Kitaj worked a miracle: he made culture into art. Usually the metamorphosis moves the other way, as art is demoted into culture, so as to annul its explosive energies and prepare it for the perdition of the market. Kitaj pressed the dialectic of art and culture all the way to its conclusion: he extracted art that was imprisoned within culture, liberated it, refreshed its force, returned it to use. He was a modernist who never felt the burden of the past. The past made Kitaj free, even wild. He loved the chain, and wanted only his own place within it. He was stimulated by traditions the way other painters were stimulated by mountains and by seas, with the same enlivening sensation of immensity. The ferocity of his observation of paintings--in his hot yellow studio by the pool you felt as if you were housed in a colossal art book--used to remind me of the stories of his beloved Cezanne sitting before his easel for hours in the sun and looking. As for books, they were for Kitaj what cherries were for Chardin and bottles were for Morandi: the most elementary inspirations for perception and figuration. He depicted writers and scholars as brazenly as Goya depicted women. (A friend of this magazine, he published some of these portraits in our pages.) I once heard him remark that he hated flowers, unaware that he was echoing an ancient rabbinical warning against being seduced away from study by an impression of nature, but the quotations in his pictures quiver gorgeously like Redon's petals, the testimonies of a profound arousal.
References, references, references: they are the terms of Kitaj's originality. They lead to the essence, not away from it. "Jews may write into their pictures as well," he proclaimed in his last book, "like a Talmud page." Kitaj wrote paintings; or better, he drew his Talmud page--the Piazzetta of the Jews!--and painted it, too. The "literariness" that some people deplored in his pictures--it is so outrageous, now, to have intellectual expectations of art--never constrained or distracted his astounding hand. Kitaj's mastery always exceeded his eccentricity. And his eccentricity was owed chiefly to his purity. (There are such things.) He was defiantly, almost pornographically unironic, and completely unrelenting about the seriousness of his intentions. In his later years this sometimes made him seem childlike, or monkish--as if he had come out the other side of civilization, where he could enjoy his flamboyant visions without any peril of primitivism. "Depart this world still studying, mainly Art and Jews." At this he succeeded. "Depart this world with few traces. " At this he failed. He could not delete the plenitude of his traces, or control the fate of what he made; and there were more meanings and pleasures in his bounty than he knew. That is how all true artists fail--they stop being what they are and become what we need them to be; and that is how they bequeath to us some of the conditions of our spiritual success.
By Leon Wieseltier