PHOTOGRAPHY / Snapshots from a life's work: The work of R B Kitaj, drawing on figures and abstraction, film and poetry, is notoriously hard to interpret. Before a retrospective opens at the Tate, Philip Dodd attempts to pin him down

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The Independent Culture
R B Kitaj, the London-based American painter, has always been the most protean of figures, ceaselessly reinventing himself in both his personal and artistic life.

Kitaj the merchant seaman from Ohio became Kitaj the itinerant cosmopolitan moving from New York to Vienna, from Catalonia to Oxford, and then - in the late Fifties - to the Royal College of Art in London. The 1960s collagist, who mixed figures, abstraction, and written text on the same canvas, gave way in the 1970s to the passionate advocate of life drawing. In the 1980s his Jewishness preoccupied him; now, self-consciously, he is entering a 'late' phase.

And throughout it all there's the movies. His paintings quote from them all the time. He's obsessed - and not merely because his son is a Hollywood scriptwriter.

Robert Hughes once said Kitaj drew 'almost better than anyone else alive'; Hockney and Peter Greenaway were among those who fell under his sway. But, despite his influence, Kitaj has remained stubbornly invisible to the media, preferring to conduct interviews by correspondence.

For the retrospective at the Tate Gallery, however, he has broken his own rule, inviting journalists to his Chelsea home, where the works of his friends Auerbach, Freud and Kossoff line the walls. He says by way of preamble that he's a slow thinker and may falter before the cut and thrust of a face-to-face interview. He then talks fluently and thoughtfully for two hours.

PD: Films matter hugely in your work. Why?

RBK: They're the only aspect of pop that ever meant anything to me. Films connect me more with my time than any other popular imagery. They've become what cheap engraving and illustration and Japanese prints were to the painters at the end of the last century. Nobody cared for them, but painters saw something in them. I use frame enlargements rather than stills. I look at them, synthesise them, use details if I need them.

Your references to art are usually to the great European tradition, from Giotto to Cezanne. With movies you seem to let more in.

I probably do. For instance, I love the western genre and can watch all kinds of junk as well as the few really good things. I'm aware of all the flaws in John Ford, whom I adore - the sentimentality, the phoney Americana - but for me it's an experience I can turn to my own use. If you can feed your own art with it, it's no longer phoney.

How did you come to imagine that strange hybrid painting, The Western Bathers?

I was sitting in the National Gallery, looking at my favourite painting, as I often do. I've looked at Cezanne's The Bathers a thousand times. I have reproductions over the walls in my house. I cut them out whenever I see them in a magazine. I love the way the colours are different in the various reproductions. Sitting in front of the Cezanne, I conceived this picture because those crazy maimed figures of Cezanne looked like they were arranged around a camp-fire. So I ran home, ordered a canvas the size of Cezanne's and began. I looked at some frame enlargements from westerns and one thing led to another. I took up the idea of a repertory company - an idea Ford and Peckinpah had. So some of the figures in the painting are from paintings which have stayed with me. There's a Michelangelo pieta and a young Egyptian model, from Sargent of all people, which I turned into an androgynous cowboy. I envy novelists and film-makers who are able to create characters who can reappear elsewhere.

Why is it that characters attract you so much?

The human comedy is the greatest subject I can think of. It describes almost everything one wishes for painting. And the human comedy has been so much part of the movies.

But not of the modernist project in painting?

No, that's why I have been so much attracted to so many artists outside that emphasis, why I'm more attracted to late 19th-century and earlier painting than a lot of what is happening in my own time. Even though I adore modernism.

In a recent painting, Whistler vs Ruskin, you cast as a boxing match the famous dispute between the aesthete and proto-modernist Whistler and the moralist Ruskin. You once said how much you admire Scorsese's Raging Bull. Was that in you mind when you made this picture?

Every person brings their own intellectual baggage to a picture, their experience, whatever flaws and talents they have. What you bring to a picture is as unique as a fingerprint. So, of course, Raging Bull was in my mind. I followed Jake LaMotta when I was a kid. When I met Scorsese, I told him that the film had the greatest use of the American language I'd ever heard in a film.

What relevance do you think the Whistler / Ruskin dispute has now?

At the turn of the century, the aesthete was subversive, but very quickly the aesthete and the idea of the autonomous picture - called by many names, the 'integrity of the picture plane', 'truth to materials' and so on - began to dominate our century. Anything that lies outside the picture itself is in this 20th-century 'Church' suspicious. I have a hunch that in the new century the subject may drive the form rather than the other way around. With all this conceptual art and installation, they're already dragging the whole world into the art circus, so the poor old independence of the picture is not what it used to be.

You have said that artists are supposed to be Clint Eastwood-like. Silent and strong, they ride into town, do what needs to be done and leave the talking to others. What provoked you to write extensive notes on your paintings?

I didn't do it to be provoking. I write these things because I enjoy doing them. This exegetical side seems to have been in my nature for a long time.

Were they influenced by Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, a poem I know you revere?

Tremendous influence on me, that poem.

Eliot's notes seem to be deliberately evasive, leading the reader from the poem. Are your notes evasive?

Yes, but not so deliberately.

The notes to your paintings don't restrict the meanings your paintings might have. They multiply them.

I don't want things to be written in stone. If someone wants me to identify the symbolism in every part of the painting, they won't find that.

It's fascinating that this blasphemy of mine - writing notes about my own pictures - has been under general discussion at the Tate for years. And they have just come to a decision recently to put wall cards on the permanent collection so that a vast number of people who might otherwise be turned off by modern art might be helped a little, with 100 words by a picture.

Now, the purists will say, 'Oh, how awful, people don't look at the pictures long enough. They'll be reading the wall cards.'

When I was a kid, I used to go the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I'd look at Guernica and see it was a picture about violence, maybe, but you couldn't be sure of what was going on. But they had a plaque next to it. The Basque village, the Fascist planes - and all of a sudden you were in the embrace of a quality of the picture you didn't have before. I see nothing wrong with that.

Are you looking forward to hanging the show?

I'm not as good as a lot of painters who know a lot about lighting, space and framing. Nick Serota is a great hanger of work and he'll hang it much more beautifully than I can. But there is a kind of hang I love, which is the opposite of the modern way - which has, say, a Rothko, surrounded by all that wall. I have a wonderful postcard of Monet in his studio, with three tiers of paintings jammed against one another all the way around. I think the Tate will agree to my hanging a few rooms as a more crowded hang - it's the way artists live with their pictures. We'll see how well I can do it. I may make a hash of it.

R B Kitaj's retrospective is at the Tate Gallery from 16 June to 4 Sept. To complement it, 'Art into Film', an event uniting artists and film-makers, will take place at the National Film Theatre on 17 & 18 June. Details: 071-928 3232

(Photographs omitted)