press release

The Directors of Marlborough Gallery are pleased to announce the opening of an exhibition of works by R.B. Kitaj entitled How To Reach 72 In A Jewish Art. This large exhibition will be the artist’s first in New York since 2000 and will feature fifty-four paintings along with thirty-four works on paper. Concurrent with the exhibition will be a show in the small gallery of the artist’s Selected Printsincluding the portfolio In Our Time.

One of the highlights of the show and a work that has special meaning for Kitaj is Freud Paints Me Twice. In this brilliant portrait of Freud painting Kitaj, the artist explains, “Before I left London forever, Freud painted two portraits of me. I sat for him on Monday mornings, 812, for many months at his top floor Holland Park Studio. He didn’t like the first portrait, so he destroyed it and did a second, better one, leaving bare canvas around my face. Then, I went home to Los Angeles where I bought a house in 1996. Sandra had just died when I sat for Freud and he thought that sitting for him might help.”

The new paintings are for the most part representative of the artist’s late style, or what he ironically refers to as his “old age style.” Kitaj’s interest in Cézanne, whom he has called “my most beloved painter,” dates back many years, and the works in this exhibit show a particular debt to him, especially his late watercolors. Several of the paintings are part of a long series called Los Angeles. In these and other works Kitaj’s current style tends toward simplification of forms with a surface of flickering brushstrokes. The works are spontaneous, often fast, and abbreviated.They seem to be always evolving, to seek a deeper truth and bespeak calmness, freedom, and celebration. A constant hallmark of Kitaj’s work is his dynamic use of color. Whereas in earlier work the dynamics of his unique palette might be called bold and electric, in many of these later works, while still tonally voltaic and fully charged with ideas and layers of reference, the color has become more fluid, ephemeral, and radiantly mellow. As such, collectively, one might infer that these late pictures evince an immanent optimism and provide “an illuminating visual summary of a road to maturity in life and art.”

Kitaj has called his paintings “picture ideas.” One could say that perhaps more than most other artists Kitaj’s paintings serve as a forum: a place of open, visual discussion for his multifarious ideas; for his feelings – especially for his late beloved wife, Sandra – feelings mixed with memory, sexual desire, love and sorrow; for the diverse images which collide from many different sources; and for what he refers to as his obsession with the “Jewish Question.” For some time, fundamental to Kitaj’s artistic concerns and to his complex personality is his need to express the experience of being a Jew and the significance to him of how that relates to making art, and consequently, how Jewish art relates, qualitatively, to art in general. As he sees it, “The Jewish question, in its infinity, is the central drama and romance of my life and art. It’s what excites me most and of course it attracts enemies, both Gentile and Jewish.” He has understood himself to be a true Diasporist and has written two manifestos relating to that subject, one being The First Diasporist Manifestopublished by Thames and Hudson in 1989. The beginning of The Second Diasporist Manifestowill be published in the catalogue accompanying the current exhibition. In an interview in a new book on the artist entitled, Kitaj, published in 2004 by Philip Wilson Publishers, the author, Andrew Lambirth, asked Kitaj if he were “packing (his) paintings with less content.” The artist’s response offers an insight into the esthetic preoccupation of his late work: “In a way I’m interested in more content in my embattled attempt to forge a personal Jewish Art...The word ‘content’ doesn’t please me. Let’s find another word. Attributes? Temptations? Cézanne’s famous Sensations? Jewish Attributes in a Diasporist Life of Forms!” Two other telling, albeit cryptic, remarks in the same interview allow one to gain further insight into the artist’s thoughts regarding this question and his art. He said, “I’d like to do for Jews what Morandi did for Jars.” And later, “It has to do with going beyond what limits you in art and life by daring to give into temptations. My obsession with Jewish Questions in Art, when many say NO, is an example. One is tempted to reach out beyond what is known. There’s a temptation to Make It New, even (especially) in aged easel painting.”

Mario Naves called Kitaj “a painter whose emotions are forever at the boiling point and whose intellect just won’t quit,” and said Kitaj’s pictures “are edgy and odd and ambitious enough to seize (and deserve) our attention.” Robert Hughes wrote Kitaj “draws better than almost anyone else alive.” At the time of his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bill Lieberman told Art Newsthat he considered Kitaj the greatest living American painter. John Ashbery, art critic and America’s premier poet, wrote, “Kitaj is the antithesis of our laconic, supercool culture heroes, like Johns or Stella, for instance, yet he is as important an artist as they and, despite his romantic involvement with things past, as modern as they are too.” He has been called “a promiscuous lover of ideas,” and his work has been characterized as “angular, expressionist, and mordantly witty.” In a review in Tema Celesteof Kitaj’s show in Los Angeles in 2003, the critic, Shana Nys Dambot, aptly discerned the direction and meaning of Kitaj’s late work: “This meaning takes the form of the story he is committed to telling: the ongoing love affair between himself and his late wife Sandra. The paintings give testament to the enduring beauty of this woman and their life together, and in that way they are indelibly personal. These converging paths and their contributions are resolved in Kitaj’s contemplation of his own Jewish heritage, with its specific cultural history of adversity, accomplishment, suffering, and innovative philosophy.The work of an artist with a multifaceted and deeply humanistic world view, these pictures make full use of a private, spiritual lexicon to articulate powerfully invigorating ideas about style and content that resonate at the deepest levels of the discourse on figurative painting.”


Ronald B. Kitaj - How To Reach 72 In A Jewish Art
Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, New York