In a video interview, architect MJ Long, like Kitaj an American in London, remembers remodelling Kitaj’s house in Chelsea, and posing for his pictures:
“I found sitting for [Kitaj] actually much more disconcerting than being his architect. You just feel as though you’ve done something wrong, somehow, especially if it isn’t going well, which he makes very clear. […] Before and after it was delightful, because he would always want to sit and talk, but while he was actually working I found it quite intimidating.”
Only now do I realize, really examining my favorite Kitaj painting closely, that Juan de la Cruz also has those explicit and aggressive sexual components so peculiar to his work: naked women are a vehicle for political messages (here about the Vietnam War) and historical episodes, for instance about St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and their Jewish origins, which I find inherently problematic. Despite this, however, I like the painting: the many powerful colors, the deep blue sea under the brilliant blue sky, the green cap on the soldier’s head, and the yellow behind him. The painting and the contradictions it binds together – the soldier’s finely-drawn features beside the sober geometric forms – they emanate something of summer’s optimism.
Why? Out of curiosity; to test my feminist – or better and more simply, my feminine – distaste for Roth; to see if my increasing maturity has stimulated some new cognitive process that allows me to encounter the aging, sex-obsessed, white, male ego of the Roth hero with more empathy; or at last to discover exactly why Roth is a reigning great of American literature, which he undisputedly is. It is said that the lecherous puppeteer Mickey Sabbath of “Sabbath’s Theater” is modeled on the author’s neighbor and friend, R.B. Kitaj, but others of Roth’s characters bear traits or biographical details in common with the artist. To sum up, I can’t yet confess that Philip Roth’s characters appeal to me, but I do notice that they have become in a way “historical,” a portrayal of their time. It isn’t dissimilar to the way one enjoys the groping chauvinists of Mad Men, without necessarily wishing to return to the age of oversexed secretaries and mousy housewives. In any case, the projected figure of the artist R.B. Kitaj has grown more vivid, more three-dimensional in my imagination – and I’m all the more excited to get acquainted with the “real” Kitaj beginning in September through the paintings at the Jewish Museum.