Last summer the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education celebrated the opening of its new home with a stunning exhibit, Grisha Bruskin’s ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory. In case anyone was wondering if such quality could see repeat performances, the answer is a resounding: Yes!
The current exhibit, R.B. Kitaj, A Jew, Etc., Etc., is a marvel in more ways than one. Smartly curated by Bruce Guenther, whose deep knowledge about and passion for the artist can be heard and felt during his exhibition tours, the art on display covers a wide range of Kitaj’s changing preoccupations. But it also brings home the underlying constant in his works since the 1970s, his identification as a Jew in the diaspora and his embrace of commentary, the historical means of keeping knowledge intact and learning alive for all Jews, no matter where.
Kitaj was born in 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother remarried an émigré Austrian Jew after her divorce who took the boy under his wing. It was not a religious household but one that cherished culture in the vein of the Central European middle class. After some years in the merchant marine, Kitaj began to study art at Cooper Union, moved on to the Akademie in Vienna, and eventually ended up in London, where he soon joined a circle of up-and-coming painters, Hockney, Freud, and Auerbach among them. Alone with two small children after the suicide of his first wife, he eventually remarried a 15-year younger woman, a gifted painter in her own right, Sandra Fisher, with whom he had another son.
A steep ascent to artistic success and museal recognition ended abruptly in 1994 when a major retrospective at the Tate was shredded by the critics. Contempt for his art mixed with ad-hominem attacks and latent, or not so latent, anti-Semitism, expressed by many of the major art critics in London in parallel, led to an éclat that could not be softened by his friends’ public attempts to defend him. The sudden death of his second wife, which he attributed to the stress of the “Tate wars,” was the final straw that cost him his psychological equilibrium for decades to come. He left London and moved to Los Angeles for the remainder of his years, taking his own life when the burden of Parkinson’s disease became too much to carry.
To give you a taste of the dripping poison pens, here is Andrew Graham-Dixon: “The careless manner which Kitaj has lately 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.”
Many of the critics pointed to Kitaj’s habit of extensive commentary written next to his paintings as evidence that he wanted to show off his eclectic intellectual and reading habits. The bitter irony of the “Tate Wars” lies in the fact that his compulsion of displaying aphorisms, quotations, philosophical snippets and historical tidbits was not a distracting add-on to the art but a constitutive part of it. The Jewish subject matter focal to the artist’s interests was augmented by a quintessential Jewish process, interpreting text. Heinrich Heine referred to books and commentary as the Portatives Vaterland, a portable homeland, central for a people that could not call a place its own.
Later Jewish writers extended philosophical thought around displacement: Hanna Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Gershom Sholem, Aby Warburg and many more were devoured by Kitaj and integrated into his art. Kitaj saw himself defined through this state of displacement, the not having a true home, the diaspora. The wandering Jew became central and, in psychoanalytic terms, sort of a reverse projection screen. The title image of the exhibition is devoted to just such a symbol — a figment of a man who had once dated Kiyaj’s mother and had become central in his fantasies. He wrote and illustrated two books that made his philosophy explicit, calling them the First and Second Diasporist Manifesto, reflecting on the role of Jewish identity in art and demanding over and over to “Paint the opposite of Anti-Semitism.”
The exhibit allows us to follow some of that trajectory, from the 1990s to the late Los Angeles series, a number of paintings that hold the despair over the loss of his wife, and the rage towards a malevolent art-criticism world, emanating a rawness of desire paired with hatred that stings the viewer. Nothing fake about it. Portraits of other painters, Pissaro, Soutine, introduce playful aspects, something direly needed when you have been drawn into the despair of the later work.
My favorite painting greets the visitor at the very start of the OJMCHE gallery: it is called Unpacking My Library. Bruce Guenther — who has a knack for seamlessly weaving biographical information about the artist with some real teaching about the art subject at a level that serves both newcomers and more experienced folks, not a small feat — explained the riotous colors, the spatial arrangement and some of the meaning, all expressing Kitaj’s deep connection to books, literature and learning.
I had seen the painting first at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin that held a Kitaj retrospective in 2012 and decided on the spot that I liked the man, if only for his wit. Here is this Jewish painter with his central preoccupation with Jewish identity and he places himself, kneeling, centrally into a halo painted with the very shade of blue that art historically reserved for the Madonna’s cape. Behind him is a carpet — perhaps the magic carpet of literature transporting you — dotted with small faces of his beloved writers, in the manner of cherubim, that in the religious paintings of the middle ages often appeared just as little sweet heads, peeking out here or there. The Christian world of the diaspora, invading the privacy even of your Jewish home, and yet escapable through books central to the beliefs of your people. Striking; and memorable.
The same can be said for the show on hand.
R.B. Kitaj, A Jew, Etc., Etc. continues through September 30 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, 724 N. Davis Street, Portland. Admission and schedule information here.