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.