EXHIBITIONS / Draw draw is better than jaw jaw: R B Kitaj gives great interview. But would he be a better painter if he spent less time talking about his work?
Sunday 19 June 1994
The story Kitaj tells is a good one: born in Cleveland, Ohio; ran away to sea at 16; was briefly an art student in New York; then got to Paris and Vienna before a grant allowed him to study at the Ruskin School in Oxford. Thereafter, from 1959-61, he was at the Royal College of Art, five or six years older than his RCA contemporaries who became the first generation of Pop artists. Kitaj then settled in London and has been an acclaimed artist since his first exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in 1963.
The romance of Kitaj's early years is accompanied, in his account, by insistence on his intellectual culture. Dozens of poets, philosophers and historians are listed, and Kitaj explains how he shares their thoughts and aspirations. Ezra Pound and 'old Tom Eliot' are invoked as previous expatriate Americans. Then we get references to Kafka, Musil, Edgar Wind, Joyce, the complete Journal of the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes, Walter Benjamin, Panofsky, Baudelaire, John Crowe Ransom, Empson, Orwell, Gombrich, Borges, Wittgenstein, Henry James, Plato, Flaubert, Goethe, and many, many more.
It looks as though Kitaj is the most learned, indeed scholarly, of all contemporary artists. And this he may well be, especially since few artists compete in the book area. Kitaj also differs from most painters and sculptors in that he delights in explication of his work. Hence the importance of the interview form, in which he can talk at length about the character of his painting and its interpretations. The analysis always goes back to books. For, he explains, reading is the essence of his work. Kitaj the artist is inseparable from Kitaj the sage.
There's something heroic in this enterprise, but the Tate exhibition is less than glorious. The overall impression is of an eccentric more than
a magisterial mind. At the Tate, canvas after canvas tells us one simple fact: no amount of exegesis will improve paintings that fail for pictorial reasons. In general, the pictures are best when they have a subdued palette and are not too bitty and agitated. Kitaj is hostile towards 'formalists', who are unimpressed by his sources. But such critics usually write the same things that artists point out to each other - what works well in a painting, what methods are used, how the composition shapes up, above all what the visual results might be.
Kitaj's ruminations tend to hamper the results. His pictures are overloaded with pieces and passages that cohere in the artist's mind but not in the spectator's eye. Kitaj compares his method to The Waste Land, with its fragments and footnotes. Aesthetically, this proves nothing. Paintings should be excellent on their own terms. Besides, the implied comparison with Eliot is self-justification of an unbalanced sort. So is Kitaj's way of identifying his own art with Giorgione, Cezanne and other masters.
Kitaj's reinterpretation of Giorgione's Tempesta is embarrassing as an act of homage and a failed painting in other respects. But it does show that he will leap towards anything that takes his fancy. What other painter would so blithely aim to convert that delicate Renaissance picture into his own fantasies? From the first, it appears, he would try anything, however senseless. The earliest paintings in the show, dating from 1958, are completely brash and naive. It's as though Kitaj had never seen a painting before he decided to do one for himself, and for that reason they are rather impressive.
His paintings became more normal at the Royal College. He's said to have had an influence on other students. I wonder whether they did not have as much influence on him. Crazy improvised figuration, such as is found in Derek Boshier and Allen Jones at that time, helped Kitaj towards paintings such as Nietzsche's Moustache, Reflections on Violence and Kennst Du Das Land?. The older Pop artist Richard Hamilton also influenced Kitaj, showing him how to make loosely constructed pictures incorporating motifs from films, bits of advertising and other things one might pin on to a studio wall. A feeling of the noticeboard is quite strong in Kitaj's early painting, as in much other art of the period related to Pop.
Kitaj talks of his affiliation to the masters, but really his style was formed by local circumstances: the new art that was around in London. It looked weirder then than it does now, perhaps because people couldn't understand what he was getting at. Clearly, he was a thoughtful artist while his figurative contemporaries were flippant. But the flow of Kitaj interviews had not begun and his character was enigmatic. His pictorial style was allusive rather than explanatory, so it added to the mystery.
This phase lasted until about 1972-73, the date of The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin), the last and most successful of his early pictures. Now there came a change of style. The lopped and scooped shapes, over- vehement colour and dislocations of scale were replaced by smoother transitions, thinner pigment and a welcome avoidance of clutter. Here there are hints of a mural painter (what, I wonder, has become of the plan for Kitaj to decorate the new British Library?).
At the same period Kitaj looked back to a Jewish past; not only that of his own family but of the general Jewish experience in our century. The Americans Jack Levine and Ben Shahn surely helped him. So did Chagall, who lies behind Kitaj's mid-Seventies portraits of Nikos Stangos and Nissa Torrents, from Greece and Barcelona, intellectuals who chose to live in London. The portrait of Torrents is brilliant because it shows a woman too clever for the artist to impress.
Kitaj has never forged an individual style (except, notably, in his speech and writing). He makes an amalgam from other people. This is inevitable in an artist so imprisoned by his library. The result has been pastiche and, latterly, a flailing academicism. Kitaj's pastels, prints and charcoal drawings are emotionally false. His pornographic scenes, also his straightforward nudes, are tasteless and sinister. The last room of the show ought to be the grandest but it's the weakest. If this is the result of 30 years with books, then Kitaj the artist has been ploughing in sand.
'R B Kitaj: A Retrospective': Tate Gallery, SW1, 071-887 8000, to 4 Sept.
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