artist / participant

press release

R.B. Kitaj exhibition opens at UCLA Research Library Jan. 7

"Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R.B. Kitaj in Text and Image," on view in UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections from Jan. 7 through March 21, 2008, explores the life, legacy and Jewish obsession of this important Los Angeles-based artist and features items drawn from the personal archive of papers he donated to UCLA shortly before his death in October 2007.

Renowned as a major figurative painter, Kitaj was also a notable intellectual, conversant in the history of art, philosophy and aesthetics. Among his favorite topics of conversation — as well as the source of inspiration for his later painting and writing — was what he called the "Jewish question," the surprising persistence of both anti-Semitism and Jewish intellectual creativity in the modern age.

The exhibition — organized into sections on Kitaj's life journey, including his transition from artist to "Jewish" artist, his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, his "diasporist manifestoes" and his life in Los Angeles — includes selections from his extensive correspondence, personal and published writings, drawings, and sketches. It also features his designs for book covers, books that influenced his work, and books and prints that he created in collaboration with writers such as Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg.

The exhibition is organized by David N. Myers, professor of history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, with assistance from UCLA graduate student Rebecca Blustein and the Research Library Department of Special Collections, including department head Victoria Steele, manuscripts librarian Genie Guerard, literary manuscripts specialist Lilace Hatayama, visual arts collection specialist Octavio Olvera and student assistant Norma Williamson. It is presented in conjunction with "R.B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory — Jewish Works from His Personal Collection," on view at the Skirball Cultural Center from Jan. 11 through March 30, 2008.

Admission to the exhibition is free. The Research Library Department of Special Collections is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Sunday and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21) and Presidents Day (Feb. 18). For more information, visit

Born in Ohio in 1932, R.B. Kitaj developed an interest in art through classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He became a merchant seaman in his teens, then studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and the Akademie der Bildenden Künst in Vienna in the early 1950s. During the mid-1950s, he served in the U.S. Army in Europe, drawing Russian tanks and installations for war games, before returning to his studies in 1958 at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford under the G.I. Bill. He subsequently studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where he met David Hockney, who became a lifelong friend.

Kitaj's drawings and paintings at this time were influenced by surrealism, found images, literature, history and political history, and his technique drew on the work of Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. Exhibitions in the early 1960s in London and New York brought him wider attention as part of the British Pop Art movement. His first museum show was in 1965 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In a body of graphic works produced during the 1960s and '70s, Kitaj incorporated collage techniques and readymade materials to serve as a sort of continuing sketchbook. Through prints, he could record and examine visual ideas more quickly than with his painstaking method of painting. However, in the mid-1970s he repudiated much of this work and returned to handmade images drawn from life.

In 1976, Kitaj organized the exhibition "The Human Clay" at the Hayward Gallery in London, in which, counter to trends at the time, he advocated for figurative painting over abstraction. He also introduced the idea of a "School of London," which included Frank Auerbach, Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and himself.

During these years, Kitaj developed a renewed interest in his Jewish identity, a process that led to his autobiographical and confessional work of the later 1980s and '90s. In "The First Diasporist Manifesto," published in 1989, he discussed the relationship between Judaism and his work; "The Second Diasporist Manifesto," published in 2007, contains his personal reflections on the "Jewish question" in contemporary art.

In 1994, the Tate Gallery in London presented a retrospective of Kitaj's work; the show received negative reviews from some critics for both the paintings and the commentaries the artist wrote about them. Kitaj regarded the reviews as veiled anti-Semitism, and when his wife died that year of a brain aneurysm, he blamed the critics for her death. In 1997, he left London to return to the United States and lived in Los Angeles for the rest of his life.

In addition to his artistic accomplishments, Kitaj taught at UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, and Dartmouth. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982. In 1991, was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, becoming one of only three American members of the academy and the first since John Singer Sargent nearly 100 years earlier. He also received the Golden Lion for painting at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

The R.B. Kitaj Papers at UCLA span the years 1950 to 2007, with the bulk of the material from period between 1975 and 2004. The collection contains materials from art academies, assorted writings by Kitaj, personal and business correspondence, and publicity materials. Kitaj gave the papers in two parts, the first in 2006 and the second in 2007.

Of particular interest are the artist's autobiographical writings; his correspondence with individuals including Frank Auerbach, Isaiah Berlin, Peter Blake, Lee Friedlander, David Hockney, Paul McCartney, Philip Roth and Leon Wieseltier; sketches he made on napkins; and "A Day Book," a collaboration between Kitaj and Robert Creeley. The collection also contains many letters to and from galleries, museums, universities and publishers, as well as meeting minutes and other materials from the Royal Academy of Arts.

Dawn Setzer 12/10/2007

Portrait of a Jewish Artist: Ronald B. Kitaj in Text and Image
Organisation: UCLA Center for Jewish Studies; UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections