RB Kitaj (1932 - 2007) was an extraordinary artist whose role in contemporary art is not classifiable. He excelled in figurative thoughts but mixed those thoughts with extensions into the surreal and the abstract and the history of the world past and present up to the time of his death. Oddly enough there are very few books written about his artist who was born in America but spent the greater part of his life in England. He studied at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna and the Cooper Union in New York City. After serving in the United States Army for two years, in France and Germany, he moved to England to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford (1958-59) under the G.I. Bill, where he developed a love of Cézanne, and then at the Royal College of Art in London (1959-61), alongside David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. Richard Wollheim, the philosopher and David Hockney remained life-long friends. He ended his life in suicide and no one knows whether is consistent lack of critical acclaim was a major contribution to his demise.
This book remains the definitive one about the man, his development and his view of the world as displayed through his art. His long time friend Marco Livingstone, provides the interviews that pepper the pages of this well illustrated survey of the artist's work. And from a memoir by Livingstone we gain the following information: `Although Kitaj was only 43 when we first met, he had been in the public eye for over 15 years and already had a distinguished reputation. On that very first meeting he was already speaking about preparing for his `old age style'. I found him congenial but rather intimidating, as I was to continue to do during my visits to him in later years on Elm Park Road in Chelsea, where he lived with his companion (and eventually his wife) the American painter Sandra Fisher. Around Kitaj it was difficult to ever let one's guard down completely, and not only because his formidable intellect and wide reading could make one feel vulnerable and lacking in knowledge. Visits to his home tended to be planned with military precision and certainly with an American sense of time-keeping that fortunately was familiar to me from my own childhood in the USA. You were instructed to arrive for tea at, say, 4 on the dot, and it was always obvious when your audience with him had come to a close.
Only on my last visit to him in Los Angeles, where he had resettled in 1997 after turning his back on Britain, did I find him in a more relaxed mood that dispensed with the clock-watching. Should one have been fortunate enough to see him in the company of his old friend Hockney, whom he called affectionately `the blond bombshell', an altogether more carefree side of his character was revealed: it was on such occasions that I saw him smiling, laughing and joking, all activities that he would normally carry out only with deadly earnestness. His humour was so dry you could easily miss it. Hockney, he told me once, had invited the curator Henry Geldzahler to stay at his mother's house in the sleepy seaside town of Bridlington in East Yorkshire. `I told him to take a gun, it's dangerous up there.'
This is an important book about an important and grossly misunderstood artist. We should become more aware of his gifts to art and this is the best starting point to establish that. Grady Harp, June 12