Painter R.B. Kitaj Letting Loose at 72, But Far From London

The career of R.B. Kitaj, whose work is the subject of a very large exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, is like no other in the annals of American art. For one thing, no other American artist in recent memory has accorded to literary and historical subjects so large a role in shaping his pictorial ideas. For another, none has devoted so much attention-and so much writing-to serving as a mythographer of his own life and work. Then, too, there’s Mr. Kitaj’s “obsession” (his word) with the “Jewish Question,” which he insistently identifies as the principal focus of his work.

It’s important to understand that Mr. Kitaj’s interest in Jewishness has everything to do with history and almost nothing to do with religion. Neither prayer nor piety-never mind religious orthodoxy-come to mind in studying his work and his many commentaries on it, but rather a kind of intellectual combat addressed to enemies real and imagined. He is the most autobiographical of living artists (hence the title of the show at Marlborough: R.B. Kitaj: How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art), and the most unforgiving in responding to the adverse judgments of his critics.

Owing to his appetite for polemic and public controversy, moreover, Mr. Kitaj has often cast himself as a kind of art-world adversary or outlaw. And yet his career has been a resounding success since he first caused a stir as a student at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 1960’s. The very scale of the show at Marlborough-54 paintings and 34 works on paper, plus a selection of prints and a large-format catalog running to nearly 90 pages-is further testimony to that success.

This is not to say that Mr. Kitaj has been spared harsh attacks on his work. Far from it: No sooner had he been elevated to stardom by the London critics-who compared him with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound-than those same critics turned against him when his subsequent work failed to meet their extravagant expectations. Never one to settle for half measures, Mr. Kitaj responded to this censure by denouncing the London art scene-in terms guaranteed to offend-and promptly left town. He now makes his home in Los Angeles.

In his fury at the London critics, Mr. Kitaj has been guilty of some remarkably intemperate outbursts: Not only did he accuse them of anti-Semitism, but he also suggested that their negative response to his work in London had somehow been the principal cause of his wife’s unexpected demise. Grief over the untimely death of a spouse is certainly understandable, but an unfounded charge of murder is nonetheless an outrage-and only one example of Mr. Kitaj’s many rhetorical excesses.

Given all this uproar-so much of it provoked by the artist himself-it’s a mercy that Mr. Kitaj draws as well as he does, for a highly accomplished draftsmanship remains the fulcrum of his art. Indeed, one sometimes has the impression that for him-especially in dealing with literary subjects (Kafka is a special favorite)-drawing is a form of writing by other means, a medium in which the literary and the graphic are in perfect accord.

At the risk of inspiring yet another wave of invective from Mr. Kitaj’s pen, I am obliged to observe that in many of the paintings in the current exhibition, I do not find a comparable accord. Drawing remains the strongest component in his paintings, but it’s unmatched by any comparable command of chromatic invention. More often than not, Mr. Kitaj’s draftsmanship tends to be coarsened by its intercourse with color; and color in his work, where it’s not simply illustrational, has the character of something added to the armature of the artist’s draftsmanship. Though Mr. Kitaj’s palette can be said in some respects to be Matissean, its application remains devoid of Matissean subtlety and control. Here color is at once hectic, nervy, breathless and undisciplined, often suggesting that it’s struggling to keep ahead of a draftsmanship that has already outpaced it.

R.B. Kitaj: How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art remains on view at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, through April 2. The press release reminds us that Mr. Kitaj’s work is “in the permanent collections of 55 museums throughout the world”-not bad for an artist who continues to regard himself as a rebel and an underdog.