Beginning April 5, 2013, The Jewish Museum will present R. B. Kitaj: Personal Library. This exhibition features 33 screenprints from a suite of 50, created by the internationally celebrated painter and graphic artist, R. B. Kitaj in 1969. The portfolio, In Our Time, was acquired by the Museum in 2010. For this series, Kitaj reproduced from his personal library the covers of books that had a profound meaning for him. The images offer insights into the artist's psyche and form a remarkable artistic statement. R. B. Kitaj: Personal Library will be on view through August 11, 2013.
A self-professed book lover, the figurative painter R. B. Kitaj (1932-2007) frequently took a literary approach to his subject matter, portraying friends and heroes - political, artistic, and philosophical - in intimate scenes both real and imagined. Often he playfully borrowed settings from other works of art, as well as from films and news photographs. The deep literary and conceptual underpinnings of his art are in evidence in the suite In Our Time, a highly unusual body of work within his oeuvre.
The screenprints are based on enlarged photographs of books in Kitaj's library. Stains, tears, and discolorations attest to each volume's history and to its physical - and by implication - intellectual fragility. The range of texts and typographies conveys the artist's eclectic interests and tastes, from Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and essays by Ezra Pound and Damon Runyan to an annual budget for the city of Burbank, California. Most are prewar editions, conveying a slightly nostalgic tone.
Stylistically, these are hybrid works, influenced by Pop art and the modernist tradition of the Readymade, a work of art created when a mundane found object is named as an artwork and set in an art context. This avant-garde concept was originally invented by the Dada master Marcel Duchamp early in the twentieth century. In the 1960s it received renewed attention at a time when artistic norms were again being questioned. Reacting to Andy Warhol's Pop imagery, Kitaj poignantly called his repurposed book covers "his soup can, his Liz Taylor." The blatant use of images taken directly from commercial sources situates In Our Time as a precursor of appropriation art.
In turning book covers into works of art, Kitaj is offering fragments of a history of knowledge, in which the content of each volume is at once mysterious and absent. Coming from this passionate bibliophile, the series is nothing less than an intellectual self-portrait.
Over the course of his forty-year career, R. B. Kitaj became increasingly interested in Jewish ideas, particularly Jewish intellectual history and the Holocaust. A man of erudition and contradiction, he saw himself as the quintessential man of the diaspora: an American in London, a figurative artist working during the reign of abstraction, a modernist who venerated the art of the past, and a pragmatist in thrall to European history and culture.