A Born-Again Jew

Ronald B. Kitaj Estate/Schirmer-Mosel
R.B. Kitaj: The Ohio Gang, 1964

The American-born painter R.B. Kitaj’s reputation as an artist rests chiefly on a sequence of perhaps twenty fully realized paintings. Their complex, many-layered imagery reveals what he called his “teeming neurasthenic mind.” Those works became (in Britain at least, where Kitaj was based for almost forty years) inseparable from his parallel activities as a buoyant polemicist, writer, and curator. He recognized that large-scale compositions of figures (frescos and altarpieces, “history paintings” and grandes machines) had for centuries been at the core of Western painting. Taking another London-based American provocateur, Ezra Pound, as his early model, he embarked on a lifelong project: to continue that tradition and to “make it new.” This aspiration put him on a collision course with the prevailing abstract and conceptual orthodoxies. Three decades of controversy, recognition, and success ended in tragedy.

Ten years after Kitaj’s suicide in Los Angeles, a German publisher has brought out his Confessions of an Old Jewish Painter. The editor, Eckhart J. Gillen, was one of the curators of the superb Kitaj retrospective mounted by the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2012. From a fragmentary and often repetitive typescript, he has put together a thoroughly readable text. Any thinness is well masked by plentiful illustrations—more than two hundred in all—not only of Kitaj’s works but also his own intimate photographs and those of Lee Friedlander, his lifelong friend. With a preface by David Hockney and Gillen’s epilogue and useful end matter, it is a handsome and necessary volume.

Kitaj’s reputation has remained more stable in Germany than in Britain or America, not least because his early ten-foot-wide masterpiece, Erie Shore (1966), has hung for decades in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. This monumental diptych, with its blaze of red and orange and its marvelously fluid space, takes as its ostensible subject the pollution of Cleveland’s lake. It inspired several German painters, influencing, for example, the floating collage-like imagery of Sigmar Polke and the quasi-diagrammatic compositions of the young Neo Rauch. Kitaj’s later preoccupation with the Holocaust and “Jewishness” as his central subject matter may, too, have had more urgency in Germany.

“I was born,” Kitaj writes in the first lines of his book, “on a Norwegian cargo ship called Corona slipping out of New York harbor at night, bound for Havana and Mexican ports in the summer of 1950.” He was in fact born as Ronald Brooks in Ohio in 1932, but we learn next to nothing about his upbringing in the 1930s and 1940s in a Cleveland suburb and in the depressed small city of Troy, New York, upriver from Albany. He is “born,” in his view, only when he puts all that behind him at seventeen and embarks on a life of solitary self-creation.

These earlier sections read freshly and pass rapidly through many changes of locale. Enrolled as…

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