press release

Opening January 11

Exhibition includes never-before-exhibited series, archival materials and key works from the past four decades

LOS ANGELES—The Skirball Cultural Center presents R. B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory—Jewish Works from His Personal Collection. On view from January 11 through March 30, 2008, the exhibition is devoted to the work of American painter R. B. Kitaj, one of the most celebrated and controversial artists of our time, who recently passed away at the age of 74. Created in cooperation with the artist over the course of two years, this rare presentation focuses on Kitaj’s intimate exploration of Jewish identity, history and culture and his efforts to establish a “Jewish Art.”

R. B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory features more than 30 paintings and works on paper dating from 1969 through 2006, including one never-before-exhibited series, Passion (1985–1988). In addition, a number of archival materials will be on view, including correspondence with leading artists and intellectuals, philosophical musings, photographs and handwritten drafts from his two published books. These materials are from papers donated to UCLA, which will form part of a planned UCLA Archive of Jewish Culture. A concurrent exhibition, Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R. B. Kitaj in Text and Image, will open at the UCLA Special Collections in January 2008, organized by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and the UCLA Charles E. Young Library Department of Special Collections.

“The Skirball Cultural Center is honored to have worked with R. B. Kitaj on what has turned out to be his final exhibition,” says Robert Kirschner, Skirball Director of Exhibitions and Collections. “It is a privilege to display Kitaj’s compelling engagement of Jewish issues, and we are proud to present so many works from his personal collection, including the very powerful Passion paintings. We hope that this exhibition will serve as a celebration of Kitaj’s life and art.”

“R. B. Kitaj is one of the most significant Jewish artists of the last half century,” says Skirball Associate Curator Tal Gozani. “An extraordinary intellectual, he has delved deeply into Jewish and art historical sources in his search to create art that not only challenges his own Jewish identity, but that of the Jewish people. Saddened as we are by the news of his death, we are hopeful that this exhibition will further establish R. B. Kitaj’s place in the tradition of outstanding Jewish artists and thinkers.”

Kitaj’s Life and Art

R. B. Kitaj (Ronald Brooks Kitaj) was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, and studied at Cooper Union in New York City before serving in the United States Army. In 1959, he moved to London where he attended the Ruskin School and the Royal College of Art. In London, Kitaj met David Hockney, who would remain one of his closest friends throughout life. He also befriended fellow Jews Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff, and together they gained renown as the “School of London.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Kitaj became increasingly interested in Jewish history, culture and identity. This interest culminated in the publication of his First Diasporist Manifesto (1989), which posited the conditions of Jewish exile as crucial to the creation of Jewish art. A sequel, Second Diasporist Manifesto (Yale University Press, 2007), written in Los Angeles during the last years of his life, is a personal reflection on what he termed “the Jewish Question” in contemporary art.

With work in major museum collections worldwide, Kitaj enjoyed significant recognition. In 1979, critic Robert Hughes declared, “Kitaj draws better than almost anyone else alive.” But Kitaj’s career also spawned controversy. In 1994, the Tate Gallery, London, mounted a major retrospective of Kitaj’s work that would give rise to what Kitaj termed “The Tate War.” British art critics launched vitriolic and personal attacks on Kitaj and his work, especially targeting his use of commentary to explain the meaning of his paintings. Some critics attributed the use of text to Kitaj’s Jewishness and accused him of Jewish intellectualism. Following these scathing reviews and the sudden death of his wife, Sandra Fisher, Kitaj abruptly left England after nearly forty years of residence there and moved to Los Angeles, which remained his home until his death on October 21, 2007. In the last years of his life, Kitaj worked on a number of small-format paintings, many of them self-portraits, and many continued to incorporate Jewish themes.

About the Exhibition

R. B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory is organized around deeply felt Jewish themes that consistently engaged the artist. Never before exhibited, the Passion series (1985–1988) represents Kitaj’s efforts to counter the precipitous decline of Jewish collective memory. In these paintings, Kitaj dramatically reenacted the Holocaust as a Jewish passion play, imbuing the chimney as the iconic symbol of Jewish suffering. The series also depicts the artist’s personal passions—writing, reading and drawing—and demonstrates Kitaj’s dialogue with art history in works that quote Picasso and Georges De La Tour.

Kitaj’s preoccupation with Jewish tragedy extended to the realities and agonies of the Jewish state. In the series Arabs and Jews (1970–2004), Kitaj initially offers a poetic reconciliation between Arab and Jew. In Arabs and Jews (Jerusalem) (1985), Kitaj positions two small boys sitting face to face as they contemplate their individual and shared destinies. Nearly two decades later, Kitaj completed Arabs and Jews (After Ensor) (2004), which transforms the previous peaceful encounter into a fierce struggle for survival. Kitaj obscures the identities of the figures throughout the series, leaving it to the viewer to decide who is who.

The exhibition also includes works that pay homage to some of the Jewish literary and intellectual giants of the 20th century. For instance, in Three Famous Jews (2004), Freud’s classic personality constructs of Id, Ego and Superego are transformed into three independent, complex Jewish beings. Through this process, Kitaj also offered a novel approach to dealing with the complexities of Jewish identity by dismantling and then reassembling different aspects of the modern Jewish self.

The exhibition also features portraits of individuals who played a special role in Kitaj’s personal and artistic life. One portrait, Two London Painters (1979), features his late wife, Sandra Fisher, together with his good friend Frank Auerbach. Another portrait, I and Thou (1990–1992), captures a tender moment between Kitaj and his youngest son, Max. Other portraits illustrate Kitaj’s close friendship with the writer Philip Roth and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

A final section of the exhibition features a select group of screenprints from the 1969 series In Our Time. This series consists of Kitaj’s reproductions of the covers of 50 books belonging to his own vast personal library.

Ronald B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory
Jewish Works from His Personal Collection