R.B. Kitaj, the rebel who had a cause to explore his own identity


The Wedding, 1989-­-93 R.B. Kitaj Oil on canvas Credit: Tate, London 2012 Copyright R.B. Kitaj Estate - Credit: Copyright

First UK retrospective since Tate controversy

Each of the works in the large retrospective was labelled with a small polemic from the artist, outlining his thoughts and feelings about various topics.

The critics savaged it, accusing Kitaj of being overbearingly pretentious and not allowing his work to speak for itself, while curator, Richard Morphet, defended his corner saying the critics were too proscriptive and “Kitaj’s is a searching, abundant vision”.

More than 10 years later, the work of the prominent American artist returns to London, this time at the Jewish Museum.

The retrospective, in conjunction with the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, explores two strands of Kitaj’s life and work.

Pallant House takes a more general look at his work and The Jewish Museum strand looks at how Kitaj responded to his Jewishness.

And he did respond – principally by outlining a new art movement – Diasporism – following the publication of his First Diasporist Manifesto in 1989.

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“The diasporist lives and paints in two or more societies at once,” Kitaj wrote, while noting it was not only the Jewish community who had this perspective.

As an American-born Jew living principally in England, he knew about being in more than one place. His commitment to his diasporist ideas endured and he published the Second Diasporist Manifesto in 2007.

“Lévi-Strauss called bricoleur what I call diasporist. The handyman who recycles the rags and bones of the myths and life-histories of the race of man, bringing what one can into one’s own life, and in my case my painting life,” Kitaj wrote.

Kitaj is interesting not least because of his exploration of his own identity in his later work.

Early in his life he was instrumental in the early pop art movements and was close friends with David Hockney.


He also courted controversy in his early days. He curated an exhibition for the Hayward Gallery in 1976. The title, The Human Clay, was a reference to a line from Letter To Lord Byron by WH Auden that Hockney liked to quote.

The exhibition, featuring artists like Maggi Hambling, championed figurative art at a time when abstractionism was at the height of its popularity.

In the programme, Kitaj called for a School of London, writing, “...don’t listen to the fools who say either that pictures of people can be of no consequence or that painting is finished. There is much to be done. It matters what men of good will want to do with their lives.”

The Art Of Identity at the Jewish Museum features more than 30 works, including If Not, Not, Cecil Court, London W2 (The Refugees), The Wedding, and The Jewish Rider. It also includes Kitaj’s portrait of the author Philip Roth, A Jew in Love.

n The Art Of Identity opens at the Jewish Museum on February 21. More details at www.jewishmuseum.org.uk.