Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Look Back in Wonder

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Look Back in Wonder

Article excerpt

R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions The Art of Identity Jewish Museum, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1, until 16 June Analyst for Our Time Pallant House, Chichester, until 16 June Nowadays, R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007) tends to be ignored by the critics in this country - like a bad smell in the corner of the room.

It was not always thus: for years he was an admired, if somewhat controversial, presence, but then came his great retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1994. A large proportion of the British critical fraternity united to condemn and vilify him, to 'take him down a peg or two', as if he were an unruly schoolboy too big for his boots, too clever for his own good. This chorus of complaint (some of which amounted to abuse) was deeply felt by Kitaj, and when his beloved second wife, Sandra Fisher, died suddenly in the midst of what he called his 'Tate War', he was heartbroken and his love for England all but extinguished. In 1997 he returned to his native America and settled in Los Angeles for the last decade of his life. Since then, there has been more than a slight air of embarrassment hanging over Kitaj's name and all his works, and his reputation in this country lies somewhere in the doldrums.

Not in the rest of Europe and America, however, as the recent retrospective in Berlin proved. A version of that show has now travelled to England to regale Kitaj's admirers and to introduce his work to those unfamiliar with it. However, the reviews have been few and far between, and a substantial exhibition has been split between two venues, not even in the same city. This is a horribly unsatisfactory solution, but succinctly demonstrates the low esteem in which this internationally acclaimed artist is now held in his adopted country. This is an exhibition that should have been at the Royal Academy (why wasn't it? Kitaj was a distinguished member of the RA), and it is shameful that it has to be divided and shown at two smaller museums that don't have the space and resources to do proper justice to it. We are left with the opportunity to see some marvellous examples of Kitaj's work, but by no means under the optimum conditions.

At the Jewish Museum, 21 works have been installed with some pomp (hung above strange pedestals built out from the wall) in a space too low for them, under ceilings further lowered by very visible air-conditioning ducts. As a result, major paintings such as 'If Not, Not' (1975-6), 'Cecil Court' (19834) and 'The Jewish Rider' (1984-5) are cramped and not at all easy to see. But even so the great beauty of 'If Not, Not' glows throughout the gallery. For the painting of the trees and mountains alone this is a masterpiece, but the rest of the complex content is superbly orchestrated in thin luminous oil paint that looks almost like pastel. Kitaj is rarely celebrated as a colourist, often taking risks with jarring combinations or strong contrasts, but this is a particularly fine example of his skills with colour, subtle as butterflies' wings.

Also here is 'Desk Murder', painted predominantly in expressive 'caput mortuum' rusty violet, and depicting an office or study with strange abstract forms and a concentration camp chimney or gas vent collaged on to it. 'Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)', the 'book alley' off Charing Cross Road, moves into thicker, more textural paint with a kind of Yiddish Theatre cast of characters, including the artist himself on a recliner at the front. …

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