Tuesday, 13 November 2007


R. B. KITAJ (1932-2007)

Ronald Brooks Kitaj led a restless, essentially nomadic life and his painting reflects his shifting enthusiasms. He was an American, although best known as a member of the Royal College of Art group of 1960-62, identified with the British version of Pop Art. The group rarely share the close attention to common or mundane print sources, of Lichtenstein or Warhol, instead, often arrange the picture into smaller, discrete pictures, or a layout, that together with text, tend to carry a weaker allusion to print (see also Post 16).

Kitaj’s sources are not contemporary advertising or graphics, but an array of historical and literary publications, often obscure. His project is initially a history painting constructed from layers of such reference. In early works such as The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960) and Reflections on Violence - Gedanken über Gewalttätigkeit (1962) the task is firstly how to assimilate and arrange these sources in a painterly way – to signal iconographic derivation by this. The work struggles to resist mere collage with a kind of sketchiness; that in turn begs art history for clarity. His later collages for photo-silkscreen prints only emphasise how easily print absorbs collage, how little it leaves to painting. But as Kitaj steadily flattens colours and modelling, gives outline a heavier, deliberate abbreviation, the style arrives at something like standard graphics or illustration, and these give works such as The Ohio Gang (1964) and Walter Lippman (1966) literally a keener focus.

Remote sources are now contrasted with ‘graphic’ simplifications, while as painting, such techniques are attenuated by greater size and surface. The effect is curiously detached, even brittle. His technique is dry and thin, literally and emotionally. There is no need to actually trace iconography, even if possible, since strictly the work now becomes about this opacity to heavy outline, flat colours and disparate layout. Graphics are pressed to the point of obscurity; iconography haunts even cursory illustration. There is also Kitaj’s distinctive dry brush or rubbing technique at this time, which recalls the mottled wear and aging to cheap publications, particular the covers of paperbacks, subtly converting a common if overlooked print property to a stylistic one.

So while Kitaj is obviously not Pop in the sense of Warhol or even Peter Blake, print and layout formats are not easily restricted to ‘popular’ iconography. In general the British example urges degrees to Pop Art in this way, provides a porous periphery to the print paradigm for painting.

Kitaj’s work is also notable for the theme of sexual confrontation. Prostitution is sometimes explicit, but often sexual favour or attraction is something negotiated and arranged throughout the work, emerges almost as the culmination of method and mood – at once calculated and crass. In Synchrony with F.B. - General of Hot Desire (1968) a portrait of Francis Bacon as business man or gangster presides over the strangulation of a naked women, her legs spread, her face indifferent amongst the abstraction. In The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin) (1972-4) a bored woman remains the centre of attention for a conspiratorial group. The Henry Kissinger-like figure opposite her, and the unmistakeable caricature below of Richard Nixon as a Red Guard, comically sabotaging the negotiations, surely locate this encounter as the U.S. peace talks with North Vietnam, well after Benjamin and any aura Paris may once have held. The surrounding eavesdroppers and guards recall The Ohio Gang (1964). In both cases a woman is to be persuaded, enlisted; used in some way and one suspects; but briefly.

In later works Kitaj tires of fragmentation and diffidence and looks to a more relaxed and forthright style. Portraits and landscapes then offer more mannered drawing, but struggle to accommodate tone or modelling and he often seems to retreat to pastels as a remedy. In the late 80s his enthusiasm turns to Matisse and a lighter, broken facture. Political and historical themes gradually give way to more whimsical anecdote.

It is tempting to see this loosening as a response to the Neo-Expressionism of the time, but the artist’s interests cease to be of wide concern, in any case. His 1994 retrospective at The Tate met with a savage backlash, for example. Interestingly, a related brand of history painting arises in the work of Neo Rauch not long after. Where Kitaj is never quite comfortable with pictorial continuity or contiguity, Rauch’s more fluent approach, paradoxically provides more grades of disjuncture, re-drawing and fiction. Kitaj’s restlessness never allowed that commitment, ultimately he set more store in literature and history. It turns out even history painting does not always need that much history or literature, that more frivolous efforts often only underline the problem.

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