Los Angeles

R. B. Kitaj

Born in Ohio, and currently an expatriate in London at a time when English artists flock in the opposite direction, Kitaj uses the shored fragment and rag-bag technique as a defensive weapon against the imagined ruins of purism (“I don’t like the smell of art for art’s sake”). His disjointed paintings raise so many unpopular side issues about the role of disorder in a work of art, the possibility of “plural energies” (his phrase) in a time of simplistic monism, the range of subject matter permissible in contemporary painting, and the nature of the connections between the verbal and the visual, that one is almost cajoled into forgiving him for the vast extent of his individual artistic incoherencies. He assumes no such good will, however, on the part of the viewer, and instead slyly makes the proleptic announcement, in the course of a question and answer sequence in the catalog to his present show (twenty five paintings, fifteen prints and collages) that, indeed, he wants his work to “fail,” albeit heroically, rather than to achieve the “two-bit successes of an art which has become marginal.” On the surface, such a desire might seem an echo of the Abstract Expressionist insistence on “impurity” or a Rauschenbergian feint at “life.” Kitaj’s esthetic stance is closer in spirit, however, to pre-Lessing humanism, modified, naturally, by the 20th-century stock inversions that have transformed the noble subject into heroism manqué and the grand manner into symbolic indirection. In practice he attempts to deal with (or at least to refer to) subjects that are normally approached through verbal means: the quality of violence, the relevance of iconographic research to art history, the mood of societally induced anxieties, the revolutionary personality, artist-heroes as disconsolate chimeras, the persistence in maturity of childhood experiences, the tragical lost (leftish) causes of modern history. His implied humanistic assertion is that painting can deal as adequately with the important psychological, moral, and historical topics of our time as literature. Ironically, Kitaj’s “non-marginal” subjects emerge as the sum of a series of verbal allusions made either on the canvas or print itself, in the mock-erudite assortment of bibliographic references, quotations, and personal explanations which erratically footnote his paintings in the two catalogs accompanying his earlier shows (1963 in London and February of this year in New York), in the extraneous materials he exhibited with his own works in these earlier shows, or in the literary titles he gives. A sampling of these verbal appendages would yield references to articles in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, biographies of revolutionaries, Edward Dahlberg on Randolph Bourne, poems of Ezra Pound, battles of the Spanish Civil War, Isaac Babel’s experiences as a cossack, Mahler’s symphonies, a Partisan Review article on Nietzsche, and to assorted writings of I. A. Richards, Jonathan Williams, Fritz Saxl, Charles Olson, Georges Sorel, Georg Trakl, Mario Praz, Apollinaire, and Ford Madox Ford. Pictorially, Kitaj is necessarily more crimped in his allusions, but his collage/found image method and direct quotation in paint allow him to refer to a range of earlier art, artists, and styles (Indian ideograms, Canova, Alphonse Legros, Medardo Rosso, Matisse, Frank Stella), to a series of personal experiences (via snapshots), and to historic events (news photos, book illustration plates). Finally, though, after one has found one’s heuristic path through all this (non?) marginalia, the spice of Kitaj’s subjects is not in what he does with them, but in the astonishing fact that he even dreams of attempting them pictorially.

The current show, shorn of addenda, emphasizes—quite correctly, if a bit less interestingly—the purely pictorial. The unusual catalog apparatus of Kitaj’s previous shows is eliminated (although Maurice Tuchman, in his suggestive introductory notes, incorporates some of the documentary information into his discussion of Kitaj’s subjects). Dissociated from most of their attendant verbiage—there are still the titles and the writing on the works themselves—the paintings are no less problematical. Composed, in the best Surrealist-symbolist tradition, of decipherable images in non-decipherable relation to each other, the paintings are further complicated by the fact that they represent an extravagant motley of styles and a seeming commitment to anarchy as a formal principle. Hard-edge nudges free form, semi-abstract joins Pop, decorative motifs fringe the edges of sad-eyed monsters, spatial depths stop abruptly at flat stylizations; Malevitch meets Grosz, Matisse borders on Ben Shahn, and the spirit of Bertolt Brecht in the Chicago jungle hovers overhead. The images, made and found, are separated, mutilated, decorated, and scattered by a repertoire of fairly orderly abstract passages and some extremely distraught linear devices, the latter too often dispensable and tacky—e.g., inexplicable scribbles, heavy-handed tapelike borders, criss-cross obfuscants. The color, jazzy, spastic, and discordant, is perhaps the most attractive formal feature of the paintings (and is, incidentally, enhanced by skillful installation), but it, too, is part of the guerrilla war on order. Often Kitaj separates his images so conclusively that the picture must be “read” temporally (for instance, Notes Towards a Definition of Nobody or The Perils of Revisionism). Even when he uses a central, potentially unified image, as in An Early Europe, he proceeds to snipe away—severing the central rhythms with boxed off areas, destroying surface tension with a surprising escape hatch into distant space, mocking transitions by harsh color juxtaposition. If An Early Europe, Randolph Bourne in Irving Place, and Junta more or less survive this rage for disorder, the majority of the works go under. Yet Kitaj’s minimal success does not necessarily negate the value of the large ambition, especially at this time.

Nancy Marmer