American painter and printmaker. Born Ronald Brooks and brought up by his mother and Viennese Jewish stepfather, at an early age he developed a cosmopolitan outlook and compassionate socialism that had a permanent effect on him. Fired by discussions about the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and by the seam of European history represented by his stepfather and stepgrandmother, who also came to live with the family, he educated himself as much through various voyages as a merchant seaman in Latin America as through spells at art schools, first at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, in 1950 and in 1951–2 at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna, under Albert Paris von Gütersloh. After his marriage in 1953 to Elsi Roessler, a fellow American student whom he had met in Vienna, he made his first extended visit to the quiet Catalan port of San Felíu de Guixols, to which he was to return on numerous occasions over the next 30 years. From 1955 to the end of 1957 he served in the American Army near Fontainebleau, where he drew pictures of the Russian tanks and installations for war games.
Kitaj drew on these experiences and memories, as well as on his wide-ranging knowledge of 20th-century American and European art, when he began training again as an artist in January 1958. Accepted at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, under the terms of the American G.I. Bill, he submitted himself to a disciplined course of drawing from life, which he was to recognize as an essential foundation for his work during a period dominated by abstract painting. He was devoted to Surrealism, both as a philosophical concept and in the form of Max Ernst’s collage-based prints, such as the illustrations to Une Semaine de bonté (1934), a copy of which he was to buy in the early 1960s.
The paintings that marked Kitaj’s rebirth as an artist, for example Tarot Variations (1958; Atlanta, GA, High Mus. A.), displayed a Surrealist-inspired devotion to fragments and to enigmatic conjunctions of disparate images. Tarot Variations also proved typical in its reliance on found images and in its inspiration from literature, specifically from T. S. Eliot, who with Ezra Pound was one of Kitaj’s most potent influences. The subject was taken from the first section of The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, in which Tarot images were treated as archetypes of the past.
At Oxford, Kitaj became fascinated with the historical lineage of images, a subject to which he turned as much because of the provocative lectures given by the Professor of Art History, Edgar Wind, as because of the almost Surrealist tabulations of compelling and often esoteric imagery that he discovered at the same time in The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. In 1959 he transferred to the Royal College of Art, London, where, until 1961, he exerted an enormous influence over David Hockney and other younger students who were soon to be labelled Pop artists. Kitaj had by then found the means to bring together his passion for art history, political history, Surrealism, iconology and literature, in paintings such as the Red Banquet (1961; Liverpool, Walker A.G.) and Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny (1962; London, Tate). His adaptation of techniques from the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, then little known in England, and references to the Abstract Expressionist brushwork of Willem de Kooning and to the bare canvas and dry paint surfaces of Francis Bacon, gave him a rare freedom to delve into what might have been anachronistic themes without threatening his essential contemporaneity.
Kitaj’s reputation was quickly sealed by the exhibitions of his work held in London in 1963 and New York in 1965. His confidence and ambition evidently bolstered, in subsequent paintings such as Walter Lippmann (1966; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) and Erie Shore (1966; Berlin, Tiergarten N.G.) he adapted his collage-like methods of construction to lusciously coloured narrative figure compositions, in which he developed with great flair a characteristic linear drawing and a surface of almost manicured smoothness. Continuing to draw from a multiplicity of sources and to make allusion within a single work to seemingly incompatible styles, his development over the subsequent decade increasingly emphasized the personal basis of his art. The Man of the Woods and the Cat of the Mountains (1973; London, Tate), although directly based on an early 19th-century satirical engraving attributed to Thomas Lane, can also be read as a cautious celebration of his relationship with another American artist, Sandra Fisher (1947–94), which had developed after the tragic death of his wife in 1969.
From 1963 Kitaj had begun to produce a large body of graphic work with the master screenprinter Christopher Prater at Kelpra Studios, London. These collage-based prints, which he regarded as a kind of continuing sketchbook based primarily on ready-made material, were well-suited to his compositional methods and provided a rapid outlet for a complex range of visual ideas that he would have been unable to execute in his more painstaking and considered process of painting. It was in these works that he came closest to the methods of appropriation, machine-made look and sometimes flippant humour of Pop art. By the mid-1970s he was inclined to repudiate most of his graphic work, which he regarded as conflicting with his growing devotion to the hand-made image drawn from life. Among the few prints that he continued to value were those in the 1969 portfolio of 50 prints In our Time, which were in effect enlarged reproductions of the covers of favourite books.
The exhibition organized by Kitaj in 1976, The Human Clay, was at the centre of a polemic that he and Hockney promoted for several years against what they felt to be the dehumanization and sterility of much late modernism. A renewed interest in his Jewish identity and in the origins of modernism in the great figure inventions of Degas, Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists coincided with a prolonged period of drawing from life, often in pastel. A group of impressive figure paintings such as The Orientalist (1975–6; London, Tate), in which he can be said to have created an almost novelistic cast of characters, was followed by a series of anxious allegories on the Jewish Holocaust and the modern condition of exile. Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (1983–4; London, Tate), in which the artist represented himself reclining on a Corbusier chair in his favourite alley of antiquarian bookshops, eloquently summarized the strands of his life and the preoccupations that continued to fuel his art, leading the way in the frankly autobiographical and confessional emphasis of his work in the later 1980s and 1990s. The Wedding (1989–90; London, Tate), a memory image of his marriage to Fisher in 1983, provides a vivid token of this highly personal direction.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press