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January 11 - March 30, 2008 at Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles

by Roberta Carasso

Central to R.B. Kitaj’s art was that he saw himself, being artist and a Jew, as an outsider. His narrative imagery continuously returns to Jewish issues concerning alienation, identity, the Diaspora, the Holocaust, the relationship of Jews to other groups, and powerful Jewish thinkers whose work influenced the Jewish and non-Jewish world. An expatriate who, in his early years, could not make it in America, he spent 40 years in London. There he was a successful painter and teacher (a professor at the Royal College of Art). He was admired by and close friends with the most prominent English artists (David Hockney and Lucien Freud to name only two).

Yet, Kitaj was in the right place at the right time when he and several others began creating work then credited with bringing Pop art to the UK. But he was never really a Pop artist; however, his superior draftsmanship and ability to work in all sorts of materials and period styles was just what the commercialization of Pop needed. But his eclectic nature and strong self-identity would not allow him to pin himself down. So he discarded the Pop bandwagon and return to painting how he wished to paint.

Through out his life, Kitaj acknowledged and clung to his Jewish roots, but he was not brought up to follow his heritage nor was he inclined to do so. He did not have the language to express Judaism in traditional ways. His language was art not ritual, not the Torah, ancient Talmudic thinking or esoteric kabalistic philosophy. Despite this lack of a customary path, this exhibition demonstrates that he found a personal visual vocabulary to express the essence of Jewish thought in a modern vernacular.

Kitaj was an individualist. He followed his own desires, dreams, instincts, and his unique psyche. Thus his art is inconsistent, even at times, awkward in its spontaneous expressions of passion. Yet there is stability and a consistent beauty to it. For example, he used heavenly soft washes or rubbed pastels until the paper burned with his energy. He created masterful lines as well as lines that were rough, organic, and crude. His primary strength was his ability and range in drawing. Even when painting, Kitaj tended to create drawings with color.

"Arabs and Jews (Jerusalem),"
1985, oil on canvas, 36 x 72".

"I and Thou," 1990-92, oil
on canvas, 48 1/4 x 48 1/4".

"His New Freedom," 1978,
charcoal on paper, 301/4 x 22".

"Passion (1940–45): Cross and Chimney,"
1985, oil on canvas, 161/2 x 10 7/8".

Photograph courtesy of
Marlborough Gallery, London.

Among the most powerful work is his Holocaust imagery, where he chose the crematorium chimney as the Jewish symbol of suffering—it’s much like Christianity’s choice of the cross. Another jarring series is that of Arabs and Jews, where Kitaj envisioned the possibility of a new sense of freedom between people. The artist takes us to task in one image of two very young children who sit near each other, each in separate thoughts. Surrounded by symbolism of home and teddy bears, the scene is open to the question of which one is the Jew. In another from this series, after James Ensor, two men are wrestling. By their dress, it is difficult to identify who is the Arab and who is the Jew. Also on exhibition are warm and loving paintings and drawings of family, friends, and those who mutually shaped his world as he shaped theirs.

Kitaj was an enigmatic artist whose work cannot be easily labeled. He created art that was, if it were nothing else, passionately humane. It comes as close as possible to boldly portraying, in figurative form, the vulnerable, fragile, even flawed beauty of the human soul.

In a world where art of modern religions is placed in a separate category, outside the mainstream of art history, exhibitions, and contemporary art writing, Kitaj stepped over the line; and in his work, he succeeded in integrating these religious and modernist streams. His aesthetic vocabulary depicts not only the eternal within Judaism but within all humankind. But it is expressed in a contemporary form that speaks well beyond the religious.

Passion and Memory” consists of selections from Kitaj’s personal collection. He chose the work and oversaw the exhibition; but regretfully, Kitaj died in October 2006, before its opening.