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His Jewish answer

One 'question' obsessed artist R.B. Kitaj in his last years, as his works on identity at Skirball and UCLA show.

January 09, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

R.B. Kitaj followed a strict regimen: Rise at 5, walk to the Westwood Coffee Bean at 6 to write and sketch, return home to paint, eat lunch, rest. Receive visitors for tea at 4, have dinner, retire early. The discipline provided a framework for his restless brush and brilliant, meandering mind.

Kitaj, a deeply literate painter long associated with the London School of figurative artists (including Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff), enjoyed a long, successful career that was reaching yet another high point when he took his life in October.

The artist's "Second Diasporist Manifesto (A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses)" had just been released by Yale University Press in September. A dense, spirited investigation/rant/interrogation/plea concerning, among other things, the viability of Jewish art, the book was described by the New Republic art critic Jed Perl as "a crucial document of our postmodern period . . . a searching artistic confession that's also a dazzling literary achievement."

Kitaj had ruminated on what he called his Jewish Question since the 1970s, but issues of cultural identity, diaspora and the legitimacy of Jewish art consumed him in his final years. The artist often described himself, quoting his friend Philip Roth, as having "Jew on the brain."

Now, two landmark exhibitions focusing on Kitaj's prolific obsession with things Jewish are opening in Los Angeles, where the Cleveland-born artist resettled a decade ago after 40 years in England.

"R.B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory -- Jewish Works From His Personal Collection" opens Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center. The largest museum exhibition to concentrate on Kitaj's Jewish themes, and the last show he helped organize, it includes more than 30 paintings, drawings and prints. One series of paintings pairs "Arabs and Jews" but provocatively withholds identification of the parties in each picture. The "Passion" paintings, never before exhibited, represent Kitaj's effort to create an icon of Jewish suffering, an aesthetic equivalent to the Christian cross.

Other works pay homage to Freud and Kafka (two of the brightest stars in Kitaj's personal pantheon), express a searing tenderness toward his youngest son, Max, and make clear his devotion to his late wife, artist Sandra Fisher.

"When you think of Jewish art, you think of ceremonial art or images of synagogues or rabbis, but he's not interested in that," says Tal Gozani, curator of the Skirball show. She credits Kitaj with expanding the definition of Jewish art.

"He thought of himself as a very skilled and thoughtful artist who was dealing with the Jewish question in a profound way. He doesn't deal with the religion, with Judaism. He's interested in the experience of being a Jew in the modern world."

UCLA exhibition

The other exhibition, "Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R.B. Kitaj in Text and Image," opened Monday at UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections. Over the last two years, Kitaj had donated his papers to the university, intending them to serve as the foundation of a new Archive of Jewish Culture. The exhibition, which traces Kitaj's life and thought through correspondence, publications, writings and collaborative works, celebrates the archive's formal launch.

"At its core is the desire to create a repository of papers, correspondence, scores, sketches, scripts with the idea of capturing the genius of Jewish cultural creativity that's been such a potent force in the making of Western culture," explains professor David Myers, director of UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies and founder of the archive.

"We'd love to attract to our archive the work of leading artists, writers, intellectuals, actors, composers. We hope also to stimulate research around the issue of Jewish culture and use the archive as a forum for ongoing Jewish cultural creativity. That's the grand vision. We're just at the beginning."

The idea for the archive arose in conversations between Myers and Kitaj, who were close friends. "He felt it important that his idea of Jewish art have its own institutional setting and its own legitimacy, that there be a kind of monument to that project," Myers says.

Kitaj took it upon himself to craft his own legacy, just as he assumed control over his own death -- the 74-year-old artist was found dead in his home Oct. 21, a suicide by suffocation. Those who knew him well say he was obsessed with death at an early age. His grief over the sudden loss of his wife in 1994 remained fresh and raw. Recently, says Myers, "he talked a lot about death, confronting death. He talked about his sense of his own powers diminishing, though he wrote and painted and drew up to the very last."

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