Kitaj and the firing squad

The Retrospective at the Tate should have been his crowning moment, but it became his catastrophe. Now after more than 30 years here he goes home to America, his soul full of bitterness and mourning. Interview by Andrew Lambirth
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The Independent Online
RB Kitaj has sold his house in Chelsea, has bought instead a Monterey- Colonial style villa in Los Angeles, and is all set to move to Hollywood in July. He is disenchanted with Britain, even with the London that has been his cherished home since student days in the 1960s, at the Royal College of Art with David Hockney.

The principal cause of this change of heart is the intemperate critical reception accorded his Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1994. Kitaj was panned, and at the height of the barrage, his young wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, suddenly died of an aneurism. It has proved impossible for Kitaj to separate the two things, and he is convinced that the massive ill-feeling that he and his work aroused in effect murdered his wife. He is now engaged in a vendetta against those he considers his chief enemies - notable among them Andrew Graham-Dixon, for the review he wrote in the pages of this newspaper.

Kitaj, who refers to Graham-Dixon later in the following interview, has already produced three "magazine" broadsides against his detractors. Only the second of these appeared wholly in printed, magazine form. The concept is called "Sandra", the first in the series being a mixed-media painting entitled "The Critic Kills", which was featured in last year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The third, and most elaborate to date, hangs in this year's RA summer show. It is simply called "Sandra Three".

Kitaj prefers to be interviewed by post, asking that questions be sent for him to ponder. He takes these with him to a favourite local cafe where he goes every day for breakfast, and writes his replies longhand on ruled sheets of yellow notepaper. He enjoys writing, and has developed a style that is expressive, compact and idiomatic.

One of the things he was attacked for during his Tate exhibition was his unabashed habit of writing commentaries to accompany his paintings. He embarked upon this habit long before he realised how in line it was with the great Jewish tradition of religious commentary. He continues with it because he believes the public likes to be helped into pictures.

I asked him what his feelings were for England on the eve of departure. "I feel quite tender, angry, bored, good, bad, tired, nostalgic, confused, full of fight, focused, thrilled to be leaving, anxious, curious about life after England, excited to be going home, fearful of re-entering the car-culture, interested to see if I'll miss old Europe, etc, etc.

"The thing I'll miss most about England is Holland. I've grown to love it more than Paris. I'm always in Holland, just 40 minutes from London."

Kitaj used to visit Paris frequently. He spent the most idyllic year- and-a-half of his life there, with Sandra Fisher. Since her death, Kitaj has turned his attention to Amsterdam, its port and red-light district.

Despite his anger and sorrow, Kitaj plans to keep a foothold in London. "All my children were born here; I want to keep my friends, enemies and self amused. I seem to attract enemies in London like moths to the light. FDR, our most hated (and loved) president, said he welcomed his enemies. So do I."

Kitaj's son by his first marriage lives and works in Hollywood as a screenwriter under the name Lem Dobbs. An adopted Indian daughter is in the US Navy. Max, Kitaj's young son by Sandra Fisher, is leaving Westminster Under School and will go to high school in Los Angeles.

Kitaj has not painted in America since he was 18 or 19. There is bound to be adjustment, a change of impulse, even impetus. I asked him what effect he anticipated returning to the States would have on his work. "I dare not anticipate. But if I were to anticipate, I would hope to fulfil a personal Manifest Destiny (an old American ideal), pursue happiness (like an idiot), achieve an old-age style (like a genius), hold my demons at bay and loose them into my pictures, become a Jewish Refugee from London, try to discover what `going home' might mean and so on."

In 1976, at the Hayward Gallery, Kitaj curated an exhibition of figurative art which he called The Human Clay. In a catalogue essay he identified a number of painters in a loose grouping which he termed the School of London. Francis Bacon was perhaps the most distinguished member, but it included many of Kitaj's friends and the artists he admired. The School of London has returned to haunt Kitaj, with critics constantly trying to redefine it or dismissing it as a Jewish cabal. Kitaj, who has complained loudly of the anti-Semitism of the British press, now puts much of it down to pure xenophobia.

He is terse when I ask what he thinks today about the School of London. "It's closed. The Brits don't want anything like a School of Paris or School of NY. It's one of the many things some assholes hate me for."

How did he come, I wondered, to be hanging a wall of work by some of his old friends in this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition?

"The President gave me a wall for my magazine - the third issue, "Sandra Three". And he asked me to do a spare hang in Gallery II, so I asked some of the Geriatric Avant-Garde from The Human Clay 20 years ago." Apparently no one declined to exhibit, and Kitaj simply chose "the first old-timers I could think of".

In response to why he persuaded such of his friends as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, Richard Hamilton and Leon Kossoff to show in a mixed controversial exhibition they've always fought shy of, Kitaj simply said: "Some of them love me, I guess, and they wanted to say goodbye." What on earth did he say to convince them? "I said it was my Goodbye Room."

Kitaj's current style draws its inspiration from a wide range of sources. "My most savage attacker, Anal Andy, The Chinless Wonder [aka Andrew Graham- Dixon], called me a name-dropper, even though he wrote a lousy book about Hodgkin, who drops a name in almost every title of his excellent abstracts. So here goes .... A few of the influences on my late work are; Cezanne, Kafka, Giotto, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet, baseball, Rembrandt, heavyweight boxing, late Goya, Sandra, Mondrian, Masaccio, Cubism, Surrealism, AP Ryder, Hopper, Shakespeare, Wm Blake, the psalms, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Schoenberg, Einstein, Eisenstein, Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Mallarme, Hitchcock, The Jewish Jesus, Zola (J'Accuse), some Turner, Whistler, Isaiah Berlin, some pornography, some Soutine, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Morandi, John Huston, Lee Friedlander, Brassai, Marsden Hartley .... Should I go on?"

This tongue-in-cheek list originally contained over 120 separate sources, ranging from composers to orthodox rabbis, by way of poets and philosophers as well as painters. This is only a selection of Kitaj's selection. Even at its original length it cannot pretend to be exhaustive, and though it can be exhausting it is certainly heartfelt. Kitaj is a great enthusiast as well as a good hater. He still thinks of himself as an outsider who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Is he then still loyal to the concept of the avant-garde? "Yes. More as I grow older. I prefer Pound's injunction: `Make it New'."

How does he view the London critical fraternity now? "Someone once said, if a dog pisses on Notre Dame it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the cathedral. Everyone agrees with me that art-reviewing reached the lowest point anyone can remember at the time of my Tate War. It was not art-criticism but art-hatred of a very personal kind, real resentment by sick hacks full of hate and self-hate.

"I have hundreds of letters about what happened. You should read what Paul McCartney said about that lynch mob in The Times. I've never met Paul McCartney. I've heard from men of genius and unknown painters and a vast public. None of them can bring Sandra back, but God bless them all. I seem to attract hatred, as Baudelaire wrote Marat did. There is no talent or style or balls or imagination in the haters. At least they've made me the most controversial painter alive! Not a bad thing to be. Since I can paint and write better than my enemies, the war ain't over yet." Quite possibly it is statements such as these that get people's backs up. Kitaj has been condemned for daring to stake his own claim in the artistic pantheon.

But is he in favour of muzzling his critics? How does this square with freedom of speech? "There are only two types of people I hate: Nazis and people who hate me. In democracies, thugs can hide behind freedom of speech. I very much doubt if a headline saying `Let's get rid of this Trotsky of the Tate' or cute lines like: `You can take the man out of the shtetl, but you can't take the shtetl out of the man' (about a very distinguished London painter) would be allowed by an editor in America above the level of racist bigot sheets. The Chinless Wonder known as Anal Andy has used the analogy of shit four separate times writing about me and the work of Auerbach, Freud and Kossoff. Yes, I think evil dogs should be muzzled lest they kill again."

One or two of Kitaj's recent paintings contain passages reminiscent of the work of Howard Hodgkin. I asked whether this was deliberate, and if it was important to register awareness of one's contemporaries. "I am very aware of many contemporaries and they all affect me in complex ways. Thus it is with every artist I have ever heard of. The mysteries and anxieties of influence in art are infinite and very interesting. My own case is compounded by my collection of pictures by my contemporaries. The painting I own by Hodgkin, and indeed many of his devices, gestures and framing passages, have been influenced, I believe strongly, by Rouault, who has also affected me deeply. I've never read of this source for Hodgkin. The Hodgkin I own and many others have the same broadly painted blue-green framing device with which old Rouault focuses many of his near-abstract compositions. It's uncanny. It's what inspired me to buy the Hodgkin. I love that Hodgkin green but I got it from Rouault, and I bet Hodgkin did too. I think Hodgkin and Stephen Buckley are the two best abstract painters in England."

There is an Old Testament air about Kitaj: despite the worn T-shirt and jeans, he wears heavy black boots and his white hair is cropped.

Does he see himself as the art world's avenging angel? "Yes and no. I have begun to study the incredible and noble history of Revenge Tragedy, from the Greeks to Hamlet to Raymond Chandler to Clint Eastwood. And that's a new direction among many directions I wish to pursue, God willing. Many revenge stories and epics were born in Los Angeles. Maybe I can introduce forms of revenge into some pictures. We'll see. But I have a deep ascetic side to my nature and I may become a Desert Father or an Israelite Prophet whistling in the wilderness, unheard and forgotten by the present art world, which is OK by me".

Prue Irvine interviews the Dovecote weavers on the making of Kitaj's `If Not, Not', page 4

Dr Phil Hammond appears on page 8