Do-It-Yourself Mythmaking
R.B. Kitaj’s Painting at Marlborough Gallery and a Manifesto, Too.

LONGTIME ADMIRERS OF KITAJ’S PAINTING will come away from this show disheartened, even embarrassed. Over the years, he has created captivating images: dreamlike compositions, haunting and hallucinatory, weighted with allegory. Most exhilarating was his ability to manipulate finely drawn passages in collage-like arrangements, freeing realistic detail from the constraints of depiction or linear narration. Frequently transporting, he has been a cultivated draftsman and pastelist who approached the tasks of painting with great sobriety. I know by heart the paintings I love best, all from the 1970s: the double portrait “From London”; “Moresque”; “The Man of the Woods and the Cat of the Mountains”; the phantasmagorical landscape “If Not, Not.”

Los Angeles No. 12 (Tongue), 2002-2003

But his gifts are in retreat in this show. Crudity of conception and realization is disguised by grandiose name-dropping and a catalog essay that glosses the diminishment (“a new recklessness in the formal mastery”). What formal approaches or crucial characteristics make art intrinsicially Jewish? “My art is Jewish if I say it is.” Saying makes it so; this is art created for exegesis by the artist himself.

R.B. Kitaj was born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. He was nine years old when his mother married her second husband, Walter Kitaj, a Viennese Jew. A Jewish boy in Cleveland is just another kid in fly-over country; but one with a Viennese connection holds the stuff of myth, a prime ingredient for constructing a useable past.

Exploiting the false notion of the artist-as-outsider, Mr. Kitaj presents himself—as do typical contenders in the ethnicity/gender identity stakes—beyond the mainstream and exempt from judgment by it. Kitaj announces “a new religion” and “a new kind of Jewish Art” within the gentile “HOST KULCHUR.” Paintings illustrate his “Second Diaspora Manifesto,” a declaration anointing himself a “badass Diasporist” and “the most controversial easel painter alive.” Sounding much like Muhammed I-am-the-Greatest Ali, he announces “ I am Jewish Art” and celebrates himself as a Radical Jew painting TABOO ART,” “JEWISH SURVIVAL ART,” or “THE OPPOSITE OF ANTI-SEMITISM.”

His painting is not taboo but criticism of it certainly is. He asserts identity ahead of the work, removing it from judgment except at great peril to the critic. Claiming Jewishness as the determinant of his painting, Kitaj silences misgivings about the work. He extorts assent by dividing audiences between “the daring people who like my pictures” and his “enemies,” those who”loathe ‘Jewish intellectualism’ as Dr. Goebbels called it.” What choice does a viewer have? Like all statements of identity politics, his manifesto insinuates intimidation into matters of aesthetic discrimination.

Pried from their derivations, the paintings offer little in pictorial terms. “Los Angeles No. 11 (Bathtub)” 2002-04, is a graceless mimicry of Bonnard, with Kitaj in the tub nibbling his wife’s breast. “School of London Diasporists,” 1988-2004, ( “a very Jewish picture”) presents five indistinct figures on a blue ground, borrowing clumsily from Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle” and the Hermitage version of “The Dance.” The raw stylization of “Los Angeles No. 24 (Nose to Nose)” is painful, a reminder-by-contrast of the majestic frontal nude that concludes Matisse’s “Bathers by a Stream.”

Memorializing his dead wife as a box lunch, “Los Angeles No. 27 (Go Down)”, 2003, suggests senility; every inert citation of Matisse or Cezanne accentuates the sense of decline. Kitaj vows to “do for Jews what Morandi did for jars” and to “draw as well as any Jew ever did or better,” but imagery is a blur of lumpish disorder. Borrowings are manic; paint handling uncharacteristically flat. On exhibit is the spectacle of a large talent collapsing into hubris; it is not a welcome sight.

Kitaj’s symbiosis of text and paintings is less an affirmation of Jewish realities than conspicuous compensation for distance from the culture he lays claim to. His credendum is secular ethnocentricism synthesized around a constellation of “Jewish Modernist Prophets” (Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Wittgenstein, et alia) in whose company Kitaj situates himself, a daring rebel. It is a triumph of pose over substance: the arts are haven to risk-free radicalisms, flaunted identities chief among them. Joseph Epstein observed in Commentary a decade ago: “The farther ‘outside’ one represents himself as being, and the more victimized, the greater one’s standing as an artist.”

Commentary indulges in cultural one-upmanship (On the New York School: “Half the best painters were Jews; the other half were married to Jews.”) and buzz words. His “one of a kind Reform” is severed from Sinai, shorn of prayer, mitzvot, eschatological yearning, covenental faith and reticence before the sacred. It is severed, too, from Israel. References to The Jewish Question, detached from the significance and suffering of Israel, become a hook for hanging assertions on.

Jewish sovereignty over Israel was re-established in 1948; consequently, his “Diasporism” — unlike that of the Jewish intellectual giants he idolizes—is voluntary. He expatriated to London in 1961, resettling to Los Angeles in 1996; exile on the Thames or at UCLA was self-chosen. Yet Kitaj crowns himself a “Degenerate Artist,” an unearned appropriation that is as loaded as it is ahistorical.

The posture is quintessential L.A., world stage for what Will Herberg termed “the most monstrous illusion of them all—man’s deification of himself.” Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig are referenced but without evident insight into their significance. I-and-Thou dissolves into Me(Us)-and-Them. Even Kitaj’s wife (“God, for me, is Sandra.”) serves as just another female to be boffed.

Grandstanding identity is toxic. It contravenes the power of art to communicate across ethnic and cultural lines and ignores the reciprocity of cultures beneath the surface of events. Kitaj deserves to be remembered for more distinguished work than the sad husks exhibited here.


“R.B. Kitaj: How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art” at Marlborough Gallery (40 West 57th Street, (212.541.4900).

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun, March 17, 2005.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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