New York

R.B Kitaj

Marlborough | Midtown

This exhibition contained some of the best paintings that R. B. Kitaj has made. An easy mastery of a variety of kinds of touch was explicit, often within one work. This is perhaps most obvious in The Garden and Rock Garden (The Nation), both 1981, but it is also evident in the figural works. They go beyond the portrait drawings in their fantasy and their iconographic complexity.

Indeed, what is really crucial about these works is the iconographic issues they raise. They remind us that pictorial representation is important not simply in itself but for the way it undermines any “natural,” sensuous appreciation of paint as paint and any direct understanding of a scene as realistic. Iconography forces us into a realm of meaning that bends both technique and subject matter to its own logic. Thus, though one acknowledges the brilliance of Kitaj’s painterliness, and the inherent drama and complexity of character of his figures and scenes, neither can really be taken as ends in themselves. They exist to bespeak Kitaj’s real interest—the state of Jewishness today.

Kitaj’s work is what I would call “Jewish realism,” an attempt to fuse the strong Jewish reality principle with Modernist esthetics to articulate the continuing pathos of the Jewish condition underneath its contemporary disguise. The Jews remain unassimilated, a critical thorn in society’s side, for all their assimilation of modernity and, indeed, their crucial role in creating categories for understanding it. Kitaj says it all in the shtetl figure reclining on the functionalist couch at the base of Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees), 1983–84.

Kitaj is not another Marc Chagall. He understands Modernism in general better than Chagall understood Cubo-Futurism. He is not nostalgic for the ghetto past, its grimness sentimentalized or mythologized away; rather, he uses Jewish melancholy and suffering to explode the privileging of Modernist stylism in the very act of assimilating it. He uses Jewishness to explode his own romanticism about being an artist.

Kitaj sketches a figure or a scene, then obliterates it with painterly violence. The eventual fusion of the determinate, fixed figure and the indeterminate, “relativistic” paint results in romantic allegories, fusing the “movingness” of both sources. But what undermines this process of synthesis is that it usually ends in the articulation of a Jewish identity that contradicts its esthetically and emotionally attractive sources. In general, Kitaj’s Jewish theater affords a strange sense of reality. What is the realism in the various Jewish Hamlets Kitaj depicts? And what is the “style” of these paintings?

As Morse Peckham has noted, style was privileged by romanticism as the last authoritative transcendence left. Kitaj contradicts this by creating a “Jewish” style, one that contradicts the absoluteness of style by offering a sense of the irreducible subjectivity of the artist and his theme. The greatness of these works has not to do with their many postmodernist moments, from their fancy-dress, ballroom estheticism to the quotation of Vincent van Gogh’s Hospital Corridor at St. Rémy, 1889, put to fantastic uses in Germania (The Tunnel), 1985. Rather, it has to do with their creation of that contradiction in terms, style that explodes style, style at its most brilliantly self-defeating and so at its most excruciatingly and critically modern.

Donald Kuspit