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R.B. Kitaj, 74; figurative L.A. painter had an eclectic career

October 24, 2007|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

R.B. Kitaj, a figurative American painter who became a significant contributor to the British Pop Art movement during his nearly four decades of expatriate life in London, has died. He was 74.

Kitaj died Sunday evening at his home in Los Angeles, according to the Marlborough Gallery, his official representative in New York. The Los Angeles County coroner's office was looking at his death as a possible suicide and conducted an autopsy Tuesday, a coroner's spokesman said. A final report was deferred until toxicology tests could be analyzed.

Over the years, Kitaj's work generally created controversy. His figurative paintings featured areas of bright color and often resembled collages with their economic use of line and overlapping planes. His work often alluded to political history, art, literature and Jewish identity. He also produced a number of silk-screen prints and was considered an excellent draftsman.

Writing in Time magazine some years ago, critic Robert Hughes noted that Kitaj ". . . remains an artist of real, sometimes of remarkable interest: a restless omnivore whose way of painting, part personal confession, part syncopated history and part allusive homage to the old and Modernist masters, is quite unlike anybody else's today."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Kitaj obituary: The obituary of figurative painter R.B. Kitaj in Wednesday's California section listed the sons among his survivors as screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Len Kitaj and Max Kitaj. His surviving sons are Lem Kitaj and Max Kitaj. Lem Kitaj writes screenplays under the name Lem Dobbs.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Kitaj obituary: The obituary of figurative painter R.B. Kitaj in the California section Oct. 24 did not list two surviving sisters, Karma Kitaj and Dr. Madeleine Kitaj. It also was stated that Kitaj's father abandoned the family. In fact, his mother left her husband.

Stephanie Barron, chief curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which presented a large exhibition of Kitaj's work in 1994, reflected on his career Tuesday.

"He was a magnificent painter qua painter who was always committed to the figurative tradition, in the face of waning interest in figurative," Barron told The Times. "He also had an enormous appreciation for the history of art and felt very close to the European tradition of art."

Peter Goulds, owner of the L.A. Louver gallery in Venice, met Kitaj in 1979 and maintained a fairly close association with him over the years. He presented a solo show of Kitaj's work in 2003.

"He was a very great artist because he found a way of making ideas rooted in the 19th century relevant to our time," Gould told the Times on Tuesday. "He took the major impulses of our time -- printed word and moving image -- and brought them alive with a sense of history and context that gave additional meaning to his paintings. Through his imagination, we are linked to a broader view of life. The paintings serve as entry points to imagination and invention."

A slight man with close-cropped white hair and beard and stern features that, one Times writer noted, "gave him the appearance of [an Ingmar] Bergman patriarch," Kitaj (pronounced Kit-eye) had a strong relationship with Los Angeles.

He had his first museum show here at LACMA in 1965, taught at UCLA in 1970 and met his second wife, Sandra Fisher, here the same year. A lifelong baseball fan, he also made portraits for Sports Illustrated magazine of figures including Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax.

Barron recalled him as an exacting man and totally devoted to his craft.

"He was enormously erudite and managed to eliminate everything extraneous from his life so that he could concentrate on his art," she said. "As chaotic and bristling with energy as his paintings are, his life was quiet and ascetic, at least in his later years."

Born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland on Oct. 29, 1932, he was 2 when his father abandoned the family. His mother found work as a secretary for a research chemist from Vienna, Dr. Walter Kitaj, and later married him. Young Ronald was particularly fond of his stepfather and took his name, eventually becoming known to all simply as Kitaj. His mother and stepfather were non-observant Jews, and years later religion would play a larger part in his life.

As a boy, Kitaj became interested in art through Saturday drawing classes at the Cleveland Museum. The family moved to Troy, N.Y., when Kitaj was in high school, and after graduation he signed on as crewman aboard a merchant vessel and began a 10-year odyssey of travels that would take him to Europe, Cuba, South America and Mexico, where he would paint and draw local figures, including prostitutes.

In 1954, he left the sea and started his formal art training at the Cooper Union in New York. His early work resembled that of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning, who were then in vogue.

His art education was again interrupted by service, this time by the peacetime U.S. Army in Germany, where he was stationed after being drafted in 1955. He stayed in Europe after his discharge two years later, studying art in Vienna and then at Oxford. He was urged to apply for the Royal College of Art and was accepted there in 1959, with 19 other students, one of whom was his lifelong friend David Hockney.

Kitaj's early paintings seemed to reflect a fascination with surrealism. His 1958 work "Erasmus," which he regarded as the first picture of "any interest" that he painted in England, is a grid design of heads, one of several works that reflect his admiration of Piet Mondrian.

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