New York

Focus: R. B. Kitaj

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are two paintings in the R. B. Kitaj retrospective that, with hindsight, look uncannily prophetic. One is called Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte, Yellow and Red), 1992, and portrays the expatriate American artist and his critical adversary as boxers, after George Bellows. Whistler has knocked a blue-haired Ruskin out of the ring. The other painting is called Against Slander, 1990–91, and concerning it Kitaj remarks, “At the very moment Cézanne was showing in the first Impressionist exhibition, the Hafetz Hayim, across Europe, published . . . his first book (translated as Hold Your Tongue), a three hundred page tract against slander, evil speech, and defamation—all of which Cézanne was suffering.” And all of which Kitaj, too, has suffered in the last year, for this retrospective’s first appearance, at London’s Tate Gallery last June, was the occasion for one of those critical Nights of the Long Knives that are such an entertaining feature of life in Quaint Britain.

Apparently the Brit Crits decided to get this Jewish-American upstart in their midst. Ruskin would be avenged! In newspaper after newspaper, spleen was vented in language so venomous and abusive as to generate a major scandal. To make matters worse, and more newsworthy, the painter Sandra Fisher, Kitaj’s wife of 11 years, suddenly died. In Nixonian fashion, Kitaj threatened to give up painting, and people began to wonder whether the critics might have contributed to Fisher’s death.

This is not such a fantastic idea as it may seem: the reviews are hard to credit. Next to them, Ruskin’s ill-advised remark about Whistler’s “pot of paint flung in the face of the public” seems like the mildest slap on the wrist. Here is a selection—a kind of poisonous bouquet—culled from the pages of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The London Evening Standard, and The Daily Telegraph: “From the first, it appears, he would try anything, however senseless. . . . His pornographic scenes, also his straightforward nudes are tasteless and sinister.” “The dispiriting, admonitory spectacle of an oeuvre ruined by fatal self-delusion. . . . ” “A staggeringly trite cheapening . . . of human catastrophe. . . . ” “We are in the slushy world of Teflon Ron and his non-stick pix.” “His drawing has become so incompetent and careless, so childish and so ugly . . 0. wretched adolescent trash . . . a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art . . . . ” “The Wandering Jew, the T. S. Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz, a small man with a megaphone held to his lips.”

Whatever one may think of Kitaj, this sustained outburst of vituperation requires some analysis. Persons writing in the grip of irrational loathing always betray themselves through their promiscuous use of adjectives, and what a crop we have here—“ senseless,” “pornographic,” “tasteless,” “sinister,” “incompetent,” “childish,” “ugly,” “wretched.” The only significant entry in the lexicon of art abuse that seems to be missing is “degenerate,” though it is certainly implied. One is reminded of the reaction of the cultural arbiters of the Third Reich confronted by the work of Max Beckman, Otto Dix, and Emil Nolde. Indeed, it is precisely Kitaj’s insistence on sexuality and Jewishness that these critics seem to consider an affront to the canons of middle-class good taste.

Kitaj is a genuinely problematic figure nonetheless. He is altogether too apt to wrap himself in the mantle of the great tradition, and his frequent, uncritical invocations of Eliot, Pound, and Degas, all of whom were anti-Semites, sit uncomfortably with his allusions to the Holocaust. He may also be his own worst enemy. He consistently says too much; he is a sphinx who can’t wait to give his secret away. All a critic can do is either echo the master’s words or bitch.

When this show was at the Tate, Kitaj committed a particularly egregious act of folly by writing “prefaces” to the paintings, which were fixed to the gallery walls. Some of these were fanciful and oblique, but a good many were crudely explanatory. One in particular enraged the critics; it appeared next to a pastel of three women and a cat by the sea. The piece, from 1979–80, is moody, sumptuously colored, and a little troubling. If it had been called Three Women and a Cat, it would rank as an attractive if minor work, but, alas, it is called The Rise of Fascism, and the weight of the title crushes the image. If you were wondering how on earth title and image relate to each other, Kitaj—ever helpful, and unable to help himself—rushes in with an explanation: the woman on the left is “the beautiful victim,” the one in the middle (who has the build of a wrestler or dominatrix) is “the figure of Fascism,” and the one on the right “is everyone else.” It is difficult to know whether this is some sort of dark joke or sheer foolishness. I suspect that for all his cosmopolitan erudition, Kitaj (who was born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio) retains a certain Midwestern naïveté, and I am convinced that both title and interpretation were arrived at after the fact, which is to say, he created this unsettling image and then decided what it meant.

At the Met, the prefaces have been banished, so we can actually see what is in front of us. There are some unsuccessful paintings, some awkward or academic drawings, but there is also ample evidence of a restless and original imagination. I can see no cause for moral fulmination. The show is damaged by the omission of a number of Kitaj’s finest works, notably Desk Murder (Formerly the Third Department [A Teste Study]), 1970–84, and the haunting Study for the World’s Body, of 1974, but it remains useful and illuminating. The early work looks dated (too many ’60s design elements), and we can see that Kitaj only hit his stride in 1972, when he embarked on The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin)—a portrait of that city on the eve of the German invasion. A group of people, portrayed with an almost medieval disregard for relative scale, are gathered under a parchment-colored awning; behind these figures is the fragment of a building with shattered windows. At the center of the composition a young woman (or perhaps a feminine young man) in a red hat directs a melancholy gaze toward the figure of Walter Benjamin, who gestures with a cigarette. On the right, red-rimmed cafe tables and round-backed chairs retreat toward a pale, marbled sky. It is possible to attempt a detailed decoding of this painting: the broken windows may refer to Kristallnacht, and Benjamin is on his way to his suicide on the Spanish border. It is possible but unnecessary. To my eyes the whole composition is instinct with pathos, but it is only fair to tell you that the Brit Crits have found it too literary, merely illustrational, and lacking in feeling. Perhaps if Kitaj had concealed the fact that he was inspired by Benjamin’s life and work, if he had used less brilliant color and drawn more sloppily, they would have liked it better.

The paintings of the ’70s are characterized by thin paint, flat color, and precise drawing. In the ’80s Kitaj seems to have decided that this style was in danger of getting overrefined or formulaic, and he resorted to a more gestural and frankly grungy use of paint. Color was also heightened to the point of garishness. As a result, the crowded fourth room of the Met show is something of a visual assault. I found this work hard to like, but its passion and feverish energy are undeniable, and in five or ten years it may look a lot better. It also reveals a paradoxical truth: for all his love of compositional complexity, Kitaj is often at his best when he remembers to leave things out. The Room (Rue St. Denis), 1982–83, stands physically and spiritually at the center of the exhibit. It shows a narrow, windowless room with neutral-colored walls, illuminated by a white globe lamp like a moon, and dominated by a bed clothed in a brilliant red coverlet. It is the simplest of images, yet it speaks volumes about desire and its aftermath. The Room refers back to Study for the World’s Body, in which the walls of the room are red and the nervous lovers are present, and it looks forward to The Flat, 1993, a long perspective view of an unpeopled interior suffused with deep blues and purples. And all of these images are related, in turn, to Kitaj’s most powerful evocation of absence—his superb 1984–86 drawing of the abandoned stadium at Drancy.

It is hard to understand how anyone could have mistaken work of this quality for “adolescent trash.” And what does it have to do with self-delusion or vanity? To say, for example, that Kitaj’s drawings and pastels are not as great as Degas’ is hardly damning criticism: they are still among the best by any living artist. It is not Kitaj who stands exposed by this retrospective but his critics. It is they who have made an “admonitory spectacle” of themselves.