R. B. Kitaj at the National Gallery

R. B. Kitaj’s talent was always sufficiently frail as to raise doubts about whether his advocates admired the work itself, or simply admired what Kitaj appeared to be trying to do. From the beginning, labels adhered to Kitaj. American-born but art-educated in the UK, he was first of all yoked with Peter Blake and David Hockney on the British Pop Art scene – acid-drop colours, a whippy line out of de Kooning, enthusiasm for the unworked passage, engagement with subject-matter – although he never really bought into the Pop preference for mass culture over high culture. Then there was the so-out-that-it’s-almost-in adherence to figuration in the 1970s and early 80s, at a time when even abstract painting was looking distinctly jaded and the future seemed to belong to conceptual art. Kitaj, though, was having none of it. Even if the drawing didn’t ever quite come off, even when the painting failed to startle or please and the irony-free historical and literary allusions grew more laboured and self-important with each passing year, it was hard not to respect at least one germ of his work – the embedded hope that history painting, as a genre, hadn’t finished yet. And as long as one read the essays and ignored the pictures, that respect was, at least in the short run, sustainable.
More recently, though, we’ve seen Kitaj back himself into the martyr’s corner position. His 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery received generally, though not uniformly, awful reviews. Kitaj blamed these on anything and everything other than the quality of the art itself. He was, he claimed, hated for his painterly conservatism, or his political radicalism, or his Judaism, or for his Americanism, or – well, anything, as long as it didn’t have to do with skill or application. Then in 1997, his wife Sandra died suddenly, and he returned to Los Angeles. And now the National Gallery in London has given him a mini-retrospective in its Bernard Sunley Room.

It’s a remarkable enterprise on several levels. The National Gallery is surely right to bring living artists into its ambit – whether to amplify the ongoing conversation between the art of the past and the present, or to inject minor irritants into a collection so fantastically good, if largely over-cleaned and strangely labelled, that far too many of us have become all too blasé about it. So much for the theory. In practice, the sycophantic curatorial tone starts to grate (before he left, Kitaj was one of London’s ‘most colourful and influential personalities’ we are told – ‘with a ‘central’ role in the art of his time) – even before one has encountered the work itself, or begun to wonder about the nature of its relationship with the masterpieces in all the rooms around it.

The work, alas, is almost uniformly appalling. Kitaj has not been growing any stronger as an artist over the past few years. In the tiny handful of earlier works on show – notably, If Not, Not – there is bad draughtsmanship, arbitrary colour, and inept compositions of the sort one would not, for instance, expect to find in Hockney’s work over the same period. The curators also seem to accept the magnificently over-ambitious claims made for the subject matter and symbolic charge of some of the paintings; Kitaj may very well have intended that should address the subject of the Holocaust, but is it really wise to assert that it actually does so? The most one can say for the first few paintings, really, is that Kitaj had attempted something fairly important, put in a good deal of work trying to make it come off properly, and in the process created something of some art-historical interest.

The bulk of the show, however, consists not of these older works, but of a series painted after Kitaj’s return to America, in which he imagines himself and his late wife as angels, grouped in poses which make reference to art-historical precedents including Cezanne’s Bathers. (The series is called Los Angeles – get it?) In what presumably was meant as a flattering gesture, the National Gallery has moved a large Cezanne Bathers into the Sunley Room, as if to invite comparison between Kitaj’s work and that of Cezanne himself. The result, predictable though it may be, is almost painful to describe. If Kitaj has, as we are told, spent years observing and drawing the human figure, it is not clear to what end all that hard work has gone. The canvases (generally unprimed, but in two cases reused) are littered with passages of laboured yet unpersuasive drawing and blotched with bruise-like patches of meaningless colour. Though labelled ‘unfinished’, they in fact all seem to be finished in the same lazy, slapdash, tacitly formulaic way. They are ill-considered and uninteresting. In short, the overall effect is a little bit too much as if someone had asked Kitaj to create seven Kitaj paintings for a firm deadline, and he’d obliged – but only just.

On one level, this is all rather unfair. In human terms, it feels wrong to condemn paintings which were created, one can only assume, out of real love and still-raw loss. It seems likely that the process of making them meant something important for Kitaj – his abundant quoted commentary on the work suggests this – and have helped him confront the most terrible aspect of human love. Yet the work itself is no good at all, and it should not have been shown in the National Gallery. Just because Kitaj has had a terrible time recently, and because his name is linked for historical reasons with those of better painters, should not mean that museum staff drop their critical standards before this flurry of frankly inadequate material. It is right that the viewing public ought to be able to satisfy their curiosity about the way in which Kitaj’s oeuvre has developed. But there are plenty of ways in which this could happen without invoking the prestige of the past to validate the second-rate present. Bracketing it with Cezanne in the National Gallery confers upon the work a stature, and possibly even an economic value, that it certainly does not deserve.

Meanwhile Marlborough Fine Art is having a particularly good autumn, with handsome new shop-fronts opening up all over the West End. In Piccadilly, Frank Auerbach has been given a major retrospective at the Royal Academy in which he is twinned with Rembrandt. Skilfully hung amid those elegant surroundings, Auerbach’s paintings, mostly in private hands and rarely seen in public, look better than ever. And since Auerbach sells his work (including graphic work) through Marlborough Fine Arts – the proud owners of quite a lot of the work on show – the success of the show can only have been a source of pleasure to Marlborough. At the same time, over in Trafalgar Square, Kitaj – another Marlborough artist – is exhibiting what will surely be called ‘major’ new canvases as well as some really execrable sketches, all ‘courtesy of’ and hence presumably available from Marlborough Fine Arts. These works will have lost no prestige at all in this temporary cohabitation with greatness. After all, a bad charcoal scrawl that has been displayed in the National Gallery has to be ‘important’, doesn’t it, whatever the buyer’s critical judgement might say to the contrary? For what it’s worth, the National Gallery’s Encounters: New Art From Old exhibition last year also included a number of familiar names from this most blue-chip of stables: Auerbach and Kitaj, but also Le Brun, Freud and Rego. (Many, perhaps most, of the other Encounters artists were represented by London’s other top-drawer ‘modern master’ gallery, Anthony D’Offay – this includes Twombly, Viola, Wall, Hamilton, Kiefer, Johns, and Clemente – as well as Howard Hodgkin, who has recently been given a marvellous opportunity to show his work at Dulwich.)

This is certainly not sinister; it is not necessarily even a bad thing. Indeed, the Auerbach example underscores the grown-up, real-world inevitability of this sort of compromise. Given the fact that Marlborough owns a considerable fund of Auerbach work, knows who owns other important Auerbach work, and is generally more plugged-in to the world of heavy-duty Auerbach acquisition and distribution than almost anyone else, it would be impossible to hold a serious Auerbach retrospective without Marlborough’s enthusiastic blessing. If that means that the odd second-rate work ends up being included to make someone happy, it doesn’t much matter, since this is a trivial price to pay for the opportunity to see so much first-rate work.

The other side of the coin, though, is this autumn’s Kitaj show, in which the reputation of a badly over-rated painter – one who is only getting worse as the years go by – receives a much-needed boost from a public institution. Marlborough Fine Art can hardly be blamed for trying to sell this stuff, because that’s what they exist to do. The relevant National Gallery personnel, on the other hand, should have had more sense than to hang this exhibition, and the fact that it was ever allowed to see the light of day – let alone appear in the context of such uncritically enthusiastic endorsements – raises questions about their judgement on all sorts of levels.

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