Jonathan Jones: Bad reviews are dangerous

R.B.Kitaj, “If Not, Not, 1975-76, oil on canvas, 60 x 60.” Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

In his blog Guardian critic Jonathan Jones suggests that bad reviews killed RB Kitaj.  “In the expansive entrance hall of the British Library in London hangs a tapestry based on RB Kitaj’s painting “If Not, Not” (1975�1976)….You can almost hear the helicopters and the opening guitar notes of The End by The Doors. Above the palm trees looms something worse: the deadly architecture of Auschwitz.

“In the woven picture, pastoral glimpses of bathers and famous 20th-century intellectuals are folded into a broken and chaotic landscape. It’s like a hellish remake of Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (image at left). Images of pleasure, of modernism as escape, jar against visions of modernity as nightmare. A powerful work of art, this decoration is derived meticulously from Kitaj’s painting. It also serves as a monument to the artist, who killed himself in 2007 after his later years were blighted by bad reviews in the British press.

“Kitaj accused newspaper critics of driving his wife to her death, then took his own life. One of his last exhibitions was called ‘Draw Draw Is Better Than Jaw Jaw.’ The bad reception in London of his 1994 Tate retrospective caused him to move abroad (he was an American who had worked, up to then, in London). It seems he never got over it.

“Looking at ‘If Not, Not’ (the original painting is owned by the National Galleries of Scotland), I can’t help but be angry at those critics. Why destroy an artist so cruelly? What was gained? Kitaj stood for a sense of history, a belief in drawing and an intelligent modernism. Are those such terrible qualities in an artist? ‘If Not, Not’ will be remembered when Kitaj’s bad reviews, and their authors, are long forgotten. Stories like this make me wonder what my profession is actually for.”

One Comment

  1. Jones fails to note that Kitaj had a pretty sweet run with the critics from his RCA graduation in 1962, to acquisition by MoMA (The Ohio Gang � 1964) and prompt acceptance at the blue chip Marlborough Galleries. For about thirty years, he enjoyed a constant stream of praise and recognition. He�d had an extensive retrospective at The Smithsonian (Washington) in 1981, that later travelled to Dusseldorf, and been well received, ridden his luck with a convenient and distinctly unconvincing �expressionist� turn in the early eighties and flirted with a conservative academicism in his heavy-handed attempts at life drawing. He was an artist that had simply lost faith in his own instincts, his own past.

    The guy was ripe for reappraisal by the 90s � he was showing in The Tate, making his reputation virtually fireproof anyway � so he gets one snarky review from the younger generation in The Guardian and he goes to pieces.

    Did he really expect never to encounter rejection? Did he really think his work just kept improving? It didn�t. It scarcely survives the 60s, much like the work of his colleague, David Hockney. Kitaj never really fell out of favor with the establishment, though. He was a made man where it counted, but that was never enough. They put up with all kinds of pretension and indulgence, emotional blackmail and dishonesty; that only made matters worse. He just grew more demanding, more clingy.

    It was quite tragic that both his wives should die of disease, but it doesn�t bear looking at just how closely Ron honored his marriages. He can blame other people, but the blame rests at a much higher level.

    Ron wouldn�t take it there of course, at that level he was only interested in citations.

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