Artist Aggrieved

R.B. Kitaj: Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte, Yellow, and Red), 1992, oil on canvas, 60 inches square. Private collection, Los Angeles.


“I WISH I could accomplish some sizzling little pictures . . . like unusual emblems which have a searing quality in the same sense that they leave a mark on the body like a tattoo; pictures which can leave a mark in the mind . . . an emblematic remembrance of horror and banality.” So R.B. Kitaj described his artistic aspirations to fellow painter and curator Timothy Hyman, on the occasion of Kitaj’s 1981 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.1 A prominent and charismatic personality of his generation, Kitaj (1932–2007) was also a polarizing figure, commanding widespread art world admiration as well as a smaller quotient of critical contempt. His scintillating intelligence and antagonistic posturing both come to the fore in his posthumously released memoir, Confessions of an Old Jewish Painter, a handsome volume with some two hundred illustrations, including many photographs of Kitaj by his friend Lee Friedlander.2

The tell-all autobiography is not likely to endear its author to contemporary readers. Recently in the New York Review of Books, Hyman disclosed that he had been asked to evaluate the original manuscript and recommended against publication without severe editing. He was generous in his conclusion that the final version of Confessions has “a far more sane and sympathetic voice than in the original.”3 That may be the case in relative terms, but sane and sympathetic this book is not. The artist will be more positively remembered for his paintings, a fine selection of which, selected from West Coast collections by independent curator Bruce Guenther, appeared this past summer at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Portland. Most of the sixteen paintings and four drawings included in the exhibition “R.B. Kitaj: A Jew, Etc., Etc.” date to the artist’s last two decades of studio activity. All are of Jewish subjects—reminding us of the goal Kitaj somewhat glibly outlines for himself in Confessions, namely, “to do with Jews what Morandi did with jars.”

Kitaj penned his memoir in Los Angeles from 2001 to 2003, intending for it to be published after his death. No one pursued that goal until German curator Eckhart J. Gillen, poring over the artist’s papers in preparation for the 2012 Kitaj exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, discovered the typescript in the special collections department of the UCLA Research Library. Gillen edited the document—with, I think, far too light a hand—expunging at least sixty pages. He added a short preface by David Hockney, an epilogue to contextualize the memoir, a chronology, a bibliography, and a roster of Kitaj’s friends, family members, and artistic and philosophical influences. This apparatus frames a text that remains rambling, disorganized, repetitive to the point of tedium, and marred by hyperbole. From this narration, the artist emerges as a grandiose, hotly opinionated, swaggering male of the Norman Mailer variety, seething with self-righteous indignation. His hostility extends even to the reader—for example when, placing himself in the company of such artistic and literary lights as William Blake, Whistler, Courbet, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Zola, he rages, “and if you despise me even more for my Jewish audacity, fuck you and damn you to hell where the bad guys go.” This makes for tough reading, occasionally rewarded by Kitaj’s wit or, in certain passages, his astonishingly poetic metaphors and flights of imaginative fancy. And the irreducible problems he grapples with and/or embodies in these pages continue to perplex and fascinate: what constitutes a Jewish art, how an artist copes with criticism, and whether one can ever separate an artist’s personality (in Kitaj’s case so off-putting) from the work.

He was born Ronald Brooks-Benway to Jewish parents in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and was quickly abandoned by a father who decamped for California. Jeanne Brooks remarried, she and her son taking the surname of her new husband, the Austrian Jewish refugee Walter Kitaj. The artist says little about his childhood in his memoir, but late in the book he suggests the compensatory role that art assumed for him. “In the deep, dark Depression of the 1930s,” he recalls, “I came alive, after my father fled to L.A. in my infancy, in the great Cleveland Museum, in its children’s art classes, losing myself among its oil paintings, and into the very pictures, like Alice. . . . That museum, Rodin’s Thinker at its helm, was my Combray, my Liffey, my Vitebsk.” He decided to become a painter, later fulfilling his dream after a stint in the merchant marine by means of an enviable art education: first at Cooper Union in New York, which was tuition-free; then, supported by his grandmother Kitaj, at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna; followed by the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford on the GI Bill—he had enjoyed a comfortable army posting as an illustrator in Paris and Fontainebleau in 1956 and 1957—and finally at the Royal College of Art in London. Kitaj maximized all these advantages, achieving notoriety in the milieu of distinguished fellow figure painters he called the School of London, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Hockney, among others [see Books this issue].

Signing with Marlborough Gallery in the early 1960s, Kitaj remained in London, seat of his international success, for forty years. Though he enjoyed guest teaching stints at Berkeley (1967–68) and UCLA (1970–71), he returned each time to his adopted British home, because, he admits, “the Bitch Goddess had me by the balls.” Subscribing to the New Yorker was one way he could maintain some connection to his native culture; thus it was in 1963 that he happened upon Hannah Arendt’s reports on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Deeply disturbed, Kitaj entered what he calls his “Morbid Period,” reading and brooding about the Holocaust, thinking about his own previously neglected Jewish identity. He had grown up an atheist, believing, he writes, “that I could be a Jew only if I wanted to be a religious one; if not, not.”4 Realizing that Jews in the Holocaust had been murdered irrespective of their religiosity, Kitaj embraced his Jewish heritage and began to ponder the question of a Jewish art.

What might that be? Kitaj eschewed “dancing Hasids and Menorahs and flying cows and all that schmaltz”; he wanted instead to be modern. We learn in his memoir how diligently he set about his project to be reborn as a Jew and to integrate his ethnicity into his art. Already a voracious reader and bibliophile, Kitaj immersed himself in the study of Torah and its exegetes, discovered the philosopher Gershom Scholem and through him Walter Benjamin, and drew up a list of his “top ten” modern Jewish painters. One of them, Pissarro, appears in a deftly painted homage (2007) included in the Oregon Jewish Museum’s exhibition, along with other images of venerable Jews in Kitaj’s pantheon: Proust, Soutine, and, by proxy, Kafka, personified by his tragic protagonist in a painting titled, like the story, The Hunter Gracchus (2007). Pissarro in Kitaj’s powerful conception of him is a hoary sage whose head and impressive brushstroke-beard overflow the composition; observed from a low vantage point, he seems possessed of all the magisterial authority of a biblical prophet.

In another portrait, Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (2007), Kitaj draws with his paintbrush the world-weary philosopher’s head, one side of her sagging face pressed up against a green strip of wall—as if she were eavesdropping on the darkness beyond. Listening is a significant theme for Kitaj. His bold charcoal-and-pastel self-portrait in profile (1997–2001), which shows him casting a suspicious sidelong glance at the viewer, features a red hearing aid planted firmly in his ear. Kitaj did wear such a device, but it was also symbolic for him; it appeared earlier in his painting of the emblematic post-Holocaust wanderer, The Jew, Etc. (1976–79, one of two similarly titled works in the show), which depicts a shadowy fedora-hatted man on a train. The hearing aid implies the figure’s vulnerability, isolation, and, perhaps also a displaced Jew’s necessary wariness and attentiveness. British scholar Anthony Rudolf has related Kitaj’s hearing-aid motif intriguingly to the exhortation to Jews in the Hebrew prayer Shema Israel—“Hear,  O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”5 And Kitaj, invoking voices emerging from his subconscious to haunt his canvases, instructs his viewers, “Listen to them. They will tell you what a Diasporist has on his mind.”6


THE CROWNING if unresolved achievement in his struggle to define a Jewish art must be his eloquent First Diasporist Manifesto, published in German in 1988 and in English the following year. Kitaj invents the term “diasporist art” both to characterize his own work and, I suspect, to seal his identification with his displaced forebears, despite, as Gillen notes in his epilogue to Confessions, the unbridgeable difference between the historical forced expulsion of the Jews and the artist’s own self-chosen, privileged, American expatriate life in Oxford, London, Catalonia, or Paris.7 In his manifesto, moreover, Kitaj acknowledges that dislocation is hardly unique to the Jews, citing other groups including Armenians, Black Africans, and “Palestinians prominent and suffering among them.” His argument grows even more diffuse as he includes as refugees those alienated others of “the self-estranged sexual Diaspora.”8 Straddling two cultures, American and British, Kitaj sees diasporist art as paradoxically both internationalist and particularist, while he retroactively recruits uprooted artists he admires—Beckmann, Cézanne (who left Paris for Provence), Mondrian, Picasso, Bauhaus artists and Surrealists—as diasporists or honorary Jewish kin.

As a kind of visual counterpart to the manifesto, Kitaj painted himself as his bespectacled diasporist hero Benjamin in Unpacking My Library (1990–91), titled after the writer’s well-known essay from 1931. The large canvas, which presents a summa of the artist’s intellectual passions, served as the centerpiece of “A Jew, Etc., Etc.” It depicts Kitaj in a cluttered interior amid boxes and books, his second wife, Sandra Fisher, in the background, like the queen’s chamberlain standing in the doorway in Las Meninas. Small pictures by Kitaj pals Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, and Hockney hang on the rear wall;9 shelves leaning in a corner have yet to be put in place. The whole scene spills toward the viewer through a giant blue porthole, recalling Kitaj’s experience as a seaman, in transit here on the clichéd ship of life. His curious contorted posture—that of Rodin’s seated Thinker, running—aptly conveys his at once contemplative and peripatetic existence.

Another major painting in the exhibition, Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte, Yellow, and Red), 1992, captures a different aspect of Kitaj’s persona, the pugilistic firebrand always aching for a fight. The composition riffs on one of George Bellows’s famous boxing pictures, Dempsey and Firpo (1924), casting Whistler and his critical nemesis as naked contestants in the ring. Kitaj aligns himself in this project with Bellows—born, like him, in Ohio—as well as with the red-haired referee in the picture and with the figure of Whistler, who has just knocked his hapless opponent tumbling backward and headlong over the ropes. The painting allegorizes the ascendancy of artist over critic, invoking the famous libel suit Whistler brought against Ruskin in 1877–78 for defaming his pictures. Whistler won, though hardly in the spectacular fashion portrayed by Kitaj. Proud of his own “American pugnacity,” Kitaj asserts in his autobiography that he was destined to become “Whistler’s successor-trouble maker in London.” Again and again he boasts of his role as “the most controversial painter alive.” This attitude prepares us for his ferocious indignation over negative reviews of his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery and his outrageous framing of this minor episode in an otherwise meteoric artistic career as the “Tate War.” The military metaphor serves as the title of a chapter in his memoir that Kitaj devotes to the retrospective’s reception, in which he calls his critics fuckers, brands them as a conspiratorial lynch mob, and compares them to Hitler.

So unhinged must Kitaj’s vituperations have been in the original manuscript for Confessions that Gillen intervened, swapping out offensive passages for an apparently more temperate diatribe, which Kitaj had called “J’accuse” after Zola’s historic open letter in 1898 attacking Alfred Dreyfus’s anti-Semitic oppressors. In this chapter, Kitaj ascribes the negative Tate reviews to British critics’ anti-modernism and anti-intellectualism, as well as their envy of his own writerly gifts, large house, and beautiful wife. Less absurdly, he objects to their insistence on the visual autonomy of the work of art—they spurned his inclusion of lengthy commentary on or alongside his pictures—and to their bias against him as a Jew. That bias was real, albeit not universal, exacerbated by the artist’s brash impudence in making an issue of his heritage rather than quietly assimilating into mainstream British culture. Stoked in his righteous rage by his friend and one-time neighbor in London, Philip Roth, Kitaj overreacted. For the rest of his life, he waged a hateful campaign against his critics, maniacally comparing his personal art battles to geopolitical conflicts in Northern Ireland and Palestine.

The tragic coincidence of his mother’s demise in the US at the time that the hurtful reviews of his retrospective were still fresh, and of his wife’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm shortly thereafter, traumatized him irreparably. Fisher was only forty-seven years old. Fifteen years Kitaj’s junior, she had assisted him with his career, helped rear his two children from an earlier marriage, run his household, and given him a son, his “only Jewish child.” Insanely, he blamed her death on his critics. We learn nothing from his autobiography of Fisher’s own struggles as an artist, though he briefly approves of her efforts and assigns her influences ranging from Manet to the Ashcan School. In fact, she was the daughter and pupil of American realist painter Ethel Fisher and enjoyed commissions in London and artistic collaborations of her own. Her sister, in a communication to Gillen noted in his epilogue, provides a corrective to the legend Kitaj perpetuated about the cause of his wife’s death: “Sandra’s life and concerns,” Margaret Fisher remembers, “were at the time stressed to the maximum by a unique career opportunity related to the New Globe Theatre, an opportunity that collided head on with responsibilities concerning [her son’s] school, our father, Kitaj’s mother and some family conflicts in addition to the stress of the retrospective.”10 This account poignantly testifies to the disproportionate familial burdens and other obstacles to success that women artists so often face relative to their male counterparts.


KITAJ HAD LOST his first wife, Elsi Roessler, to suicide in 1969. In Confessions, he treats this episode, in less than a paragraph, as a complete enigma. He does not ponder how his behavior—his chronic philandering and frequent extended absences from the family—might have contributed to her despair. For pages and pages throughout the memoir, he celebrates his sexual escapades, orgies, group sex with his Berkeley students, adulteries (about which he feels guilty), and above all his whoring, which he distinguishes from adultery and pursues with enthusiasm wherever he goes. “Puritans please ignore sex scenes,” he instructs, casting readers who do not share his particular brand of pleasure as prudes, while saluting his presumed sympathizers, i.e., men with erotic tastes like his. Just as he always sought to insert himself within a great lineage of artistic forebears, Kitaj places himself in a distinguished (to his mind) tradition of johns: prowling the Ramblas in Barcelona or the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, he imagines himself in the steps of Baudelaire, Cézanne, Degas, Flaubert, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Kafka, Manet, Picasso, Proust, Toulouse-Lautrec, and all “the millions of men who followed their pricks there.”

It is not Kitaj’s sexuality but his sexual prerogative, its blithe taken-for-grantedness, that gets on one’s nerves. He sees the world in Alexander Portnoy terms, surrounded during an artist residency at Dartmouth by “plenty of pretty WASP girls, but they wouldn’t put out,” and sharing his crudest fantasies, as when, while kneeling before Princess Anne to receive an honorary doctorate, he thinks about “fucking Karine [his favorite French prostitute] . . . , her long legs flailing in the sweaty air.” With such “blasphemies,” as he terms them, Kitaj aimed to “drive London hacks out of their fucking small skulls.”

Readers won’t fail to notice how the artist’s construction of his masculinity depends on this insistent kind of heterosexual braggadocio, so frequently demeaning to women. It may be, at least in part, a hyper-reaction against the feminization of the Jewish male in Western discourse—the studious, passive, and gentle rabbinical type set against the assertively virile gentile model. Feminist critics have pointed to similar misogynist tendencies in Roth and Saul Bellow and wondered whether those writers’ virulent affirmation of Jewish masculinity depends inevitably on the denigration of women. Thus in the case of Kitaj, Janet Wolff asks, “can the male ‘Diasporist’ artist in the late twentieth century confront and resolve his own gender anxieties and produce work which is not also a record of this particular struggle?”11 Her conclusion is yes, sometimes. Kitaj himself professed to be a feminist,12 a dubious claim given all the evidence to the contrary he provides in Confessions. Late in life, he seems to have thought that by painting goddesses rather than prostitutes he was “mending [his] incorrect ways,” thus demonstrating his complete misunderstanding of feminist politics and goals.

Several of his goddess paintings were exhibited in “The Jew, Etc., Etc.” Kitaj created them in Los Angeles, where he relocated from London in 1997 to be near his grown children and their families. There he became somewhat reclusive, immersing himself in mysticism and art. He studied the Kabbalah and imagined that Fisher was in communication with him from beyond the grave, as a Shekhina, or feminine manifestation of God. The paintings are fantasy double portraits of himself and his Shekhina-muse. In one, Los Angeles No. 26 (nose kiss), 2003, the angelic Fisher, with multicolored wings and clad in an open green robe, embraces the artist, kissing him gently as he fondles her breast. Los Angeles No. 8 (2002) shows him with a long white beard and three arms, holding a hat, a staff, and a paintbrush, the artist as Wandering Jew, pausing before his large canvas, dabbing his painted muse’s wing. The spookiest picture in the exhibition was surely the premonitory Studio Where I Died (2005), depicting a red interior with Kitaj’s big disembodied head, only half visible, staring out from behind a black door shrouded in shadow. In the foreground we see a bed, from which a naked woman departs, a chair, papers, a palette, and a variant of the small sculpture familiar from Cézanne’s Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1894), collapsing love and art in the same image. Here the statue is pierced with arrows. “Later, when we are dead,” Kitaj wrote eerily in his First Diasporist Manifesto, “the art is (life-less?) alone in the room.”13 Roessler, his first wife, and Benjamin, his hero, had shown him the way. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Kitaj committed suicide in 2007 in his studio.

“Can anyone doubt that we are fatally rooted in the first part of our life?” he asked rhetorically in the manifesto.14 Kitaj’s psychobiography has yet to be written. Whoever undertakes it will need to consider his position in an Oedipal quadrangle—mother and son and two fathers, one of whom the child never knew. Extrapolating from the existence of a few disdainful British newspaper critics, the artist speaks in Confessions of and to “my host of enemies,” an army of unknown, imagined nay-sayers and rivals, like the absent father to whom he must prove his superior worth again and again. Estranged from his biological patrilineage, he finds an artistic one, seeking substitute fathers in authorities of the past, Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, striving to join their ranks and even to surpass them in skill and renown. Almost too obvious is Kitaj’s repeated enactment in his art and life of a dual attitude toward his mother—in compulsive whoring and debasement of women with multiple sex partners, on the one hand, and in exaltation of the angel/madonna who was his wife and Shekhina, on the other. Of interest might also be the artist’s projective identification with his “killer-critics,” expelling his murderous rage onto them and then accusing them of wanting to assassinate him. A psychobiography might explore the vengeful fantasies memorialized in sketches and paintings that Kitaj devoted to the “killer-press,” which are among the many works reproduced in Confessions. These visual and textual artifacts constitute the evidence upon which a future penetrating study of an irascible, troubled, and trouble-making Jewish artist might be constructed.