I love happening upon something or someone in the world of art that I have never encountered before.
Living in London facilitates such creative discoveries…
Such was my experience today, when I visited The Jewish Museum, which I have visited on a number of occasions. This time, I set out specifically to explore the life and art of RB Kitaj.

The current exhibition, ‘The Art of Identity’, runs in parallel with ‘Analyst for Our Time’ at Pallant House Chichester, both together constituting the ‘R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions’ retrospective.

Kitaj’s work was last seen in London in 1994, when the Tate Gallery held a large retrospective of the artist’s work. The event was one that the artist believed would be the pinnacle of his career, his crowning glory, but instead, art critics almost universally slammed it, apparently with much vitriol at the time.

Kitaj was deeply hurt and incensed by the reaction the exhibition generated, but matters only got worse when his beloved wife Sandra Fisher died from a brain aneurysm two weeks after the Tate exhibition ended. The artist blamed the critics and the press for her death: ‘They were aiming for me, but they got her instead.’

As a result, Kitaj abandoned his adopted England in 1997, and settled in Los Angeles.

He never recovered from Fisher’s death. A photograph in the foyer of the exhibition area of Kitaj and Fisher is palpably tender and moving. Kitaj’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with two children. With Fisher, he had a third child, Max, who was 10 when his mother died.

In LA, Kitaj surrounded himself with his sons and later grandsons, but otherwise became increasingly reclusive as he aged.

With age too, he became preoccupied by his deteriorating health. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. and his frailty and consequent difficulty painting affected him profoundly. He was found dead in 2007, with suicide the presumed cause of death.

The current exhibition at The Jewish Museum looks at Kitaj’s obsession with his Jewish identity. He grew up in a left-wing intellectual home, with his mother Jeanne Brooks and stepfather Walter Kitaj. Neither practiced Judaism. Kitaj’s interest in his Jewish identity began in the 1970s, when he had read Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial.

Included in the current exhibition is Desk Murder (1970-1984), which appears to have been influenced by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, where the author coined the term ‘desk murderer’ for the SS officer Walther Rauff who was responsible for the development of mobile gas vans. In Kitaj’s painting, the outline takes the shape of a van, and features a tap with a cloud of gas streaming from it.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote his First Diasporist Manifesto, in which he laid out his theory of a Diasporic existence, ‘bound by neither national not religious constraints’ (from the accompanying exhibition notes). Also included in the exhibition is a quote from the manifesto:

‘After almost a

lifetime as a painter,

my painting thoughts

begin to dwell

on whether or not

the Jews are a nation,

or a state of mind.’

The Second Diasporist Manifesto was published a week after Kitaj’s death in 2007:

‘The Jewish Quest is my

limit-experience,

my romance, my neurosis,

my war, my pleasure-principle,

my death drive.’

The exhibition is small and contained, yet there is much to consider here, from The Listener, which metaphorically depicts the Diasporist Jew, to The Wedding, reminiscent of his marriage to Fisher in a Sephardic Synagogue. I particularly liked some of the portraits of the artist’s friends, for example A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), a charcoal drawing of Kitaj’s writer friend, and Isaiah Berlin.

I am not sure I understand much more about Kitaj and his work following my visit, but perhaps the point is not to explain, but to experience what is presented before one’s eyes, and to let the art speak for itself.

CQ

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