Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Painter's Revenge: RB Kitaj and the Tate War, by Kasper

Can a painter fight back against hostile critics and 'win'?

In 1877, James Abbott McNeill Whistler took umbrage over John Ruskin's comment in Fors Clavigera, the art critic's journal, that Whistler was 'a coxcomb' who asked two hundred guineas for a picture and had flung 'a pot of paint in the public's face.'

Whistler sued Ruskin, and after an infamous trial, prevailed, winning damages of one farthing. Whistler emerged psychologically damaged and financially burdened from having to absorb court costs.

With RB Kitaj, it was slightly otherwise.

Over a decade ago, in 1994, RB Kitaj, American expatriate painter and resident of England for nearly forty years, was awarded a large retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, an honor accorded few living painters.

Kitaj had enjoyed just and consistently favorable treatment from English critics before. But surprisingly, the critical reaction to Kitaj's lifetime opus was overwhelmingly negative, even former supporters of his art as well as a cadre of new detractors flinging raw insults his way.

He was judged 'pretentious', 'pseudo-intellectual', 'a name-dropper', 'a poseur' (for his assumed identity of the persecuted 'Diasporist Jew') and 'full of Hemingway/Gauguin bullshit'.

The Diaspora, as Kitaj conceived of it in his 1989 pamphlet on the subject, was a wide-open refuge for outsiders, and welcomed feminists, persecuted blacks, homosexuals and Marxists, as well as Jews.

In this manifesto, as in his 'prefaces', explanatory glosses for his paintings, Kitaj had trespassed into the territory of art critics who reserved to themselves the linguistic definition of his work. RBK even went so far as to characterize recent paintings of his as belonging to his 'late style', a loosened departure from his earlier, more naturalistic work.

It was not for the artist to proclaim anything about his own style, the critics glared back: such taxonomies were for them alone to formulate.

Coupled with this critical rancor was an irreversible personal tragedy for the artist: his beautiful and talented wife, Sandra Fisher, died at age forty-seven from a sudden aneurysm about the time of the Tate show. Kitaj, who had been in America as his mother slowly ebbed away and died under his hands, rushed back to England just in time to see Sandra into the next world.

His paintings for nearly the next ten years are, in some ways, a commemoration of his and Sandra's love together -- diaphanous expressionist yearnings for his forever lost, angelic muse.

But before the moving images of Sandra and the artist pictured in erotic duets came the 'revenge paintings'.

Kitaj refers to this period as the Tate War.

One work in particular, exhibited first in the Royal Academy (London) show of summer 1997, 'The Killer Critic Assassinated by his Widower, Even' (1997), implies that the strain and ignominy from the art critical onslaught may have been a partial cause of his wife's death.

The painting is based on Manet's famous 'The Execution of Maximilian'(1868) and quotes other modern masterpieces: Picasso's cubist portraits, Duchamp (in the parody of RBK's title as well as formal elements), and of course, Manet.

The critic is pictured as a bulbous, pulsating tick-like entity, whose yellow ticker-tape tongue is scribbled with the phrases: 'yellowpress kill, kill, kill the heretic always', 'kill heresy'. The 'monster critic' is in the process of being executed by a duo consisting of Manet himself and Kitaj the painter, whose head is represented by the Hebrew character for his surname.

Kitaj attributed part of the critical salvo he suffered to ' variety anti-semitism...' since he has taken Judaism, its critics, prophets, tormentors and geniuses, as his subject matter in recent years. 'The Killer Critic...' is banded with a 'predella' of paperback books at its bottom; one cover reads: 'An Enemy of the People: Antisemitism' by James Parkes. A quotation by Paul Celan, a Jewish poet harassed and tormented by the Nazis, streams down a weeping angel blazoned on the 'RBK executioner'.

And thus Cleveland, Ohio-born Ronald Brooks Kitaj, reincarnated as the British Diasporist vigilante RBK, sought to even the score for a betrayal by his adopted country.

Belittled (like Whistler) for selling 'empty' and 'bloated, pretentious' canvases for outrageous prices, Kitaj concluded his swipe at the critical establishment by pricing 'The Killer Critic...' at £1,000,000, a price he quickly received.

In 1997 he returned to America and Los Angeles to paint and draw pictures of bungee-jumpers and lovers in automobiles. But Kitaj had never been one to blench from hanging a picture of God's back next to one of baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax.

The 'Sandra Series' and other visionary, brightly colored works followed. Finally Kitaj was able to rejoin his children and begin to live a normal life.

Still a crusader at nearly seventy, Kitaj doesn't turn away from a scrap. 'When someone shoots, I shoot back,' he declares.

And his Diasporism still shows itself in odd ways, though he has retreated a bit from his original 'Manifesto' of 1989.

He still names himself a 'Jewish artist' and tries to represent the Diaspora as all-inclusive:

'I'm right behind black people who want to use their negritude (he says fiercely), I'm right behind them.'

Maybe it seems a bit unrealistic or politically skewed to make such a declaration as a privileged white man, a world-famous artist, very comfortably well-off and living in a large house in the hills of Westwood that once belonged to the actor Peter Lorre.

Today Kitaj does paintings of his private swimming pool, which he calls 'My Walden'.

But unlike Whistler, he has come away emotionally damaged but freshly defiant from his confrontation with the killer critics. His work is still crisp and original, perhaps a bit looser but even more resolute and mature than before.

(Note: I am indebted to Brendan Bernhard, David Cohen and Marco Livingstone for some facts and quotations in this article.)

See other articles by Kasper. Learn more about Kitaj.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the Critics became his muse?

5:27 AM  

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