R.B. Kitaj, who died on Sunday at his Los Angeles home aged 74, could be called the Zarathustra of contemporary art. With characteristics of prophet and jester alike, he produced complex, compelling, at times knowingly irksome images that were both intensely personal and able to address major themes of modern history and identity politely avoided by most art of his time.
His work broke a modernist taboo – before that became fashionable – by being unabashedly literary. Hilton Kramer once complained that his paintings were “littered with ideas.” He told stories through painting, using visual quotations from high art to convey meaning, and wrote wordy, bombastic “prefaces” to accompany pictures, and manifestos. These texts were sometimes essential to understanding the work, but as often as not, they merely added another layer of playful obscurantism.
But as referential and as literary as he could be, Kitaj was always a consummately visual artist. In mid career he turned with renewed vigor to drawing from life with a robust, assured hand, prompting Robert Hughes to opine that he “draws better than almost anyone else alive.”
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