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The art of an enduring love

R.B. Kitaj is upfront about it: His paintings let him continue a romance with his late wife.

June 20, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

R.B. Kitaj lives in Westwood, in a house surrounded by white roses. He receives visitors only after 4 p.m., and when he opens the door promptly on the hour, the painter inspires the mild trepidation associated with a job interview.

Kitaj appears aloof, even haughty. He isn't. But his increasing deafness doesn't invite questions, and his white beard and stern features give him the appearance of a Bergman patriarch.

Kitaj, 70, has embarked on a fruitful new phase of his art, despite a life that has been shadowed by sadness for nearly a decade. A show of his paintings and drawings at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, on display until July 5, features colorful and surprisingly candid images that speak of an enduring attachment.

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30 years of memories

On this afternoon, Kitaj leads a visitor through his house on a tour as carefully constructed as his paintings. It's a choreographed narrative with an arc that corresponds to the movement through the house -- a story that encompasses meeting his late wife, Sandra Fisher; waging the so-called Tate war, Kitaj's battle with the British art critics; studying Judaism; and finally, finding a new subject.

For Kitaj, everything blends together: art, history and autobiography. As critic Jed Perl puts it, he "is an artist who lives in his own imagination, which is where an artist ought to live."

Kitaj moves to the sunken drawing room, a shrine to his family, especially Fisher, who died in 1994. Drawings, paintings and photographs of her decorate the walls or stand stacked on the floor.

The two met in 1970 at the Los Angeles printmaking studio Gemini GEL, where she worked as an assistant to master printer Kenneth Tyler. A few years later, they met again in England, where the Ohio-born Kitaj was living. Soon afterward, they were married.

"She was the most beautiful woman in London," he says.

A Kitaj painting shows their wedding in a London synagogue. In the celebratory picture, best man David Hockney and guests including painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach are all under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy.

Kitaj points to another picture of Fisher. "We painted each other nude, you know."

Standing against a stack of paintings on the floor is a small, delicate drawing of Fisher asleep, strands of hair coming loose from her chignon. The tranquil picture is a charcoal love letter.

"When she died, London also died for me."

A few of Fisher's paintings -- small landscapes -- decorate the wall. On the mantelpiece, the photograph of Fisher that since her death has been reprinted in every Kitaj exhibition catalog is propped against the Golden Lion he was awarded at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

"Love and hate," he says. "I had a war at the Tate Gallery and then, one year later, another group of critics awarded me the top painting prize."

Kitaj is referring to the "Tate war," the controversy involving a show of his paintings in 1994 when the museum (now Tate Britain) mounted a retrospective of his work that would travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan in New York. When it opened in London, the British critics hated the show. They gave Kitaj "a drubbing," critic Robert Hughes wrote, "such as few artists ever have to endure in a lifetime."

"A supreme dilettante," was the Guardian's opinion. "Poor, private, pensive Ronald B. Kitaj," alliterated the Sunday Times. "The wandering Jew, the T.S. Eliot of painting?" wrote the Independent. "Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz: a small man with a megaphone held to his lips."

The painter did what few painters do: He answered back, charging the critics with anti-Semitism.

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'Feelings of jealousy'

Kitaj's search for "a Jewish art" and publicly talking about his paintings were "very strange to the English art world," says Perl, himself an acerbic writer. "Most of what went on around the show had not so much to do with what was in the show but feelings that the critics had -- feelings of jealousy that he could both paint and speak about the paintings."

At the height of the controversy, Fisher, 47, died of a brain aneurysm. Kitaj claimed her death was related to stress caused by the critics' attacks. In a furious painting, he portrayed the critics as a single, multi-eyed monster being executed by a firing squad composed of Kitaj and Edouard Manet. Eventually, he left London, his home of four decades, and came to L.A., which over the years had become a second home.

"I kept coming back," Kitaj says. "My mother died here. My father died here. My oldest kids [with his first wife] moved here. My three grandsons were born here. And, above all, I met Sandra here."

So he decided to "live happily ever after, among six Kitaj boys in Westwood." This is his Aix-en-Provence, he says.

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