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R.B. Kitaj, 1932-2007

There was never any difference between art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-everything-else’s-sake; at least there wasn’t so far as R. B. Kitaj was concerned. He was awestruck by the masterworks in the museums. He embraced the modern world as a spectacle that invited--indeed, demanded--understanding. And he was emboldened by the artisanal impulse, that primitive desire to see what a man can make with his own hands. Avidity was Kitaj’s essential, abiding subject. There were so many cities to explore, so many faces to draw, so many literary and philosophic ideas that he wanted to transform, through some peculiar alchemical process, into visual incidents and pictorial narratives. The cacophonous, collaged nature of quite a few of Kitaj’s finest canvases was not a compositional strategy but a natural inclination, an inevitability. He could not do without that wild, precipitous onslaught of imagery. No artist of our time has drawn men and women who feel more fiercely, erotically alive. And then, from time to time, he would paint stillness and emptiness, for Kitaj was a very complicated man, a man who refused to be defined by his own perfervidity.

When Kitaj died on Sunday, October 21, he was seventy-four years old, still very much the master of his creative powers. I had phoned him late in the summer, and he had spoken enthusiastically about a new quality in some recent smaller paintings. “I think you’re going to like them,” he had said, “I’ve been learning something from Giacometti.” Kitaj was always learning from something or somebody, always discovering a new way to handle the artist’s materials, always eager to talk about where his work was going--or to write about it in his cracklingly idiosyncratic prose. He was one of those rare painters who was also a wordsmith of consequence, as anybody can see by opening his new book, the Second Diasporist Manifesto , which he must have received from the publisher only weeks before his death. This journey through the artist’s imagination more than lives up to its charmingly bragging subtitle, A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses. For those who knew Kitaj or admired his work it is difficult to bear the thought that we have lost this voice, this mind, this imagination. His paintings, his drawings, his ideas, his strong advocacy of the work of some of his contemporaries were all part of what made these strange and difficult times a little easier to bear.

Kitaj was a connector, an engager, both in the complexity of the themes that he embraced in his painting and in the richness of the social world that he inhabited. He had the old-time bohemian feeling for the life of art as an adventure to be savored, to be approached with a certain deliberateness, and maybe even with a certain sense of ceremony. Whether you were going with him to an exhibition in London or, more recently, after he moved back to the United States, having a glass of juice with him at the little table in his kitchen in Los Angeles, there was a sense that something important might happen--that feelings and ideas were in the air. His houses were themselves works of art, especially the house in LA, where rare prints hung next to art postcards and newspaper clippings and there was one room devoted to the great Jewish writers and another dedicated to Cézanne, whose lithographs were among Kitaj’s treasured possessions. As he was talking he might rummage in a jam-packed bookcase and pull out some rare set of film magazines, bought years ago in London for a ridiculously small sum. He was a polymath, with a reverence for information and ideas that was all the more acute because he had learned so much of it on his own. He certainly brought the ardor of the audodidact-intellectual to his letter writing. The arrival of a postcard or a letter from Kitaj was an event, beginning with the quality of his penmanship, the words imprinted on the page so sharply and clearly that they almost appeared to have been engraved. Opening one of the air letters that he sent from London, you understood what it would have been like to live in the seventeenth century, when communication really counted.

Of course there was nobody who was more thoroughly of his own time than Kitaj. If he fought against the conventions of his day, against all the absurd talk of twentieth-century art as being about less being more, it was because he loved hyperbole, loved theatricality, and quite simply refused to believe that these were not among the essential characteristics of the art of his time, which indeed they are. For Kitaj, Cézanne and Matisse and even Mondrian were storytellers, fabulists. He saw in Cézanne’s bathers the progenitors of the Arabian Nights romanticism of some of his own later paintings, the light-filled, voluptuous Los Angeles paintings, so many of which were dedicated to his love for Sandra Fisher, his wife, who had died of a brain aneurysm when she was 47. As for Kitaj’s fascination with Judaism, this became more absorbing with each passing year. He saw Judaism as an aspect of modernity, and his Diasporist Manifestoes are at least in part metaphorical conceits, with the Jew representing the modern artist in all his glorious alienation. And yet Kitaj himself was not exactly an alienated man. He exhibited in most of the museums where a contemporary artist might dream of seeing his work. And he never allowed the cushioned existence that was made possible by his fame to alienate him from the world of working artists and writers. To the end he was interested in the kind of people who had always interested him, in the true practitioners.

In the days since his death I have found myself thinking of one painting in particular, the enthralling Cecil Court, London W.C.2 (The Refugees). The subject is the little street off Charing Cross Road where old books have been sold for generations, and Kitaj has gathered together a Dickensian cross section of the denizens of the modern city, who rush here and there while Kitaj himself, the dreamer at the center of the dream, reclines on a modernist chaise, reading a book, thinking his thoughts. In Cecil Court, which was painted in the 1980s, Kitaj is middle-aged, a figure at once vigorous and aloof. Of course there are many other impressions of Kitaj that have come to mind in the days since his death. I have looked again at photographs from his early years in Europe, when he was a swaggeringly handsome figure, the invincible young American. And in some recent self-portraits, Kitaj is an unabashedly comic presence, an absurdly aging marionette. But it is the Kitaj of Cecil Court that I keep coming back to, because suddenly, with the news of his death, that reclining portrait of the artist as a middle aged man suggests not relaxation or contemplation but rather the recumbent figures carved on medieval tombs. How strange it is to realize that Kitaj is no longer with us in the midst of the maelstrom, thinking his inimitable thoughts and painting his gloriously crazy paintings.

JED PERL is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl