Portrait of Philip Roth

R.B. KITAJ (Cleveland, 1932 - Los Angeles, 2007)

Biography



American by birth, Ronald Brooks Kitaj began his studies at the Cooper Union in New York and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna. After serving in the U.S. Army, he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford in 1958 before transferring to the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied alongside such artists as David Hockney – who was to become his lifelong friend - Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Patrick Caulfield. Older and more worldly than most of his contemporaries at the RCA, Kitaj was a particular influence on these younger students, who joined him in becoming the leading members of the nascent British Pop Art movement. Having made London his home, he was represented by Marlborough Gallery and enjoyed a series of successful exhibitions in London and New York from 1963 onwards. In the course of curating an exhibition entitled The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery in 1976, he coined the term ‘The School of London’ to refer a group of artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews and Euan Uglow, as well as Kitaj himself. Further exhibitions in England and America in the 1980’s coincided with a renewed interest in his Jewish heritage and in Jewish culture and ideas, leading to the publication of his book, the First Diasporist Manifesto, in 1989. Elected to the Royal Academy in 1991 (the first American artist since John Singer Sargent to have been so honoured), he was four years later the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. Stung by the savage critical reaction to the exhibition, which was followed shortly thereafter by his wife’s sudden death, Kitaj resolved to leave London for good. He settled in Los Angeles in 1997, and lived and worked there for ten years before his death, by his own hand, in October 2007.

Throughout his career, Kitaj was always particularly highly regarded as a draughtsman. He was equally adept in chalk and pastel; the latter medium he took up in the 1970’s, encouraged by Hockney and inspired by Degas, who was a particular hero. In 1981, the art critic Robert Hughes, writing of a retrospective of Kitaj’s work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, noted of the artist that ‘Of late, he has also emerged (alongside David Hockney and Avigdor Arikha) as one of the few real masters of the art of straight figure drawing in Europe or, for that matter, in the world…Kitaj draws better than almost anyone else alive, taking on all the expressive and factual responsibilities of depiction and carrying most of them through.’ Hockney himself recalled of Kitaj, shortly after his death, that ‘He was a great draughtsman. (The best Jewish draughtsman of all, he told me.).’