. I can’t say that his art or his life have truly to do with my own, but I feel closer to his condition than to any other. The artists I dwell on every day of my life, such as Giotto, Rembrandt, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso fail me in this one great aspect—their condition was not the condition of the Jew. Kafka appeals to me as a Jew of nearly my own time who achieved an art I can cherish indiscriminately, as I love the art of Cézanne for instance. But above all, Kafka encourages me to know myself and to puzzle out my own Jewishness and to try and make that over into an art of picture-making. Cézanne said he wanted to do Poussin over again after nature. I like to dwell on the idea that one might try to do Cezanne and Degas over again after Auschwitz. Kafka is the magical element in my equation. He did what no painter has been able to do really clearly. (Soutine may have been an exception.) I don’t know how I feel about early Chagall or Rothko but they seem not to represent what I feel. One of the best things I ever read about Kafka, aside from Benjamin, was an essay by Clement Greenberg called “Kafka’s Jewishness.” My own ideas about Kafka had been largely formed, but Greenberg’s thesis was really fascinating, as he always is, whether I agree with him or not. He wrote that Jewishness accounts for as much in Kafka’s art as Frenchness accounts for in Flaubert’s; to the extent that the Jewish condition becomes the subject of Kafka’s art, it informs its form—becomes “in-dwelling form”; that “Kafka wins through to an intuition of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora so vivid as to convert the expression of itself into an integral part of itself; so complete, that is, that the intuition becomes Jewish in style as well as in sense.” Now, that’s hot stuff! So hot, even for Mr. Greenberg, that, typically, he later cautions his readers not to assume that Kafka’s “extra-artistic Jewish truth” is integral to its success as art even though he (Greenberg) may have created that impression! Greenberg’s discussion of a newer Halacha (set of Laws) by which assimilated Jews learned to live in the late Diaspora and which so informs Kafka’s art, I found very moving. It is a beautiful piece of writing, to my mind.

FT: So you see in Kafka a reflection of your own natural inclination throughout your work toward artistic criteria that are not strictly esthetic?

RBK: I have long believed that the “personality” (in the deepest sense) of an artist subsumes form and content, and Kafka’s personality accounts for itself, indwelling and uncertain as the Jew-stranger must be in the Diaspora/Castle. Kafka felt that only within the framework of a people can a man live as a man among men without either getting lost or exhausting himself. The uncanny disclosures of his great and strange parables were what he called “rumors about the true things.” Those true things about which he rumored in his art—the perplexities and dangers of a pariah people—were to turn more truly hellish and unspeakable than even he could guess within a few years of his early death. What interested him, interests me deeply right now . . . His art was a kind of prologue to disaster and now, thirty-five years after the disaster, I feel fearful, like he felt about things, and would like to paint an epilogue. This personality or personeity is a driving force in art. It swallows esthetic criteria. Maybe it’s what Barney Newman meant in his celebrated line about esthetics being for artists what ornithology is for the birds.

All form is an effect of character . . . all beauty of truth: that all outward harmony depends on interior harmony, and that a perception of outward beauty is only legitimately cultured by the harmonious unfolding of the moral, the intellectual, and the practical powers.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Ear and the Eye,” 1837

The “inward harmony” Emerson speaks of must be one that sees an order of life at once as great and broader than itself. Giotto had a good, great example in St. Francis. The model was worthy of his own spirit and deserving of his craft. Great hagiographers must believe in their saints and great humanist artists must believe—cynicism and irony and all—in the merits of the human case in order to accomplish what we see in the work of Rembrandt and van Gogh and Cézanne. I take the “Jewish Matter” to be Kitaj’s myth, his moral and esthetic framework: Walter Benjamin is his type of St. Francis.

FT: Kafka’s prose-poetry surely shares with Pound and Eliot, other exemplars of yours, that great difficulty, opacity, and ambiguity that is so remarkable in modern art.

RBK: Yes, and how about late, late Cézanne? What was going on in that man’s wondrous mind? Those clumped, hurt, awkward, stilted bathers with webbed feet, no ankles, moronic heads, slipping features, came from God knows which frame of mind. They were painted in our century and I’m sure we’re not finished with them yet, nor with the Degas of after 1900. Nor with Rodin, whose work Alexander Calder likened to “piles of shaving cream.” I love that ambiguity and I also can hardly bear it; almost hate it in myself and pine for a simple, decent, clean-cut life. Gershom Scholem called that great ambiguity in Kafka, a necessary condition of a secular art. He said that Kafka draws on pseudo-Cabalistic themes and on Judaic archetypes without having mastered their original content; without having made “a frank deposit into the bank of belief.” You might also say that Picasso knew very little about African iconography.

FT: What kind of socialist are you? Are you one?

RBK: Socialist politics have gone to pot in the real world, haven’t they? Socialism for me is just another word for compassion. Someone asked a sage to define Judaism, please, while standing on one leg, and the sage said it was treating others the way you would like to be treated. It has a familiar ring, doesn’t it? It’s the socialism of ideal justice that used to exercise me when I was young, never Marxism, which always bored me. Anyway, I never joined anything because I always meant to define myself. Some of the socialist outsiders have interested me from time to time, like the extraordinary Benjamin and the strangely unsung Moses Hess. He was a sweet man and tough-guy Marx used to call him “that donkey Hess.” Like such people, I would be Gulag material. These days I don’t know which way is up in politics or life or art but I do tend to trust particular people alive and dead. Everything seems so uncertain, though. Philosophers have doubted whether there really are propositions whose negations are unthinkable.

FT: It’s not uncommon among protagonists of modernism to hear that art doesn’t ever change people’s minds. Do you agree?

RBK: Has romantic poetry never moved one to love? Have epic tales never inspired gallant deeds? Has art never liberated the mind? And are not inspiration and liberation changed states of mind? I’m always being told this or that won’t fly. Auden said no metaphor can express an historical unhappiness . . . to which Solzhenitsyn replies, “. . If words are not about real things and do not cause things to happen, what the good of them?” What Greenberg calls art as such will make itself felt, but I want much more for the thing, even at the risk of falling on my face, so these injunctions sound like challenges to me and of course I land in the shit more often than not. Now I’ll tell you a funny story. A friend of mine, one of the half-dozen finest painters in Europe, told me that when the painter Mané Katz scooted out of Paris just ahead of the Germans, he, Katz, began a cuckoo life going around first class on ocean liners selling pictures of dancing Hasids to parvenu collectors. My friend then suggested to me that you can’t paint such subjects. Now, I agree that, at times, certain themes and practices seem to become corrupt, but that’s what regeneration is good for, and things are remade new. Imagine what Degas would have done with dancing Hasidim had he not been a fucking antisemite! Hasidism itself was an incredible and unexpected renewal in the 18th century of an ancient but never-failing tradition. Talk about inspiration! You had these despised, put-upon, depressed people who were brought out of deepest melancholy by a concept of joy and cleaving to goodness . . . Art should be able to turn people in their tracks. Van Gogh wanted it to. Meyer Schapiro said that van Gogh was drawn to art as a communication of the good. That’s the best answer to your question.

Mao Tse Tung is said to have been influenced by the deeds of valor and justice-seeking of the bandits of Romance of The Three Kingdoms. How many souls were saved by Pilgrim’s Progress I don’t know. But young Dorian Gray was as much “corrupted” by a book—Georges Charles Huysmans’ A Rebours—as by any human influence (of course this applies only to a fictional reality). Oscar Wilde himself, you might say, was moved to “estheticism” by the “conclusion” to Walter Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance. I am afraid to think what effect Ernst Jünger’s books had on the proto-Nazi youth of his day. So, who is to tally the score on this scorecard of the good and bad effects of art?

Let us separate the issues. Let us admit that good intentions, clean hands, the love of dogs and children, moral rectitude, will not ensure the artist his or her place in esthetic heaven. What you say moves me, nonetheless. For one, because your ambition and desire flies in the face of so much of what has been heartless and narrow. And more, because your very ambition and endeavor give your work an aura found only in the work of those artists who revere both life and art.

FT: In your polemics and in your call for a return to the drawing and painting of the figure, aren’t you afraid you may have (inadvertently?) unleashed an all-too-ready reactionary stream? Do you feel you could relate the renewed interest, in New York galleries, in “representational” figurative art to the general conservative political trends in the United States? (This is asked to provoke you.) Or another way: have you found your call for a more humane and social art heeded by those who wish to consider it a call for a dogmatic social-realist (or Socialist Realist) art?

RBK: No more Polemics. No more Parades. People should do what they want to do with their lives, and they will. Everyone deserves a homeland. I always mean to speak for myself alone. I haven’t been in any New York galleries for many years, and so I’m not familiar enough with the art you ask about. As to reactionary and conservative trends, most artists I know are compassionate people. Many call themselves socialists, so I would be very shocked (and provoked) if there is a trend such as you suggest. Let’s go around, and you show me. I’ll just tell you this sweet little story . . . About 14 years ago, during a lovely, late summer at Berkeley, where Mark Rothko and I were doing some teaching, we were sitting on his lawn watching our young children playing, and he told me he thought that a social-realism would be the “next thing” in art. It was just before his death. I guess he was wrong. Or was he?

Perhaps Rothko was putting you on? Or, perhaps, with the savvy of an artist thoroughly familiar with the fluctuation of the art-world bourse, he meant that anything goes as long as it sells, even social-realism. Gone in one extreme direction (Capitalist Realism) art becomes the furniture and trimmings of interior decorators and their patrons; in another, the secular icons servicing the social churches, and let’s call that—as we have thus far experienced it—Social Realism.

We must have missed base on this question, or, you are ingenuous: by reactionary I mean precisely the moving away from “experimental art” and going toward zappy figuration and forms of neo-Expressionism. By reactionary I mean the merchandising of art already dead before it hits the canvas.

FT: In 1975, you wrote, “There are great reforms in the air and our art will not remain behind where it is now. The art is ripe for fundamental changes more considerable than the sequence of events introduced into it around 1900.” What reforms did you mean then? Have there been such reforms? What kind of changes in art did you mean, and have you detected any signs of such changes?

RBK: I sure sounded overwrought and dramatic! But, it seems right that there should be great rifts in art, real disagreement and synthesizing, stormlike moments. To my mind the last great revolution in art was way back then, when it was discovered that you didn’t have to make depictions of people and things in the world anymore and if you did, you could distort those depictions in interesting ways like Manet and van Gogh and Cézanne had begun to do. I believe, now that the modernist romance is in place, now that the writ is run and artists will always be able to practice abstraction, as composers of music, for instance, have always done, (and renew that practice), there may occur one of those crucial renewals of depictive art like Masaccio’s reversion to Giotto, or Cézanne wishing to do Poussin over again. Art has a way of being repopulated. The figurative depiction will harbor newness against all augury and the former fear of not looking sufficiently progressive. God knows there’s plenty of depictive art around now, but as to reform, I think that a whole generation or two will have to learn to draw very very well before you will get the type of Ingres or Delacroix or Degas or Picasso or Matisse or Hokusai, for that matter, who will arise out of a high training—great, inventing synthesizers, combining the saving grace of heresy with pearl-diving into the traditional deep. I’ll be dead, but while I’m here, I’m very interested in the last figurative inventions of Degas and Cézanne, for instance. I think my favorite paintings of our century are those three Cézanne portraits of an old man, maybe himself, done in his last year or two. The reversion is to Rembrandt; the reformation they announce for me, along with all his bather-inventions, is a renewal of the mimetic blood which will come into its own again after this very interesting period of powerful modern foreclosure.

FT: Some people seem to think that your eroticism hints at an underlying moral attitude, at a recoil against sexuality without love. I think you’re being stuck within a moralistic framework by that view, that you are made out to be an inquisitor of cultural and societal mores. Could you address this question?

RBK: Yes, I think you’re right. I’ve said elsewhere that I believe there is a moralist and an immoralist at work in each of us. I don’t think the thing can be decided, except to revel maybe in the existential double nature of oneself, our deceptive doubleness. I forget who said that everything is what it is, and another thing.

Deceptive sexuality is embedded in that character, that infinite complexity, which it can be, and has been the job of an artist to try and represent. Nature, the other person in front of you to be imaged, embraces a concatenation of meanings, some of which will be seen, some of which will be imagined, but never solved, never resolved, and the best art will be left at the mercy of that complexity in nature, and the best art will try and try again to commit all its nerve to the act of representing either what the artist is staring at or what he imagines. No, I can’t ever be an inquisitor in the sense you mention. I’m awed by life as expressed by the human figure as Matisse said he was, but Flaubert knew what he was talking about when he wrote in a letter: “That man has missed something who has never awakened in an anonymous bed beside a face he will never see again, and who has never left a brothel at sunrise feeling like throwing himself into the river out of pure disgust for life.” I feel in this matter of my sexuality like Kafka’s guilt-ridden hunter Gracchus, both dead and not dead and propelled by prehistoric winds. Like Gracchus, one’s sexual ship never allows respite.

FT: The erotic, sexual elements in your work have been criticized as pornographic. Leaving aside the fatuous nature of such criticism, would you agree that some of the most “searing,” most poignant images are precisely those where the border between the erotic and the pornographic is indistinct?

RBK: Yes.

FT: What are your future projects . . . the future direction of your work?

RBK: Well, I’ll be half a century old in a year or so, and that 50 has become a magic number for me. I want to begin all over again and recollect in some untranquility; a recollection in art. I’m embarking on many educations to prepare myself. I’m learning to divide my time between Europe and America, for instance, which I haven’t done since I was a kid. I’ve stayed pretty much in London for 20 years while my children were growing up. I’m going to live in Paris for a while and toddle off to one of the old “free studios” a few days a week to continue drawing from the human form, which I’ve been doing over some years now for better or worse. I’ve got some “American” subjects in mind to do and some Parisian things and I’ve been prowling European cities for years now, laying plans for some pictures about them in the spirit of Flaubert’s: “I want a bitter undertaste in everything.”

I’ve already said too much about my kind of free movement into the past of the Jewish people, into Yiddishkeit and its artistic destiny, not to be named for fear of losing my frail grasp of it . . . I should bite my tongue! I’m tired of being a cosmopolite, tired of internationalism in art and politics.

I’m doing some pictures about boxing, and pictures about the sea, both of which I like very much, but time feels so short and I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to give the human figure a memorable shape, to derive unusual human forms from usual human forms. It’s all so hard for me, so un-natural. I’d like to make a dreadful mess, which is what Tolstoy called Dostoyevsky’s novels.

“Cézanne’s work not only gives us the joy of beautiful painting; it appeals too as an example of heroism in art. For he reached perfection, it is well known, in a long and painful struggle with himself. . .”
—Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers

Frederic Tuten is a novelist and professor on the faculty of The Graduate Program in Creative Writing at The City College of New York.

From Sept. 17 to Nov. 15, 1981, a Kitaj retrospective of 104 paintings and drawings done between 1958 and 1980 was held at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The show, organized by Joe Shannon, thereafter proceeds to the Cleveland Museum of Art (Dec. 15, 1981–Jan. 24, 1982) and then to Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf (Feb. 5–March 2, 1982).