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“Paint it Jewish!”

What does “Diasporist” art look like? R.B. Kitaj tried to show us.

Jude Stewart
February 07, 2008

Last fall, a friend handed me a slim, tan volume, the Second Diasporist Manifesto, by painter R.B. Kitaj, freshly published by Yale University Press. Closed, it lies quiet and light on the palm. Crack it open, though, and a slew of numbered propositions slither out: a shouting, delightful, often garbled jumble of quotations and ideas, studded with the names of Big Thinkers, illustrated with color-rich paintings and drawings, every page calling hoarsely, ecstatically, and elliptically for a new “Diasporist” art.

And then the pictures. It’s abundantly clear why the critic Robert Hughes once wrote that Kitaj “draws better than almost anyone else alive.” There’s the finely rendered portrait of Kitaj and his son Max, I and Thou (1990), titled in homage to philosopher Martin Buber. Or the hurried dynamism of Arabs and Jews (After Ensor) (2004), in which two burly men—neither labeled clearly as Jew or Arab—face off in anger somehow slowed down into ambiguity, where one man throttling the other’s neck also reads as bracing his shoulders to read the other’s face, and a flailing assailant’s hand also looks like a man scratching his own head quizzically. Or a 2004 charcoal portrait of Kakfa, with his shining, off-kilter eyes, or A Jew in Love (Philip Roth) (1988-1991), in which a racing welter of lines reveals a startlingly fine-grained intimacy, a man lost in warm thoughts. Or the pained simplicity of a half-moon-face in a 2005 charcoal, peeking out from the picture’s left edge. Kitaj’s round, childish lettering runs off to the right with the title: Why do You hide Your face?

Kitaj died last October at the age of seventy-four, so we can only wonder what he meant in advocating for “Diasporist” or “Jewish art” full-throatedly in this little book. And what to make of a painter who writes almost uncontrollably about his works? Questions like these drive two newly opened Kitaj exhibits, one of paintings and commentaries at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the other of archival papers at the Special Collections Department of UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library, cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. What does it mean to “paint the opposite of anti-Semitism,” as Kitaj often urged himself to do? That question presupposes an earlier and bigger one: What does it mean to be a Jew? The answer, of course, is cagey, highly idiosyncratic, and personal, a lifelong inquiry that Kitaj pursued openly and with relish.

Kitaj was born Ronald Brooks in 1932 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His father left the family early; the boy took the surname of his Viennese stepfather, Walter Kitaj. He was raised an atheist, but his stepgrandmother’s arrival in the United States from Europe after World War II got him thinking in his teens about his own Jewish identity. “I was always a little old kid mad about drawing,” Kitaj recalls in the introduction to Kitaj, a monograph by art critic and curator Marco Livingstone. After studying art at the Cooper Union in New York, he lit out for the open sea on a Norwegian steamer, married fellow American Elsi Roessler, and moved to France, where he served in the U.S. Army. He then studied art on the G.I. Bill, first at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, then at the Royal College of Art in London. Throughout, he consumed modernist literature by the truckload—early on Joyce and Hemingway, later he would turn to Pound, Eliot, and Kafka—along with Life magazine art reproductions, “tattered, treasured survivors pinned to my walls and stuffed into folders.”

As early as 1958, Kitaj immersed himself in André Breton’s 1924 “First Surrealist Manifesto,” especially the second definition of Surrealism as “the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected before, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Livingstone recalls that “Surrealism was more interesting to him as a philosophy than as an art movement, the bringing together of disparate ideas and images to create a dialogue that wasn’t obvious or logical.” Kitaj also admired the Dadaists, who, as Livingstone notes, “had no problem expressing themselves verbally.” And Kitaj was inflamed by art historian Aby Warburg’s journals on iconography, the study of coded meanings in pictures.

“Very few people operationalize their reading in the way Kitaj did,” says David Myers, a professor of history at UCLA and the director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, founder of the Kitaj archive, and curator of the library’s exhibition. “As one of the great autodidacts of recent Jewish history, Kitaj followed no curriculum, just his own obsessive, iconoclastic reading.” It’s this “interpretative impulse,” as Myers calls it, that Kitaj later recognized as a “decidedly Jewish act and a practice essential to his own artistic creativity.”

Piecing together disparate ideas led Kitaj naturally into Pop-style collage and found-art works, although he preferred slow-burn historical explorations over Pop’s breezy commercialism. For example, in response to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Kitaj produced In Our Time (1969), a series of screen-printed reproductions of fifty book covers culled from his own library, including The Jewish Question, a 1927 collection of anti-Semitic screeds from Henry Ford’s newspaper. From early on, Kitaj included written commentaries with his visual works, either as captions off to the side or as writing directly on the canvas. Words, oddly wordless juxtapositions, call-and-response between Kitaj and his favorite artists and writers, and a preoccupation with Jewishness—all were richly evident.

Kitaj found success quickly. His first solo exhibition, at London’s Marlborough Gallery in 1963, when he was thirty, opened the floodgates of invitations and expectations. When his wife died in 1969, Kitaj took refuge for a time in Los Angeles. Dissatisfied with late Modernism, he threw himself into paintings rooted in life but elliptical in meaning, thick with references to Old Masters and Post-Impressionists; his friend David Hockney and his future wife Sandra Fisher were also working from life. In 1976 Kitaj organized the exhibit “The Human Clay” at London’s Hayward Gallery and coined the phrase “School of London” for himself and fellow figurative painters including Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff, and Lucien Freud. In the late 1970s Kitaj and Hockney made a heated public defense of nineteenth-century art and the importance of drawing the human figure—inviting a degree of media exposure, according to Livingstone, that drew Kitaj into polemical arguments with others in the art world.

Steadily Kitaj’s two passions—painting the human figure and the Jewish Question—began to converge. In 1983 Kitaj told an Oxford congregation, “Jews and what happens to them fascinate me more than Judaism does; we, more than the God of the Jews; the phenomenal history of anti-Semitism tantalizes me far more than a faith I never knew.” One can home in on Kitaj’s idea of “Jewish art” by ticking off all the things it’s not: not Zionist nationalist art, not ceremonial art full of clearly Jewish symbols, not strictly a Holocaust meditation. But then, what was it?

“A Diasporist painting,” Kitaj wrote in his First Diasporist Manifesto, published in 1989, “is one in which a pariah people, an unpopular, stigmatized people, is taken up, pondered in their dilemmas, as unsurely as Impressionists pondered the dilemmas of light or as Cubists take up perspectival and planar dilemmas.” The book was predicated on his mystical belief that the energy and shared history of the original Diaspora still binds living and deceased Jews together, like a tracery of hidden veins. As a painter and “tribal remembrancer” he dedicated himself to a sort of Platonic anamnesis, the recovery of the Jews’ lost memories and buried knowledge. He planned to dig up this knowledge in age-old, exegetical Jewish style: by plumbing texts and painting by Jews, and painting new pictures from those old ideas.

Kitaj’s “Jewish art” isn’t defined by a difference in style so much as by a larger creative approach. As Myers puts it, “Kitaj identified Jewish art less with a political or religious agenda and more with the idea that there was no territorial fixity for the great Jewish cultural creators. Homelessness was a permanent condition but also a precondition to creativity.” In an unpublished 2006 interview with Tal Gozani, curator of the Skirball exhibit, Kitaj defends a distinctly personal definition of “Jewish art”; his careful wording suggests how often his answer has been misunderstood before: “I think it means an art which a Jew desires to do in order to cleave to what he or she is strongly drawn to in one’s Jewish drama. The more personal this art is, the more universal (human) it can become…. It all depends on what one wants to do with one’s life.” In this sense Kitaj’s ejaculation “Paint it Jewish!,” found throughout his second Manifesto, can be seen as a mantra, a talisman, Jewish art as a category-crossing verb more than a fixed noun.

A near-perfect example of this philosophy is the 1978 drawing His New Freedom, found in the Skirball exhibit; it shares its title with a chapter on Jewish identity and difference from the first Manifesto. A portrait drawn in soft charcoal, it starts up top with a finely modeled forehead and eyes borrowed from a Rubens portrait of his first wife. Halfway down the face, about nose level, things take a surreal turn towards Goya: the figure bares garish cartoon teeth and tears open its shirt with a bare arm, whose clean lines sparkle and pop against the disguising gloom. The picture thrusts several questions at you at once: Which face is uglier, the heavy makeup of assimilation or the hidden Jew underneath? Does freedom always feel free? “That piece really captures his idea of what Jewish or Diasporist art was,” says Gozani. “In this Kafkaesque character, we see the inner turmoil opened up to Jews in the early twentieth century, all these new emancipations granted to them in Germany and Austro-Hungary, all these isms that spawned so much Jewish creativity: Zionism, Modernism, socialism, communism, assimilation…. Any big change in communal structure will make things uncomfortable. Historians have written thousands of pages about this era, and he shows it all in a single image.”

Shortly after the publication of his first Manifesto, the Tate Gallery approached Kitaj to mount a retrospective, a rare honor for an American. “I had about three years to prepare for the Tate show,” he told Livingstone in 1999. “And yes, I was jolted into action…. I think many good painters don’t wish to repeat the exactitude of their youth. But…I did have a torrent of new ideas.” Kitaj sped up his usually deliberate painting style, and with speed came a stylistic shift toward something looser. He was more immersed than ever in his Jewish studies, and the show reflected that emphasis. It also included his caption-commentaries for numerous works, citing historical references, ideas, and associations Kitaj had had in mind during the painting process.

When the exhibition opened in 1994, critics savaged it. The Evening Standard complained he produced “thoroughly bad pictures at a prodigious rate”; the Daily Telegraph opined that he had “confused soft-centered egocentricity with self-enlightenment”; the Independent damned it as a “dispiriting, admonitory spectacle of an oeuvre ruined by fatal self-delusion.” Mere weeks after what Kitaj later dubbed his “Tate War,” his wife Sandra died of a ruptured aneurysm at age forty-seven. He saw the critics’ cruelty as the dart that ultimately felled her. As he told the Independent Magazine that year, “They tried to kill me, and they got her instead.”

Last year, The Guardian’s obituary for the artist chalked up the Tate War to a culture clash: “For we English, of course, seriousness is better cloaked in lightness of being. An artist who constantly invokes his masters—Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso—and who often indulges in what…could be perceived as cultural heavy breathing, is courting disaster.” Kitaj preferred to call it “a form of low-octane English anti-Semitism,” as he told the Independent Magazine. Gozani, Livingstone, and Myers all wonder if the critics of the Tate show failed to balance Kitaj’s intellectualism with his very real sense of humor. “He’d say, ‘You’re not bound to accept those commentaries, they’re just an inspiration to further reflection, but not a canonical view that’s binding on you’,” Myers notes. “The commentaries just continue in the interpretive chain of Jewish tradition.” Livingstone concurs: “The way Kitaj has written about his work, it’s so odd and personal, you have to just take it as another strand of his work. Like a strain of color, or bit of text written on the painting. They’re certainly not prescriptive.”

Three years after the Tate War he left England, after four decades’ residence, and settled in Los Angeles. America was kinder to Kitaj. In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art restaged the Tate retrospective, to positive reviews. Kitaj also won a Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice Biennale that year. In Los Angeles, his style relaxed into something faster-paced, boldly colorist, clearly allegorical. In his Second Diasporist Manifesto, written in 2005, he quotes often from Kabbalistic texts and Hasidic histories along with his usual pantheon of “Jewish Saints”: Kafka, Freud, Einstein, Scholem, Herschel, and Benjamin, to name a few. Even as his writing style accelerates, punctuated with loopiness, the life he describes in L.A. seems suffused with devekut: prayerful, routine, and calm.

In the Los Angeles series his painted selves stride across the canvas, thunderous, bearded, but also shining—often because he is striding towards Sandra. You’re reminded of earlier images of his, anguished sketches of God’s half-veiled face, or the repeated question about the Shoah in Kitaj’s texts: Where was God then? Why did he hide His face? Kitaj half-answers his own question in Proposition 176 of the second Manifesto: “Sandra died in 1994 in my Tate War, famous death of GOD. But she has come back to me in our second act…. The guy who got it right was St. Augustine: ‘Love means that I want you to be.’ Heidegger’s girlfriend, Hannah Arendt, taught me that.” Despite the apparent nuttiness of such a statement, there’s an odd sense to channeling the very abstracted idea of divine devotion into a very human longing for a lost love. Again, “Jewish art” to Kitaj resembles a verb more than a noun, a process, a way of moving toward God.

Gozani remembers dropping in on Kitaj late in his life, and how the action of “reading and painting Jewish” sustained his days until the end. “He did these little pictures on square canvases—very free, very prolific stuff. He’d read Kafka’s The Castle and just depict a scene, or read about some lesser-known Jewish poet and paint a beautiful portrait of her with a very obvious Jewish profile. He had fun with Moses portraits that looked a lot like him.”

Maybe Jewish art for Kitaj boiled down to something very simple and temporal: a daily meditation on a shared people and history, animating and linking both past and present so palpably as to feel like a shared breath.