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May 21 - July 5, 2003 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Marlena Donohue

R. B. Kitaj was in London for so long, and so ensconced in the so called School of London with Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon, that I was shocked to learn some years back that he is actually from Cleveland, Ohio, and born to the commonplace moniker, Ron Brooks. The artist’s mother married a doctor named Kitaj, and somewhere between his first 1963 show and his rise to fame he became this exotic, outspokenly poetic, outspokenly Jewish and acutely felt phenomenon: R. B. Kitaj.

He celebrates his 1997 return to Los Angeles--the place where his parents died, home to his grown children, where he taught at UCLA and met his late wife Sandra--with this suite of works ostensibly dedicated to the City of Angels but in fact commemorating a passionate attachment to Sandra, who died unexpectedly at age 47 in 1994.

Intense. That is the word for these sometimes convincingly erotic, sometimes overwrought images depicting graphically and by suggestion an aging Kitaj--old but full of sexual vigor--fondling, enclosing, regarding the spectral, oft winged form of the lost Sandra.

As has been his style since the famous If Not, Not of 1976, these works are done in a washy, loose oil style antithetical to what we expect from oil--density and opacity. The urgency of the content--his tongue flicks out to meet Sandra’s skin; she extends attenuated arms to caress his gray mane--plays against the liquidy process. Oil slips over, across, into and through lines and contours in a way that makes everything seem never quite fixed. Sometimes this is an enjoyable effect, sometimes the looseness of form against the acuteness of portrayal and emotion is oddly annoying.

The specter of Kitaj’s beautiful young wife (a picture of her introduces the show catalogue) appears in this washy, dislocated, highly abstracted representational style that never describes her appearance but captures what she meant to the artist. In Los Angeles No. 11 she lies in a tub, much like a luxurious Matisse nude. Nestled beside her on his side lies the artist suckling her breast, his coarse, stippled, wildly elongated arm reaching between her legs snakelike, an obvious reference to some first, original seduction.

“Los Angeles No. 15,” 2002,
oil on canvas, 48 x 48"
Photo courtesy: L.A. Louver Gallery
and Marlborough Gallery.

“Los Angeles No. 17 (Zip),”
2002, o/c, 36 x 36”.

“Los Angeles No. 11 (Bathtub),”
2002-03, o/c, 36 x 36”.

“Los Angeles No. 19,”
2003, o/c.

Kitaj is intense, and intense can be problematic. Since the last gasps of existential angst poured out of a string of manic depressive artists in the New York school--many of whom sadly self-destructed and helped us build the silly myth of the mad genius--the art collective tacitly agreed that creation is not therapy. Overtly heartfelt, passionate, deeply personal work makes the art world itchy--like too much soap in the laundry.

Yet these paintings are heartfelt with such authenticity, with a sort of “go *&^% yourself/this is who I am” honestly that it is difficult to dismiss what you see; difficult to not have some works register in the viscera precisely because what Kitaj makes us privy to is so darn human, raw, intimate, vulnerable.

Kitaj has noted in press and interviews the long tradition of textbook masters who deal with the female muse (read: lover, model, mistress, mother, madonna, maker of tuna sandwiches. . .while I do real work). We need only look to tons of muse works by Manet, Kirchner, Schiele and of course, Picasso. Kitaj’s deeply felt artistic exploration of his relationship to his dead wife claims a problematic arena. The muse schtick comes with its discourse and its liabilities. As such the works open themselves up to a great wave of feminist and gay theory about the deleterious and hegemonic semiotics that attend celebrations of one traditional view of love and sex--erotic, passionate heterosexual love stories in which over and over guy chooses girl, guy beds girl, girl inspires guy and guy creates cultural artifact.

In 1994 Kitaj’s retrospective at the Tate was brutally ripped by London critics. In the midst of this trouncing Kitaj left for L.A. to be with his dying mother, only to have Sandra collapse of a fatal aneurysm while he was away. These biographical details would be unnecessary to recount were it not for the fact that it is precisely that reality and its intense working through, commemorating, sharing, reliving and mythologizing that is the basis for these works. Kitaj recalling his wife’s presence, absence and the circumstance of her loss cannot help but speak loudly in the serpentine lines and washy fields of Los Angeles No. 11.

Heterosexual love, Judaism, the Bible, eros, hope and redemption--Kitaj bravely stands by work that offers something to rattle everyone: art historical references perhaps too literal to be pluralistic; poetic explanation of works by the artist; a very vocal stand on the fact that in its symbolic, philosophic and mystical basis, his art, regardless of its subject, is a Jewish vision; comments that we have not for a long time celebrated just plain ol’ heterosexual passion. . . .Naysayers, take aim.

I can only say that these works are so painfully personal that they kind of unhinge the distance that theory and rhetoric provide. That may be just what some find objectionable, and exactly what draws others to them. There is no doubt that Kitaj is working through a pained, complex loss, taking a commendable risk by letting us in on the sexual and emotional pitch of his private world, in part to make Sandra endure, as well as to touch some universal chord in us about the transcendence of union.