R. B. Kitaj
March 7, 2011 | by John Ashbery
In 1985, art historian and critic Marco Livingstone published one of the earliest monographs on American painter R. B. Kitaj. The volume appeared roughly midway through Kitaj’s career (he was born in 1932, and his very earliest works date from the late fifties) and offered significant documentation of a complex artist. Over the next two decades, Kitaj continued his prolific output of provocative and dense compositions—dramatic paintings informed both by a wealth of styles and by an engagement with politics, literature, contemporary poetry, and Jewish culture. Last fall brought the fourth and final edition of Livingstone’s study, updated to cover the full span of Kitaj’s half-decade of work (he died in 2007). Selections are accompanied here by passages from an essay, originally penned in 1981, by John Ashbery.
“Only connect,” urged E. M. Forster in Howards End; this exhortation was the theme of his novel. A decade later Yeats noted that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” while T. S. Eliot appears to be replying directly to Forster through the persona of a seduced stenographer in The Waste Land: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” By this time the dislocations tried out by other artists before the war had become real, as yet again life imitated art with disastrous results. The world itself, and not just a pictured mandolin and a bottle on a table, had become unglued.
Faced with an altered reality, Eliot reacted as though in a stupor. Despite all his craft and scholarship, The Waste Land achieves its effect as a collage of hallucinatory, random fragments, “shored against my ruin.” Their contiguity is all their meaning, and it is implied that from now on meaning will take into account the randomness and discontinuity of modern experience, that indeed meaning cannot be truthfully defined as anything else. Eliot’s succeeding poetry backs away from this unpleasant discovery, or at any rate it appears to, though Four Quarters may be just as purposefully chaotic beneath its skin of deliberateness. Yet the gulf had opened up, and art with any serious aspirations toward realism still has to take into account the fact that reality escapes laws of perspective and logic, and does not naturally take the form of a sonnet or a sonata.
It is not unusual to begin a discussion of R. B. Kitaj’s work with a mention of Eliot’s; Kitaj himself has done so … In the work of both, the picturesque is at the service of a deep-seated sense of cultural malaise that seems distinctly European (Kitaj’s title “The Autumn of Central Paris” captures it nicely), though presented with a directness that seems distinctly American. Like Whistler, Eliot and Pound, the crusty gentleman from Ohio plays the role of resident Yankee gadfly in London, warning the locals of the perils of both Americanization and their own imminent stagnation.
If his pictures could, in some cases, be illustrations for Eliot’s poetry, the poetry itself often sounds like an approximation of Kitaj’s brushwork:
The River sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
Such a passage is less a description than a miming of a way of seeing wherein objects will clear for a moment and then blur, adjacent phenomena are compressed into a puzzling homogeneity, and clear outline abruptly turns illegible.
In addition, Kitaj is a man for whom modernism flourished and ended earlier in this century: the modernism of Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Yeats, of Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian—more radical than anything that has come along since (he would argue) and hallowed by the rich patina of the old masters. In other words, he holds a position that is both conservative and, if his identification of the modern is correct, radical at the same time. The “strange moment” he is always saying we live in is not so much strange for him as banal; what is strange is the way Kitaj’s appropriation of images and attitudes of the recent past has produced a modernism unlike any other.
The all-over picture in which no element matters more than another, as proposed by the Abstract Expressionists and disconcertingly reformulated by the Pop artists, has perhaps helped Kitaj to come to certain conclusions about the surface of a picture … More important, it has helped him to develop a surface that is different every time, in which his figures have their being—a sort of magma or “scorched earth” … One whiffs an era’s bad breath.
What I have been saying is that at every key point, Kitaj seems to be occupying a place from which divergent paths rush off to different destinations. I have neglected to say until now that this is precisely what for me constitutes his greatness. As often as Kitaj the grouch proclaims the need for a narrow new approach to the figure, as often is he undercut by Kitaj the philosopher, the hedonist or any of the artist’s other Mabuse-like disguises. A spirit of genuine contradiction, fertile in its implications, thrives in the work, though not in the discussions of it between Kitaj and his critics. (“I’m an old sea-dog. Some reviewers seem to choke on my awful personality.”)
“Hunger and Love in Their Variations” by John Ashbery, from R. B. Kitaj. (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Press.) Later appeared in Art In America (January 1982) and
Reported Sightings by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1981, 1989 by John Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., for the author. All rights reserved.