In an age of abstraction and synthetic pop art, RB Kitaj re-vitalized narrative, figurative painting. He died last week at age 74.
Like many great artists, Kitaj endured public acclaim and charged disdain. His 1994 retrospective at London's Tate Modern was panned in a stormy critical concert. Kitaj, an ardent reader and writer, included explanatory texts with each of his paintings—presumably circumventing the critics, much to their understandable yet misguided ire.
Working primarily during an age of abstraction, Kitaj and his paintings defy easy categorization. Though known as a British pop artist, Kitaj was in truth an American; a British expatriate, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. No matter his nationality, later in life Kitaj keenly allied himself with his Jewish faith, even embracing the stereotype of the "wandering Jew" from Anti-Semitic folklore.
Ever restless, Kitaj made for an unlikely modern art hero. He willfully ignored "art for art's sake," the reigning Abstract Expressionist doctrine; in thought and act, he referenced a realm far richer than glib pop, often alluding to existential literature and philosophy in his lyrical, figurative compositions. Using line even in his painterly works, critics claimed he could at once draw with the facility of Edgar Degas, and paint with the shimmering, multi-faceted style of Paul Cezanne.
His compositions seem almost cubist, with their figures and landscapes unmoored from ordinary constraints, geographic and temporal—a fitting feeling for an artist who, however embraced, viewed the world through the fragmented lens of an exile. This kaleidoscopic approach seems akin to collage; the collaged effect and Kitaj's fresh, expressive use of color perhaps led to the unfortunate "pop artist" misnomer.
Critics may also want to re-consider Kitaj's experimental technique of including texts with his paintings. Such texts may dampen the wordless mystery of art, but they also complement the paintings well, expressing the vividness of the artist's vision in a distinctive voice. At his 1994 Tate retrospective, Kitaj gives the last word on his art, composed amidst the tumult of our times: "It is, perhaps, an original concept, to treat one's art as something which not only replaces the inertia of despair, which may be common enough, but to press art into a fiction which sustains an undying love."
(The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) courtesy of the collection of Mrs. Susan Lloyd, New York)