During his stay in L.A., Kitaj sketched portraits of some of the great directors like Reuben Mamoulian, Henry Hathaway, Billy Wilder and Jean Renoir. The painting "John Ford on his Death Bed" was completed 15 years after the artist and his first son visited Ford. "He was wearing an admiral's bridge cap he'd been given for filming 'Midway.' He said, 'Too bad you guys just got here. The Duke just left.' John Wayne! We almost died."
Kitaj seems to feel older than his 61 years. He had a mild heart attack four years ago and now has healthier habits of exercise and diet. "I'm considered a prime candidate because I'm pessimistic and melancholic. But Hockney is the opposite, and one year later he got a heart attack. So did (writer) Philip Roth, who had been doing all the right things, eating fish, walking five miles a day. So one learned that the heart is a mystery."
A lively raconteur, Kitaj admires the traditions of intellectual discourse and distinct points of view. If, as it is said, one can be judged by the company one keeps, he must be valued quite highly. He is close to leading British figure painters--Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff--as well as many writers. Roth was his neighbor for many years and remains a friend. He has done a portrait of Roth, as well as of Robert Creeley, John Ashbery and John Golding.
Kitaj's wit, his intellectual depth and breadth are the result of disciplined self-schooling, for his background was not one of abundance. Kitaj, as many a successful artist, is self-invented. Though born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland, he told people for years that he was from Chagrin Falls, the birthplace of Hart Crane, because he thought it more poetic. (He is still friends with actor Joel Grey, whom he has known since his elementary school years in Cleveland.)
Kitaj's father abandoned the family when Kitaj was 2, and his mother, daughter of Russian Jews, went to work as a secretary until she married a research chemist from Vienna, Dr. Walter Kitaj. As an indication of the fondness he felt for his stepfather, the artist took his last name and became known to all simply as "Kitaj." As he had no religious training as a child, he finds himself bemused by his own turning to Judaism in middle age.
Kitaj was introduced to culture at the Cleveland Museum, by taking art classes there on Saturdays, and he still remembers favorite pictures like Picasso's "La Vie." He escaped his Midwestern life at age 16 when he went to sea to work the merchant ships. After 10 years of working at sea and drawing or painting such experiences as visiting prostitutes in Havana, he started studies at the Cooper Union in New York in 1954. The Abstract Expressionists were at the height of their power, and there is an obvious resemblance between his earliest drawings and those of De Kooning. He was soon drafted into the U.S. Army and when released, studied art in Vienna and then at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford. The Ruskin Master at the Ashmolean Museum suggested that Kitaj apply for the Royal College of Art. He was one of about 20 students accepted in 1959, along with Hockney.
Kitaj remembers their meeting: "I saw this boy making the most beautiful drawing of a skeleton. I said, 'I'll give you five quid for that.' All I had was $150 a month from the G.I. Bill to support me and my family, so five quid was a lot of money. You could feed your family for a week on that. Then I bought the next one and the next one. I still have them all. We've been like brothers ever since. I've always liked to collect pictures by my contemporaries. Within a very short time, the spotlight was on us, and I could sell pictures."
Of that period, critic John Russell wrote: "If I had to choose the artist who preeminently represents the open situation, I should probably single out R.B. Kitaj. . . . I know of no painter now living from whom we can expect more."
The Marlborough Gallery in London and New York has represented Kitaj since 1963. "The Ohio Gang," shown in his 1965 exhibition there, was purchased by Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art. He has supported himself through sales ever since.
Kitaj works slowly and deliberately to produce six pictures a year. He takes a dim view of artists who come out with several exhibitions a year. "Everybody has got to have an exhibition every year, or if you're Julian Schnabel, 10 exhibitions all at the same time. OK, maybe he is a natural and can be that spontaneous. But one gets a little suspicious when everybody's that spontaneous."
Despite his career-long battle with the critics, he ultimately recognizes his good fortune as an artist. "What I do infuriates a good part of the art world. I'm talking about the art world, not audiences or people who like art in a different way. But the Tate buys a picture every half decade. I've lived off the sales of my work. How many people can do that? I've had more than my share of the pie. I've led a charmed life."*
Address: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Price: $6; $4 seniors, students
Hours: Wed.-Thur., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Through Jan. 8.
Phone: (213) 857-6000.