Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

‘When movies were first shown, the form was so new and unusual that most people found it difficult to understand what was happening, so they were helped by a narrator who stood beside the piano.’Kitaj, 1967

WHODUNNIT

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing?

DEATH OF THE AUTHOR

There’s a lot to tackle in R.B. Kitaj’s paintings. On the one hand there’s the question of his style, which is fragmentary and highly mannered. On the other hand is the subject of iconology and iconography for which Kitaj had a scholarly fascination. His work deals with both world historical and personal subjects but often in ways that seem critically vexatious, to say the least.

Indeed, it’s Kitaj’s literary-ness, his anti-formalism (or arch-formalism?) that sets him apart from most other painters of note. His status as being a well-read ‘man of letters’, of being a literary omnivore, is integral to understanding his work and the surrounding controversy.

During the sixties, when other painters were busy purging their work of literary devices, Kitaj was insistently piling them on. Quotation, symbolism, reference, he wanted to legitimise text, to legitimise arcane and elitist subject matter. He could paint in as many as ten different ways on the same canvas and throw ideas around like confetti.

R.B. Kitaj’s supporters and peers often credit him with ‘bringing intellect back’ into modern art. But this wasn’t much of a riposte to the constant charge of pseudointellectualism from critics. Kitaj, they argued, simply wanted to make painting subservient to bad literature and identity politics.

OY VEY

The sensitive subject of Kitaj’s Jewishness possibly deserves an essay in and of itself. Jews are, after all, historically underrepresented in the plastic arts—and this, for Kitaj, seemed to be a something of an existential problem. Indeed, his insistence on being described, first and foremost, as a ‘Jewish painter’ seems like a lot to unpack.

Kitaj was, in short, a left-wing Jewish diasporist and self-professed subscriber to the Cult of the Fragment (as good an explanation as any for the often-fragmentary nature of his paintings). In manifestos he drew colourful comparison between the medieval stereotype of the Wandering Jew and the incipient dandyism of the Flaneur. For to be rootless, argued Kitaj, is to experience life as a collage-like experience—to have a ‘cut-up’ view of one’s self and one’s place in the social fabric—an assertion seemingly borrowed from Jewish-German father of media studies, Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 over fears that his neighbours were about to hand him over to the Gestapo.

The hot-potato of a ‘post-holocaust‘, or indeed a ‘Jewish’ art is sadly still relevant today. Indeed, antisemitic hate crimes are reportedly on the rise, so the social cause of highlighting Jewish culture, Jewish individuals and Jewish ideals is nothing to be sneezed at, especially when it’s coming from a liberal internationalist Jew such as Kitaj. And yet, for a lapsed Catholic such as myself, I can’t help but recognize something painfully desperate in the need to pigeonhole one’s self as an (insert religion) artist.

PAINTER AS CRITIC

R.B. Kitaj is just as notable a writer as he is a painter, if not more so. In fact, he would often bring his own commentary to bear on his paintings in the form of ‘prefaces’. And boy, could he write. Kitaj was capable of describing his intentions, fantasies and preoccupations with bombastic flair and yet was never deserted by a certain sense of comedy.

Essentially he styled himself as his own critic (and hagiographer) which is to say that the paintings and texts are often so involved as to be codependent. Such is the case that his work often provoked charges of being ‘merely illustration’. And yet Kitaj seemed to openly embrace the irony of an artist ‘speaking’ for paintings when paintings are generally expected to speak for themselves. To this end, he was capable of finding very inventive ways of muddying the segregation between pictures and stories. ‘Some stories have pictures,’ he once quipped, ‘some pictures have stories.’

As well as being himself an aspirant critic, and a critical painter, he also made numerous paintings about critics—as individuals and characters. In fact, critics and public intellectuals seem to hold a deep fascination for Kitaj, as tragicomic figures, or ostensible Jews, rabbinical scholars, hashing it out over the letter of the law.

R.B. Kitaj's "Whistler vs. Ruskin: Novella in Terre Verte", depicting an abstracted boxing scene with yellow figures.
Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte) (1992)

One such painting where Kitaj deals explicitly with critics as characters is ‘Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte’), after Bellows’ famous picture of pugilists ‘Dempsey and Firpo‘. Only here the boxers have been recast as John Ruskin and James McNeil Whistler who famously took his critic to court for accusing him of ‘throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public’. Whistler was eventually awarded damages for slander but soon after he would go broke and Ruskin would go mad.

But whose side, should we ask, does Kitaj actually support? It would be natural to assume he should find solidarity with the American painter Whistler, who is defending himself against a critical assault. But perhaps it’s not so simple. Ruskin is, after all, painted as the eventual winner, Dempsey, and Kitaj actually studied at the John Ruskin School of Drawing. Ruskin was a champion of morality and expressiveness in the arts whereas Whistler is more or less the midwife of modern formalism—famously titling a picture of his own mother ‘study in grey‘, cheekily referenced in Kitaj’s subtitle of Novella in Terre Verte.

Here’s what Kitaj has to say about the painting:

Anyone who doesn’t know about the famous and absurd Whistler–Ruskin trial a century ago should look it up because it’s a lot of fun even though it ruined both of them…even though Whistler won the case, we’re not sure he did, are we? Anyway, this painting is also about London American coxcombs getting our chops in, and about the way painting may be said to extend its aesthetic reach of punch beyond the sacred plane.

Slightly loses me at that last part. We also can’t fail to notice just how garish and awkward this painting is—somehow over-refined and sloppy at the same time. It’s a very difficult canvas to actually like, although its passion and feverish energy, perhaps misplaced, seem undeniable.

READ AND BURN

Like some wandering flaneur, my efforts to untangle this murder mystery have led me down unexpected avenues. One such derive has been the criticism of popular English journalist Andrew Graham-Dixon, a man so notoriously pompous that he gives Alan Partridge a run for his money. AGD, as it turns out, spearheaded the critical assault on Kitaj, with a scathing review in Tory broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph. I sought out an archival version of the article online and was actually shocked by what I found. Here are some choice excerpts:

Kitaj’s habitual reluctance to allow his paintings to speak for themselves means that almost every work is displayed alongside a long and usually unenlightening footnote to its effects and meanings, supplied by the artist himself. The text which accompanies The Rise of Fascism, a less than memorable pastel of three women and a black cat by the sea, is both exemplary and short enough to quote: ‘The bather on the left is the beautiful victim, the figure of Fascism is in the middle and the seated bather is everyone else. The black cat is bad luck and the bomber coming over the water is hope.’ This may be intended ironically, a way of remarking how difficult it is to treat the large themes of history without descending to banal, trite symbolism. But Kitaj’s painting is, elsewhere, so often banal in ways that cannot possibly be intentional that the suspicion lurks that here, too, he is in deadly earnest.

The careless manner which Kitaj has adopted is a hybrid style of pastiche: a little bit of fake Beckmann, a little bit of fake Picasso, but above all fake. These are the paintings of someone who feels he ought to be painting like this – looseness, freedom, gestural self-expression generally being regarded as traits of great artists in their old age – not of someone compelled to paint like this. Their transparency is pitiable partly because, by painting them, Kitaj has finally allowed the myth of himself to be seen through. The Wandering Jew, the T S Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz: a small man with a megaphone held to his lips.

R.B. Kitaj's "The Rise of Fascism", depicting bathers in a dark pool.
The Rise of Fascism (1979)

Before addressing the substance of these quotes, I should point out that this is perhaps the best and most rib-tickling thing Andrew Graham-Dixon has ever written in his entire career. Is it unnecessarily vicious? Yes. But it’s a forceful argument and he doesn’t pussyfoot around the issues at stake: Kitaj’s impurism, his illustrational tendencies, and self- inflating exegesis.

I would encourage readers to seek out the full review. It’s so wonderfully disparaging that it’s almost sexy. But with the adrenaline wearing off, some doubts begin to creep in. For one, AGD has provided an exceptionally dismal example of Kitaj’s exegetical style (seen here in the rote description of a clichéd allegory about the Holocaust) no more sophisticated than a political cartoon, really. It’s not a terrible pastel, by any standard, and the figures appear to be unlikely refugees from Cézanne and Degas. But AGD would be right to call the symbolism trite and banal. One could argue, perhaps, that Kitaj is simply trying to be ironic because this would otherwise be precisely the sort of kitschy symbolism that fascists tend to adore. But as AGD says, this would be an incredibly generous interpretation of Kitaj’s intentions.

AGD’s main grievance, however, would be Kitaj’s insistent commiseration with the great old masters of history. Either Kitaj must be hopelessly deluded, to compare himself to fabulously talented chaps like Picasso and Matisse, or else he’s a cynical sleazeball who thinks that with enough purple prose and name-dropping he can dupe people into considering him an artist of historical significance.

And yet Andrew Graham-Dixon has hagiographised and promoted the careers of infinitely more wretched artists than Kitaj. You can watch him on YouTube gushing over the landscape painting of John Virtue, whose paintings he refers to without a shred of irony as being comparable to Constable and JMW Turner. How he can defensibly pour scorn on Kitaj’s ‘cartoony’ mannerism yet rhapsodize over the work of this sub-greetings card illustrator is frankly beyond me. It doesn’t necessarily invalidate the criticism at hand, but it certainly lends weight to Kitaj’s claim that the outrage at his painting was selective and perhaps even xenophobic.

As for the issue of drawing style and painterly handling, I would have to agree that sometimes Kitaj’s reach exceeds his grasp, vis-a-vis his tendency for Blue Rider pantomime (Fake Beckmann is an oxymoron surely). But one can easily observe his creative influence in the work of successful contemporary artists such as Neo Rauch, Tal R and Jonathan Meese, all of whom employ a kind of hyper-mannerist, socialist-surrealist style of modern painting, for which Kitaj was a definite trailblazer. Add to that, the personal admiration of British filmmaker Peter Greenway who once said of Kitaj: ‘he is a painter in whom I have not a single misgiving, and I could not say that about any film-maker‘.

STORY TIME

Let’s examine a more convincing example of R.B. Kitaj’s writing for pictures—this time, from fairly early-on in his career during the sixties. It’s called ‘The Apotheosis of Groundlessness‘, the foreword for which I shall include here in its entirety. Trust me, it’s worth it.

R.B. Kitaj's "The Apotheosis of Groundlessness", depicting a yellow foreground, scaffolding, and rails.
The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (1964)

Children love illustrations to stories. This short story is an illustration to my painting in which the antagonists are not shown. Once there was a rich and talented man named Bob Maillart who had just moved into an empty warehouse he was fixing up to live in. The warehouse was in the great and splendid city of Paris, hidden away in an ancient alley on the Left Bank, with lots of mist and other atmosphere for which the Latin Quarter is world renowned. A man named M. Bill phoned who wanted to meet Bob, who asked Bill to come over. These two men should never have met because they made each other too nervous and anxious almost from the start, which was a shame because they shared so many interests, but both men were somewhat ill in body and mind when they met and they irritated each other, at first in subtle ways but then increasing toward savage drama. Bill was also very gifted and had quite a good job but he yearned for the kind of freedom money can buy and would come to feel that Bob wronged him and that he fell into a trap by asking to meet and talk. Bob realised after some minutes that destiny had sucked out any future for them and that he had made a big mistake asking Bill to come, even though he had looked forward to meeting Bill. They were countrymen, and Bob offered to show Bill his new home and so he walked Bill around the colourful early modernistic warehouse (see picture), telling Bill all about its sordid history, anecdotes about the romantic neighbourhood and its denizens, where (in the warehouse) he intended to keep his books and pictures, how he wanted only very few chairs and maybe a table aside from the bed, which was just about the only thing there you can’t see the bed in my painting because I haven’t painted it in yet. Bob got carried away as he gestured here and there and bragged of the beautiful women from the ancient streets who would come to his warehouse if he recovered his health. Bob was a very sensitive man. quick to see that Bill, who was just as sensitive, was reacting poorly to what he was hearing and what he saw, the warehouse as you can see it yourself, its infinite levels and perspectives, spaces and corners, pastel colours subtly judged and that heartbreaking Paris light spreading into Bob’s new home from the turn-of-the century skylights, making everything look like a storybook picture. Bill began to hate Bob slowly and surely. Bob knew he had talked too much, said all the wrong things as usual and had upset Bill, but it was too late. They were both sick and exhausted and humiliated. Bill killed Bob and went to prison and then to hell.

Now isn’t this cool? Less an instance of allegory, of listing and naming, than outright ekphrasis, as most of what’s described is actually happening ‘off camera’, so to speak, and the main action of the chamber drama has to occur in our imagination. It’s interesting that Kitaj asserts the text as an illustration rather than that picture. And note the inclusion of details such as the bed he ‘hasn’t painted in yet‘ and technically never will. These quirks draw attention to deliberate discrepancies between text and image. One plays off against the other and yet provide the audience with a greater appreciation of both. And yet again the drama, like The Whistler Match, is about pedantry and violence. The grandiose title happens to be a reference to an obscure philosophical text by Lev Shestof subtitled ‘An Attempt at Adogmatic Thinking‘. Very witty.

REQUIEM

Gloves off. R.B. Kitaj is, in my estimation, a far more interesting specimen than the usual English mandarins of Bacon, Freud or Hockney. In fact, a typical Kitaj painting sort of looks like what you might get if you put Bacon, Freud and Hockney in a blender (with a dash of Peter Blake and Chagall). But it’s easy to say X looks like Y. It’s easy to describe painting by analogy. It’s trickier to say what a painter is actually doing.

R.B. Kitaj's "Desk Murder", a still life with a dominant crimson color and pencil-collage aesthetic.
Desk Murder (1970)

In Desk Murder we get another polemical puzzle-picture in the manner of Walter Sickert’s voyeuristic ‘Bedroom of Jack the Ripper’, for which the viewer is made, by ironic disclosure, into a kind of amateur sleuth and authorial collaborator. We’re expected to weave meaning around this painting. So it’s a painting more about literary exegesis than anything else. Kitaj in his preface reveals that this is supposed to be the desk where the Nazis signed documents permitting the use of Zyklon B in concentration camps. So we’re led to believe it’s an Auschwitz picture, or a picture of someone’s stricken conscience or a picture of someone’s ironic fascination and fraudulent penitence. But, again, it’s an aesthetic void, a lack of real illustrative detail that gets filled up or compromised by actual text—and annotation. Kitaj, like the benshi of silent cinema, seems to be narrating and commenting on the picture, simultaneously.

R.B. Kitaj's "The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower (1997)", which has a Basquiat feel.
The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower (1997)

CRIME OF PASSION

In The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Kitaj attempts, a few years after his ‘lynching’ at the Tate, to avenge himself on the critics Andrew Graham-Dixon and Brian Sewell, represented here as a sort of jotter-margin Gorgonite spewing word balloons of ‘kill the heretic’ and ‘yellow press heresy’. The composition is derived from Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and the title is a reference to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even. A number of torn Penguin covers are arranged in a collage about the perimeter with titles such as ‘Diaries of a Madman’, ‘Dialogue with Death’, and ‘Men Without Women‘. Attendant cuts-outs from Van Gough and Cezanne look on with approval as Kitaj, dressed as a crimson gendarme, spears his critical foe with a rifle inscribed ‘vindice‘ or ‘vindication‘. It’s an angry picture, filled with grief and self-serving heroism.

R.B. Kitaj's "Western Bathers (1994)", with Chagall and Matisse-like figuration and colors.
Western Bathers (1994)

SHOT BY BOTH SIDES

Although R.B. Kitaj isn’t all that consistent of an artist, he’s an important figure insofar as he was able to open up the possibilities of contemporary painting—as well as his enthusiasm for the infinite number of ways a painting can come about. That a painting could have multiple meanings, multiple points of entry. I think he invented something serious in the way he made a painting by enacting being a painter, if that isn’t too an insulting way to put it.* It’s exciting that the result is a post-conceptual experiment, residing outside the tradition of Cézanne and Manet, but also somehow looking across at it. One can’t simply say that the tradition isn’t there. That’s a genuinely original tension for which I don’t think the word ‘irony’ is practically sufficient. Take his fascination with ‘the aura‘ of Cézanne, as showcased in his late ‘Western Bathers‘ painting. We can observe something genuinely delirious and crazy in this picture. The magic marker colours. The ‘here comes everybody’ configuration. Although it’s not exactly to my taste, it’s an undeniably rigorous painting. And how resolutely unfashionable its aspirations were to become in an age of the artistically postmodern.

Many of the critical blows against R.B. Kitaj were unearned. Say what you will about his didacticism, fake iconoclasm and cringe-inducing art-appreciation (oh, the conservatively congenial humanism of it all!). But the outburst of language, of adjectives such as ‘tasteless‘, ‘adolescent‘, ‘pornographic‘ and ‘sinister‘, only serve to betray the affronted taste of a provincial, middle-class audience. It was Kitaj’s mistake perhaps to assume that the aesthete, the flaneur, had any remaining subversive power. But it was our mistake, the English, for attempting to punish him for it.

*This is not to conflate Kitaj’s showmanship with the self-regarding hijinks of artists such As Odd Nerdrum, who unapologetically markets himself as an ‘anti-woke’ Rembrandt manqué.

* * *

If you enjoyed this analysis of R.B. Kitaj’s art, consider supporting our film on a great American poet and get patron-only content on Patreon. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a debunking of black conservative Thomas Sowell, a roast of white supremacist Jared Taylor, and an analysis of the Roman mythos in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

More from Ethan Pinch: Petty Bourgeois: Why “Saltburn” Stings, Angelmaker: Reviewing Burial’s “Boy Sent From Above” (2024)Lee Krasner: A Critical Portrait