R. B. Kitaj

Ceaselessly inventive artist whose work provoked both great admiration and furious controversy
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The Independent Online

Ronald Brooks Kitaj, painter and writer: born Cleveland, Ohio 29 October 1932; RA 1991; married 1953 Elsi Roessler (died 1969; one son, one daughter), 1983 Sandra Fisher (died 1994; one son); died Los Angeles 21 October 2007.

A painter and writer of extraordinary imagination and force, R.B. Kitaj made a distinctive contribution to art and thought in his time. Innovative in both content and method, his work in each of his disciplines roused great admiration and furious controversy. Its freshness, directness and humanity – no less than its richness and complexity – will ensure it a lasting place in the study of the arts of the past half century, above all in England, where he lived for some 40 years.

The child of Jeanne Brooks and Sigmund Benway, Ronald Brooks adopted the surname of the research chemist Dr Walter Kitaj, a refugee from Vienna whom his mother married in 1941. Throughout the early 1950s, always reading intensively, Ron Kitaj moved between art schools in New York and Vienna, spent time in Catalonia and worked as a seaman along the coast of the Americas. After two years in the US Army in Europe, Kitaj resumed his study of art, on the GI Bill, at the Ruskin School, Oxford. From there he moved to the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1962. Always excited by the life of great cities, he engaged passionately with London and extended the tradition of Americans who for varying periods made it their home. He was proud to become, in 1982, the first American Royal Academician since John Singer Sargent.

Kitaj's first one-man exhibition, at Marlborough Fine Art in 1963, declared the arrival of an extraordinary new vision. At once enigmatic and compelling, Kitaj's pictures abounded in imagery that was fragmented and presented in pictorially illogical spaces, yet charged with urgency of both touch and emotion. They were also indivisible from texts (some in the accompanying catalogue, and others hand-written within the paintings) that referred the viewer/ reader to literature and to historical events. Kitaj was situating the practice of painting within the context of writing and politics. While his procedure of seeming free-association was inconceivable without the precedent of Surrealism, his work's intellectual content was openly indebted to the wide-ranging research into iconography that in England was pursued especially at the Warburg Institute.

Kitaj also drew conspicuously on the imagery of films, composing with a sense of drama and atmosphere and deploying characters somewhat like a film director. His concern with uniting the sensuous properties of paint and colour with imagery derived from printed sources, and from earlier art, had a strong influence on some of his younger contemporaries at the Royal College. These included emergent Pop artists and David Hockney (thereafter a lifelong friend and colleague in England, France and California). For over 40 years Kitaj's own art remained ceaselessly inventive, combining striking fantasy with a sense of vivid reality and with frequent insistence on imperative moral issues.

Kitaj's concern with multiple sources in a single work was no less evident in the screenprints he made in abundance with the master printer Chris Prater. As in the paintings, these involved juxtapositions that were startlingly alike in the leaps of time and context between adjacent images and in the vivid contrasts of their differing textures. Such an approach diverged sharply from the untrammelled simplicity favoured by concurrent abstract and Minimal art. Within Kitaj's prints, however, one series, In Our Time (1969), was severely direct. Each work reproduced, unhampered, the cover of the jacket of a publication from the past several decades, with all the atmosphere its title, design, colour and content distilled.

Kitaj's studio was also a library. His love of books connects inextricably with his sense of the importance of the transmission of knowledge and thought, through time, and with his awareness of the fragility of such transmission in any era of persecution. Significantly, the Warburg Institute had been established by scholars who became refugees when they brought their extraordinary, wide-ranging library from a Nazi Germany that would become notorious for its book-burnings. Though not preoccupied by his Jewish inheritance when young, Kitaj came increasingly to identify with the suffering and endurance central to Jewish experience. This theme became crucial to his writing and his art, the latter referring directly and indirectly, but insistently, to the Holocaust. In 1980 he stated: "I'd like to try, not only to do Cézanne and Degas over again after Surrealism, but after Auschwitz, after the Gulag."

Of towering importance to Kitaj were the writings of Franz Kafka ("the magical element in my equation" and "the only artist I know who assumes the condition of Jewishness in forms which speak to the painter in me") and of Walter Benjamin (who died while escaping Occupied France carrying a manuscript). The shop-fronts of Benjamin's arcades are suggested in Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (1983-84), in which Kitaj, attended by a Jewish refugee bookseller, reclines on a chaise-longue by Le Corbusier. Beyond are figures "largely cast from the beautiful craziness of Yiddish Theatre, which I only knew at second hand from my maternal grandparents, but fell upon in Kafka". Appropriately, the large tapestry in the grand entrance hall of the British Library is after a painting by Kitaj, If Not, Not (1975-76), which he described as having "a certain allegiance to Eliot's Waste Land and its . . . family of loose assemblage". Figures in extremis are strewn across a lyrical landscape inspired by Giorgione but dominated by the gatehouse at Auschwitz.

Kitaj further identified with Jewish experience through the topos of the Wandering Jew. His own wide travels are recalled in a painting such as My Cities (An Experimental Drama) (1990-93), in which the young, middle-aged and old Kitaj walk the precarious boards of a stage, before a drop curtain decorated with the half-buried capital letters of the cities he has known. His remarkable First Diasporist Manifesto (1989) was conceived as "a summing up of my erratic Jewish obsessions". Kitaj integrated his examination of Jewish experience from many angles with that of non-Jews, including several great modern artists, and identified with anyone persecuted on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation.

The openness and directness of engagement of Kitaj's writing style connect to his manner of drawing which, whether in line or in rich pastel, gives one the subject with economy, fullness and immediacy. Drawing was at the heart of his campaign for recognition of the importance of figurative and narrative art, memorably proclaimed in Kitaj's exhibition "The Human Clay" (Hayward Gallery, 1976) and its catalogue. This represented 48 living British artists from William Roberts and Richard Carline to Colin Self and Maggi Hambling. Kitaj wrote that distinctive artists in Britain were "more unique and strong and I think numerous than anywhere in the world outside America's jolting artistic vigour . . . If some of the strange and fascinating personalities you may encounter here were given a fraction of the internationalist attention and encouragement reserved in this barren time for provincial and orthodox vanguardism, a School of London might become even more real than the one I have constructed in my head."

Although by "School of London" Kitaj meant some abstract as well as figurative artists, the phrase rapidly became generally associated with a closer group of purely figurative painters, including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Kitaj himself, who knew one another well and who placed the human figure at the centre of their varied but intense art. Their work stood and stands in contrast to much cool and often ironic art that achieved great notice as their own became ever better known. Appropriately, Kitaj showed in the influential exhibition "A New Spirit in Painting" at the Royal Academy in 1981, in which foreign artists included Balthus, Philip Guston and late Picasso.

Though Kitaj's art and that of some of his closest friends played an important role in the growing unease at the assumption that the finest art must always "advance" stylistically, it is wrong to see any conflict between it and Modernism. Kitaj himself observed that "Modernism is dear to me. Fascism and Modernism are enemies. Fascism is my enemy." He dwelt eloquently on the astonishing achievements of Degas, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, formally but not least technically and psychologically. Cézanne in particular, and above all his late Bathers, was a source of endless mystery and fascination. He drew attention repeatedly to the shocking history recounted by George Heard Hamilton in Manet and His Critics (1954), a theme that was to have disturbing resonances.

In 1994 the Tate Gallery organised Kitaj's largest retrospective exhibition.

In the first work, Erasmus Variations (1958), painterly swipes indebted to de Kooning were employed to transform doodles by the Renaissance humanist into disguised images of women Kitaj had known. This painting foreshadowed both Kitaj's use of abrupt dislocation, his frequently more overt treatment of erotic scenes and the humour that runs like a thread through his art and writing, even amid grim themes. The exhibition demonstrated his interest in baseball, brothels and bad health (his own, in a wry series of pictures of a range of ailments); in grand historical themes, including the Spanish Civil War; and in portraiture. There were images of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Unity Mitford, Pierre Bonnard, Quentin Crisp, Ernst Gombrich, John Ford on his deathbed, Philip Roth, John Ruskin, Anita Brookner, and himself as a woman.

Alongside some favourable reviews, the exhibition was savaged by several conspicuous critics in terms so angry and intemperate as to be taken by Kitaj and by many readers as being both unbalanced and disturbingly personal. Negative criticism was directed at both the size of the exhibition and the number of recent works, but a focus of contention was Kitaj's texts accompanying the works on display. Recognising the complexity of many of his works, Kitaj had supplemented the normal labels beside many works with pithy commentaries by himself (some factual and others fictional – many of the paintings are like novels – but all valuable as an optional aid to experiencing a picture).

In these, as throughout his work, Kitaj exposed himself, his ideas and his self-identity. However objectionable some may have found this, the very device was integral to his artistic enterprise. The controversial texts roused considerable interest in those visitors not sufficiently daunted by the criticism to attend, and the exhibition was enormously successful later at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Subsequent academic analysis of the furore may be correct in identifying the problem as lying in contrasting national temperaments. Though in love with Britain, Kitaj's whole approach was strikingly American in its openness and self-assertion. This was "compounded" by his insistence on Jewish identity. Though one of the fiercest London critics was American, it has been suggested that all this was too much for the more reserved English, "difference" being perfectly acceptable in itself but less so when flagrantly expressed. Not all English people responded so intolerantly.

In 1983, after they had spent 12 years together, Kitaj had married as his second wife the American painter Sandra Fisher. Like Kitaj, she was greatly hurt by the hostility to his Tate exhibition. She died suddenly of an aneurysm, aged 47, only 15 days after the exhibition ended. Kitaj associated her death with the critical attacks and henceforth two of his central preoccupations would be his angered response and his mourning of Sandra. These events underlay his decision to leave Britain for good in 1997 and to move, with his and Sandra's son Max, to a new home in Los Angeles close to his elder son, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs.

One of Kitaj's most striking visual responses to the events of 1994 was his assemblage Sandra Three, exhibited at the Royal Academy in the year of his departure and centred on a large and complex painting titled The killer-critic assassinated by his widower, even. The image identifies Kitaj with Manet, to whose Execution of the Emperor Maximilian it pays homage.

Throughout his last 13 years Kitaj continued to renew his art and, characteristically, to use adverse experience to feed new inventions. His most ambitious project was an ongoing series of paintings of himself and Sandra, commemorating their love in emotional and physical terms, dwelling on departure and on being at once so close and so distant, and often visualising one or both of them as angels ("Los Angeles"). Fully realised, these paintings were executed in a loose manner reminiscent of aspects of late Cézanne, whose name appeared in the title of the exhibition of several of them at the National Gallery, London in 2001-02 ("Kitaj: in the aura of Cezanne and Other Masters"). They also demonstrated in a new way Kitaj's long attachment to a method he called "Painting-Drawing". Among the artists with whom he associated this was van Gogh, of whom he wrote that "his mature style in oil painting is largely, but not exclusively, a great drawing style . . . He is still drawing as if he had charcoal or a Japanese reed pen in his hand." Kitaj was close to van Gogh in other ways. Both were émigrés and Kitaj had his poolside studio in Los Angeles painted yellow in emulation of van Gogh's Yellow House. Moreover, van Gogh was not only (likeWhistler, Sickert and Kitaj's friends Richard Hamilton and Avigdor Arikha) a notable painter-writer but also – which particularly appealed – a confessional one (Kitaj's own mode, continued in England by younger artist friends such as Tom Phillips and Timothy Hyman).

As exhibitions of new work on many themes continued, Kitaj showed himself profuse as ever with new ideas and formulations of imagery. A patriarch presiding over three generations of his family, he came to resemble an ancient prophet. He extended his series of images of figures from the Old Testament, and in the catalogue of his 2005 exhibition "How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art" he published, as a "work in progress", the "Second Diasporist Manifesto" (which is about to appear in expanded form). Verse 336 reads: "Depart this world still studying, mainly art and Jews." Kitaj's Judaism may have been unorthodox but was characteristic in his belief in the unending need for exegesis. Studies of his art and life, with their rich interconnections, are certain to proliferate and to draw, among other sources, on the letters he wrote on yellow paper in his meticulous hand. Kitaj observed in 1982: "I take it that one's condition is the truest subject of one's art." Though he continued to the end to dramatise his own experience, this proclivity was not only essential to his creative persona but also indicative of wider issues. Like many outstanding artists, he perceived the link between his own experience (particularly of love, freedom, injustice, age and death) and that of each individual in the community at large. His work will be judged not only aesthetically but also in terms of its deeply affecting humanity. Though some would claim (wrongly) that he was his own worst enemy, the acts they have in mind are inseparable from the lasting eloquence of the work of an exceptional creative figure.

Richard Morphet