8.31.17 — Punching Back

To continue my week of catching up with unpublished reviews from this past season, the School of London will not go down in history for its sense of humor. Yet the man who gave the school its name could still laugh at art and himself. Did that leave R. B. Kitaj in exile?

Beginning with Francis Bacon, English artists seemed to compete to express horror and revulsion—and to inspire horror and revulsion in others. The very subjects of Bacon’s best-known paintings, the Crucifixion and Pope Innocent X, attest that this is no laughing matter. Kitaj knew high seriousness when he wished, but he did not always take it seriously. R. B. Kitaj's Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed) (Marlborough, 2001–2002)His version of a dead Christ lies in what could pass for a fish tank, like a beached whale, and it is only Pretending to Be Dead. He rendered an earlier artistic rivalry, between James McNeil Whistler and John Ruskin, as a boxing match. In self-portraits he appears as a terrorist, a woman, a black sheep, and a punching bag.

Of course, in ordinary neurosis self-flagellation is a serious matter, and Kitaj kept at it. He became The First Terrorist in 1957, six years before his first exhibition, and a punching bag in 2004, three years before his death. The boxing match, too, aspires to a place in art history. It may joke about the libel suit against Ruskin, the critic who accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Yet it places Kitaj in their august line, and it borrows its composition from a rather earnest American painter, George Bellows. Even when he is punching himself, this artist is punching back.

All four paintings appear in a healthy selection of his work, at Marlborough Contemporary through this last April 8 (with prints at the gallery uptown through April 1), curated by Barry Schwabsky. The show follows Kitaj to his late years in LA, as “The Exile at Home. Few artists seem anywhere near as English, but he was born in Ohio, as Ronald Brooks, and he took his name not from British colonialism in India, but from his Austrian stepfather. (Try not to pronounce it kitsch.) For him, art is always in exile, and he coined the term diasporism to describe it. He knew that Whistler, too, thrived as an American in London.

The entire school had its roots anywhere but at home. Bacon was born in Ireland, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach in Berlin. Leon Kossoff was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, like Kitaj’s mother. Their exile may appear in Bacon’s agonies, Freud’s distorted portraits, Kossoff’s repeated self-portraits, and Auerbach’s darkly slathered paint. Kitaj evokes a sense of displacement with the urban idlers in Arcades, after the studies of Paris by Walter Benjamin, and with Franz Kafka as only a hat. Another self-portrait calls him The Jewish Rider, punning on Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, a notoriously strange figure in a distant landscape.

All this sounds solemn enough, but Kitaj’s colors keep getting brighter and his backgrounds more filled with white. Schwabsky compares them to Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne, but they approach Modernism from the perspective of a good illustrator. A black outline here and there may recall another exile, Max Beckmann, and a schematic face has the flair of Alexej Jawlensky, but German Expressionism seems long ago and far away. Kitaj comes closest to another exile in LA, David Hockney, whom he knew from their years at the Royal College of Art in London. They share an obvious facility that crosses over into glibness. He was not altogether joking when he called the show’s last painting his Technicolor Self-Portrait.

As with those titles, a joke can serve as a defense mechanism as well. When he titles a woman with big boobs The Sexist, it sounds like special pleading. He is at his best when humor gets along with a deeper mystery. In I Married an Angel, the angel has wings and approaches his bedside— with the choice between consummation and salvation still to come. A nonpracticing Jew, he found in religion, too, a deeper mystery. I laughed at The Jewish Rider, but Rembrandt, the painter of The Jewish Bride, would have approved.

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