R.B. Kitaj (1932 - 2007)

Portrait of Philip Roth

Charcoal on handmade paper.
775 x 570 mm. (30 1/2 x 22 1/2 in.)

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R. B. Kitaj met Philip Roth in 1985, when the writer and his wife Claire Bloom were neighbours of the artist in Chelsea, London. Roth became a good friend, and his writings influenced and inspired much of Kitaj’s thinking, particularly on the question of Jewish identity. As Kitaj wrote in his First Diasporist Manifesto, published in 1989, ‘One outcome of my study of this strange people of mine is that painting, Diasporist painting in my own life, begins to assume some of the Jewish attributes or characteristics assigned to that troubled people. The listing of traits would be endless and funny. For the moment I will leave all that to my buddy Philip Roth (b.1933) and his great book The Counterlife, which is quite encyclopedic on these questions. I think that what the Jews promise, paintings may be made to promise.’ Indeed, the First Diasporist Manifesto opens with a quote – ‘The poor bastard had Jew on the brain’ - from Roth’s The Counterlife, alongside a reproduction of the present portrait drawing. (Roth may in turn have been inspired by Kitaj in creating a character named Pipik, who advocates a doctrine called Diasporism, in his 1993 novel Operation Shylock. The character of the former puppeteer Mickey Sabbath in Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater, published in 1995, was also based in large part on Kitaj.)

Drawn in London in 1985, soon after Roth and Kitaj first met, the present sheet was, according to Kitaj, done in ‘about six sessions’. Loaned from the artist’s collection, the drawing was included in Kitaj’s retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1994, which later travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Despite the generally poor reviews for the exhibition as a whole, the present sheet was singled out for praise by several critics. (One noted that ‘Works like…a magnificent portrait of Philip Roth seemed to me the strongest works in the show.’) Among comparable large-scale portrait drawings by Kitaj is a study of Lucian Freud of 1991, which was hung alongside the present sheet at the 1994 retrospective exhibition, and is today in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Another portrait drawing of Philip Roth by Kitaj, drawn several years later, was, like the present sheet, retained by the artist until his death. Drawn in charcoal on canvas and entitled A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), the drawing remains in the collection of the Kitaj estate.

Provenance:
The estate of the artist, until 2008.

Literature:
London, Marlborough Fine Art, R. B. Kitaj, exhibition catalogue, 1985, no.73, illustrated p.43; Andrew Brighton, ‘Conversations with R. B. Kitaj’, Art in America, June 1986, illustrated p.102; R. B. Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto, London, 1989, detail illustrated p.8; Julián Rios, Kitaj: Pictures and Conversations, London, 1994, illustrated p.62; Richard Morphet, ed., R. B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, London, Tate Gallery and elsewhere, 1994, no.74, illustrated p.152; Richard Dorment, ‘It’s time to learn that less is more’ [exhibition review], The Daily Telegraph, June 22, 1994, p.20; Mark Shechner, Up Society’s Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth, Madison, 2003, illustrated on the cover; Andrew Lambirth, Kitaj, London, 2004, illustrated p.62; ‘In praise of…RB Kitaj’, The Guardian, 24 October 2007, p.32 (illustrated); Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston and Kitaj, London, 2009, pp.88-89; Marco Livingstone, Kitaj, 4th ed., 2010, p.272, no.407; Mirjam Knotter, R. B. Kitaj: Unpacking My Library, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 2015, pp.54-55; New York magazine, 28 May-10 June 2018, illustrated p.5.

R.B. KITAJ

Portrait of Philip Roth

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