The major 1994 Tate Gallery retrospective of artist R.B. Kitaj was meant to be the pinnacle of the artist’s career. Instead, it has since famously been known as his breaking point, when art critics heaped what one curator later deemed as “a cascade of vitriol” upon the exhibition, causing Kitaj to eventually depart from the U.K. in 1997.
Now, a new British retrospective, the first since the artist’s suicide in 2007, sheds more light on what Kitaj had later dubbed “the Tate War.” In addition to more than 100 paintings and drawings presented in a joint show, “Analyst for Our Time” at Pallant House and “The Art of Identity” at the Jewish Museum London, also reveals letters from the fiasco, including a previously unexhibited (and particularly memorable) note from the artist’s friend Lucian Freud.
Though born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Kitaj had settled in the U.K. and made his career within the London art scene after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1959. In the mid-1990s, when the Tate retrospective took place, he’d enjoyed a comfortable within that art world, respected by his peers and friends including Lucian Freud, David Hockney, and Frank Auerbach, among others.
And the show had started well enough. “The opening itself was a really euphoric occasion, large numbers of people from the art world, and a real kind of confirmation of Kitaj's dedication over the years,” retrospective curator Richard Morphet told The Observer’s Tim Adams recently. But it didn’t last. The next morning, scathing criticism flooded in, accusing the artist of overbearing pretension. Andrew Graham-Dixon and Brian Sewell were particularly virulent in their attacks, the latter describing Kitaj as “a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art.”
The artist was deeply affected by these reactions — and his depression took a tragic turn when his wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, died two weeks after the close of the exhibition from a brain aneurysm. In Kitaj’s perturbed mind, the critics had killed her. “They aimed at me and they got Sandra instead,” he said at the time.
Several of the artist’s friends were profoundly upset by the show’s critical reception. Among them was the architect Colin St. John “Sandy” Wilson, who attempted to coordinate an official response of support by starting a round-robin letter. Hockney, Peter Blake, and Leon Kossoff were among those signed it. So was Auerbach.
Freud declined. On view for the first time, alongside Wilson’s response, the letters, and correspondence from Kitaj to Wilson and his wife MJ spanning 25 years, is his delectable missive, which reads as follows:
Though it’s often a good idea to write to someone in order to object, agree, question, or ridicule anything they may have said or done (or even to challenge them to a duel or ask them to lunch), I feel it’s pointless to gang up on a third rate critic when you don’t consider him seriously. As they so wisely say in Ireland: What do you expect from a pig but a grunt. Regards. Lucian.
“Many thanks for your splendid note which I have passed on to a delighted RBK,” answered Wilson. “He’s still licking his wounds — no one can stop us all from doing that, but at least he’s getting a good laugh out of it as well.” Kitaj went on to paint a series of pictures inspired by his late wife, and the “Tate War,” including the “Killer Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even,” presented at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1997. The same year, he relocated to Los Angeles with his young son Max. And, if the episode in 1994 stands now as an explosive moment in Kitaj’s life, the greater trajectory of his career is far more memorable.