Originally published on ArtsHub.com.au

Kitaj by Marco Livingstone

Kitaj, by Marco Livingstone and published by Phaidon Press, is almost a work of art in itself. A beautifully produced monograph, this tome covers Kitaj’s entire career, from his birth in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939 to his death in Los Angeles in October 2007. Included are over 200 plates of the artists work that in previous editions appeared black and white, but are now reproduced with startling vividness in full colour, coupled with 43 of Kitaj’s own prefaces, offering a unique armchair insight into one of the great modern painters. This book is expertly detailed and wonderfully presented, as close to an exhibit of Kitaj’s work as you’re likely to get.

Independent art historian, curator and critic Marco Livingstone, enjoyed a decades long friendship with Kitaj, allowing him unfettered awareness of the artist and his process. Based on their correspondence and interviews, Livingstone’s definitive history of R.B. Kitaj examines his mentors, inspiration and lovers, drawing parallels between the painter’s personal life and professional output. This level of detail proves stimulating for those familiar with Kitaj and offers a portal through which newcomers to his work can move towards understanding the artist.

‘R.B. Kitaj’s life has all the makings of a novel, filled with incident and romance, with memorable personal encounters and different cultures,’ Livingstone states, and by relating these experiences chaperones the reader through the tumultuous expanse of Kitaj’s existence. Livingstone explains how experiences from very early in Kitaj’s life impacted his artwork decades later. For instance, when the artist was a merchant seaman early in life he visited exotic foreign ports like Havana and Rio de Janeiro, later recalling ‘Port life has marked me in many ways, sexually and otherwise, and themes for an art can be traced there.’

The ways in which these experiences edified Kitaj’s art and situated him amongst other artists is reinforced by Livingstone, ‘… his introduction to brothel life in Havana… lingered with him his whole life, and it was to this area of experience, which insinuated itself into his pictures over the years, that he continued to pin his ambitions for a type of painting that would synthesize his achievements, as Cezanne did in his late Bathers or Picasso in the Demoiselles d’Avignon.’ The culmination is Kitaj’s paintings from 1990, over 40 year later, The First Time (Havana, 1949) and The Second Time (Vera Cruz, 1949).

The First Time (Havana, 1949) 1990

But as the book describes, Kitaj didn’t just draw inspiration from his own life, and was known for including fictional, literary, historical and real-life figures in his paintings, as well as cut-out texts from books he admired. In these cases, the artist himself offers the most revealing observations, as explained in the prefaces to his paintings. When detailing the development of Amerika (John Ford on his Death Bed), Kitaj writes ‘He looked like a dying man as I sketched him. He had a bowl to spit into,’ and explains ‘all these corny ghosts’ that appear in the painting were homage to ‘the wonderful last scene in Huston’s Moulin Rouge, when all his past characters reappear at Lautrec’s deathbed.’

This kind of examination demystifies Kitaj’s work, allowing readers almost expert knowledge of the artist and his methods. Included in this fourth and final edition of Kitaj is Livingstone’s assessment of Kitaj’s work from 1999 to 2007, an incredibly prolific period following the tragic death of his wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, and his return to the United States.

For Kitaj fans this book is a necessity, and for anyone with a passion for art, a great introduction to the first American since John Singer Sargent to be elected to the Royal Academy, London.

Kitaj (Revised 4th Edition)
By Marco Livingstone
Published by Phaidon Press
RRP: $95