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Artist interview

A day in the life of R.B.Kitaj

An interview with the American artist who has made his home in Britain for the last thirty-five years, and is being celebrated this month with a large exhibition at the Tate

The Tate continues its policy of examining the careers of the leading contemporary, British, figurative painters. After recent surveys of Francis Bacon, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney, a large retrospective exhibition of the work of R.B. Kitaj opens on16 June (until 4 September). The curator is Richard Morphet, Keeper of the Modern Collection.

This is Kitaj’s first museum exhibition since a survey was mounted by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, and the Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, in 1981. Astonishingly, it is the first major museum exhibition of his work to take place in his country of adoption. Although Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932, and continues to regard himself as an American rather than a British artist, he has only occasionally lived in the United States during the last forty years, travelling to Vienna in 1951. He arrived in Britain to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, and in 1958 moved to London the following year and enrolled in a post-graduate course at the Royal College of Art. He has held a visiting professorship at Berkeley, California, in 1967 and lived in Los Angeles until 1971.

The exhibition contains seventy-three oil paintings and forty-one pastels and drawings from every period of the artist’s career. They include “Erasmus Variations” (1958) and “Tarot Variations” (1958), the earliest works in the survey. “The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg” (1960, Tate Gallery) was the artist’s first consideration of a Jewish subject. “The Ohio Gang” (1964) was purchased by Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from the artist’s second one-man exhibition. “If Not, Not” (1975-76, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) was his response to T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land reinforced by the theme of the Holocaust, which also informs such masterpieces as “Rock Garden” (1981) and “The Jewish Rider” (1984-85), one of the paintings loaned by the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, which owns the most important collection of the artist’s work.

Nearly thirty paintings have been completed during the last three years. “The Wedding” (1989-93, Tate Gallery) is an historical record of his marriage to the painter Sandra Fisher and contains portraits of his witnesses, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Hockney. A series of eight “Bad” canvases (1990-93) documents the artist’s declining health and morale, but also demonstrates the burst of energy released by the prospect of this exhibition, which moves on to the Los Angeles County Museum (23 October-8 January 1995) and the Metropolitan Museum, New York (15 February-14 May 1995).

The catalogue contains essays by Mr Morphet and Richard Wollheim, and Kitaj, the finest commentator on the subject of his own art, has written the individual entries. A related survey of the artist’s graphic work, comprising sixty screenprints, lithographs and etchings, and curated by Rosemary Miles of the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Paintings, is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum (8 June-9 October). In July Scolar press is publishing Jane Kinsman The Prints of R.B. Kitaj 192pp, 57 b/w, 23 colour, £60.

Mr Kitaj, do you regard yourself as a British or American artist?

I feel very American. I don’t feel British but I’m very much a Londoner after thirty-five years. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner (as Bud Flanagan sang) that I love London so. You tell me what that makes me because I don’t know. I do know that in the great modernist schools of Paris, New York and London, half the artists were not born in those places. It’s quite remarkable that the final School of Paris dropped dead with the deaths of Brancusi, de Staël, Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti and the leavetaking of Balthus—all foreigners.

When did you become a Jewish artist?

After sixty years as a Jew, your question makes me burst out laughing, sitting here in the London Diasporist sunlight, because it’s funny to think that I became a Jewish artist. I suppose I did, but when is hard to say because one is such a mysterious creature of one’s past, going way back in both time and one’s unconscious. I now tend to believe that I became (and become) a Jewish artist whenever my attention as a painter falls upon Jewish predicaments, which are often personal and just as often familiar under the flag historically known as “The Jewish Question”. There’s no straight answer to your question because I seem to have been tempted by Jewish themes as early as the late Fifties and early Sixties with pictures “about” Warburg, Babel, Rosa Luxemburg and so on, years before this obsession took hold in part of my consciousness. In the absence of any discernible tradition of Jewish art, I had to invent one for myself.

Have you ever considered returning to the United States?

London became a habit and I’m largely a creature of my habits, I guess. For many years I looked for a house in different parts of America so I could divide my year between here and there. I always put in a low bid that was never accepted. A friend told me that’s a common psychological disorder called “Buyer’s Blues”. Now I’m an old man about to retire to my house in London where I shall remain homesick for what Somerset Maugham called “bluer skies than are generally seen over the Thames “.

How autobiographical is your art?

Very! In a way, everyone’s art is autobiographical but I know I suffer from this illness more than most painters. May I bring Van Gogh to my defence? He wrote: “What lives in art and is eternally living is first of all the painter and then the painting”.

Do you have a daily routine?

Yes, I get up at half-past five, ridden with foreboding. I’m out in the London street before six- o-clock on my fast two- to three- mile walk, feeling slightly more able to face my life. I buy The Times and the Herald Tribune at Gloucester Road and read them in the Burger King among the other derelicts. The first things I read are the baseball scores in the Herald Tribune and the obituaries in The Times to see who I know who may have dropped dead. Then I get home to breakfast with Sandra [whom he married in 1983] and Max [his son born in 1984] who is preparing for school. I say “il pleut” or “il fait froid” to Max so he knows what to wear. I begin my working day by falling asleep in front of my easel. For thirty-five years I have listened to the great music channel on the BBC while I’m supposed to be painting, so I get woken up by Percy Grainger or Schnittke or Bach and I know it’s time for lunch. I never have lunch at home so out I go again, to my corner diner. I’ve been eating on that spot for thirty-five years, since Royal College days when it was an Iraqi restaurant. Every day I have a tuna sandwich, listening to the Andrews sisters and all the songs I grew up with until I turn off my hearing aid and get down to some really serious writing, or else I read Time magazine or The New Republic or the New York Review of Books. I then go to the video shop to choose a movie to watch in the evening. If Sandra goes to the opera with friends, I prefer to stay at home to babysit, so I choose a movie with sex and violence, but most days I rent a movie like “Now Voyager” which we both like. At home, after lunch, I read until I fall asleep again. When I wake up, I eat an apple and I paint until tea-time when I go back to the diner. Supper with Sandra and Max, after which I take him to bed where he reads to me for a while. Downstairs we watch our movie and we’re in bed by ten- o-clock. Some other days I have adventures and get into trouble if I stray too far from the Fulham Road.

In “The Human Clay”, the exhibition which you curated for the Hayward Gallery in 1976, you identified a School of London which included Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, David Hockney and other artists. Is this designation still appropriate and where do you fit into it?

My very loose term School of London included not only the thirty-five artists in “The Human Clay”, such as the ones you mention, as well as Hodgkin, Blake, Hamilton, Andrews, McComb, Weight, Lessore, Caulfield, Caro and Paolozzi, but many painters I failed to include (out of ignorance). I used the term the way we use School of Paris or School of New York, to indicate a vital milieu regardless of different styles. I fit in because I’m here, in the way that foreigners like Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Guston were School of New York in its great cosmopolitan moment.

Why have you exhibited less regularly than your contemporaries?

I only seem to have a show about once each decade because I’m pretty slow and I’m not at all sure why we all have to show off our pictures anyway. It seems to be a remarkable vanity, flashing our paintings in public all the time like entertainers and expecting applause.

Are you optimistic about the state of the arts in Britain?

I think I am, because the Brits draw better than anyone now alive in the world, from Hockney to Auerbach (aside from a few other Europeans such as Arikha, Balthus, Lopez-Garcia), and some bright young painters just might take heart from that. Also, this island puts up a fair defence against the blitz of Pompier orthodoxy to which New York, Paris, and Germany seem more vulnerable. But what do I know? I hardly go anywhere anymore. The important thing for a young artist is to get an equation right between freedom to be oneself and the tradition of painting and drawing that began in the caves, rather than to sing last week’s stale tune.

Which authors have you been reading recently and does your current work reflect any of their ideas?

During these days, I’m reading Richard Kendall (on Degas), John Golding (Essays), Adin Steinsaltz, Red Smith, the Book of Job, Schopenhauer, Kenneth Clark (on Rembrandt), Adrian Stokes (on Michelangelo), Albert Einstein (non-scientific Essays), Buber’s letters, Psalms (always) and too many weekly and monthly journals. I tend to keep all these books going during the same months, like the way I keep quite a few paintings and drawings alive during long periods. And, yes, there’s always a great Silk Road leading from books to paintings and back again.

Is it too early to talk of a late style in your work?

No, it’s not too early because I’m getting old and I’m waiting for God to strike me with late style. Happily, I keep turning to a kind of drawing redemption. Sometimes I think that I can draw my way past the decline of old age, but maybe I’m kidding myself. I am very interested in an idea I call painting-drawing or drawing-painting, which I am trying to work out for myself: Degas, late, late Cézanne and Matisse are the precursors here, where the idea of drawing-painting subsumes the kingship of paint for paint’s sake.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The freedom to be oneself and yet be in the tradition of painting and drawing that began in the caves'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 39 June 1994