There is something very Jewish about R. B. Kitaj’s work. His exhibit at the Marlborough Gallery hails as “How to Reach 72 in Jewish Art,” a reference to the artist’s age and Jewish identity. Many of his portraits depict Jews, while many of his narrative scenes depict the Bible. The accompanying notes in the exhibit catalog are stuffed with Jewish references. He even writes Diasporist Manifestos, the second volume of which he begins, “I’ve got Jew on the Brain.” Kitaj is the paradigm of the Jewish artist who comes up big, even in a secular gallery scene that generally has little use for, or interest in Jewish work.
Adam Phillips puts it brilliantly, describing Kitaj’s paintings in his introduction to the catalog, “Something is going on, and there is something shocking about it.” If Kitaj’s paintings are opaque – intense, thick paintings that evoke Matisse’s pink and green coloration at times, Kokoschka’s thick, expressionist lines at other times and even occasionally, Bearden’s collage-like forms – his writing relies on cliché and generalization as its literary currency. “My art experiments are Taboo in many quarters because a new Jewish Art is too avant-garde for the gardists,” he writes. “And so my strange Jewish delirium, its Diasporism, became very unusual for art and sometimes other-worldly and threatening to friend and foe,” he continues. If these don’t quite make sense and seem to epitomize most artists’ inability to put their art into words, don’t worry, because phrases of this sort – and of “a Modernist Golem, called Jewish Art, at this scary time before World War IV” – reveal more of an energetic, emotive trajectory of Kitaj’s, rather than a linear, concrete meditation on Jewish aesthetics.
This aesthetic energy draws much inspiration from psychoanalysis. In “The Psychoanalyst (Freud), 2004,” a small charcoal drawing on paper, Kitaj writes, “The last few years I’ve been reading Freud again – especially the Jewish Freud and his amazing early circle of 17 psychoanalysts. All 17 were Jews.” Here, we see Kitaj talk of his “Jewish brushstrokes” relating to Freud’s “Free Association.” The artist captures Freud in loose marks, rendering a few white whiskers, here, and Freud’s trademark nose-moustache alignment, there. All the strokes are energetic and free, to mimic Freud’s notion of free association – or letting the mind wander so as to arrive at lurking truths. An ambiguous form above Freud’s nose weighs down on the face. Kitaj appropriates Freud – certainly one of the most historically controversial Jews – as a Jewish symbol of his art, and by implementing a Freudian technique in his drawing of Freud, he turns Freud into a Jewish symbol of his own, as a paradigm of his Jewish experience.
If the Freud portrait is theoretical and intellectual, “Arabs and Jews (After Ensor), 2004” carries more of a pragmatic aura to it. Two figures wrestle. One bears a knife in one hand and pushes the other’s forehead with his second hand, while the second man bearing a hat (kippa?) strangles his antagonist with his two hands. The composition is simple, the coloration unremarkable and the lines are rough and generalized. Kitaj writes, “This is my third painting called ‘Arabs and Jews,’ a fight I expect will never end. This picture is based on Ensor’s painting ‘The Fight.’ You may choose which is Arab and which is Jew.”
This notion of the interchangeability of the players, the notion of a hopeless struggle where the identities of the wrestlers are trumped by the struggle itself, also carries the duality of the hug that Jacob and Esau share. Just as the Midrash records Esau’s attempt to strangle Jacob, only to find himself hugging his brother instead, the Arabs and Jews in Kitaj’s painting seem also stuck somewhere between an embrace and a struggle, eerily reflecting current Israeli politics. The hopelessness of the movement and the loss of identity in the struggle, capture an aspect of the conflict that is uniquely Kitaj, especially with his extensive citation of Derrida and his deconstructionist notions of dualities and paradoxes.
Kitaj does not take the never-ending aspect of the fight lightly, and neither should his viewers. He “ends” his discourse with “Work in progress to be continued (No end in sight),” and he often leaves his painting unfinished to suggest that there is still much work to be done. Kitaj cites heavily from Kabbalah: Scholem, Dvekut, the BeSHT (Bal Shem Tov), and Rabbi Nachman, and he knows the ideas of Tikun Olam and of completing G-d’s creation.
He tries to complete some of his narratives, as in “K Enters the Castle at Last, 2004,” a painting which employs bright yellows juxtaposed with deep blues, a red and an orange, rallied to depict the white bearded K coming through the castle door. K is from Kafka’s “Castle” – Kitaj calls Kafka “my favorite Jewish artist” and K “my favorite Jew” – and Kitaj records how K never quite makes it to the castle in Kafka’s work. Here, Kitaj invents a Midrash to get K into the castle, as it were, by means of a “secret (Kabbalistic?) color recipe”. The red form in the bottom left corner represents a critic who hates K and Kitaj (the first letter in K, Kitaj and Kafka seems more than coincidental) and has managed to cut off the tail of the lizard on the stage, right. “I’d like to know if any other painter or writer got K into the Castle these last 80 years. If so, please write me – Kitaj c/o Marlborough Gallery,” Kitaj writes in the catalog.
Even as K enters the castle (finally!), he steps cautiously, ready to leap back out the door, if necessity calls. The piece is finished, but it seems too concerned with its identity as completed, and wants to return itself to chaos.
In these three works, and the rest of the Kitaj blizzard of artwork at Marlborough, we see an assertive artist who declares “I believe my art is Jewish if I say it is.” He carves out a difficult path for himself: “to draw as well as any Jew ever did or better,” to “paint the opposite of anti-Semitism,” and “to learn to paint against the grain of Art Assimilation.” Not surprisingly, the same bohemian, esoteric painter also sets out to “try to study a Torah portion every day,” to read Jewish books, as a landscape painter reads trees, and to read Steinsaltz’s English Talmud, though “I’m too old to study Talmud seriously.”
Kitaj’s unique process of trying to pin down his Jewishness and his artistic identity by using a diverse canon of secular and religious iconography, is his most Jewish aspect. Famed cartoonist David Levine related that he once told a critic that he painted in Yiddish, and R. B. Kitaj certainly paints in Judaism. And yet, the viewer can just picture Kitaj painstakingly pacing rapidly about his studio telling himself time and again, “I am Jewish Art in my pictures. Repeat this so I don’t forget!” Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: email@example.com.