Kitaj’s Puzzle

I am impressed above all with R.B. Kitaj’s collage-like works, produced by superimposing numerous pieces of information and artistic citations. With their powerful colors, they radiate at first a kind of lightness and beauty.

Desk, split in two, with content

R.B. Kitaj, Desk Murder 1970–1984 © Birmingham, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The actual stories behind the motifs become clear only when one reads the texts that Kitaj attached to his pictures. These additional levels turn the collages into fraught projection screens for personal, historical, political, cultural, and religious themes and events. Suddenly text and image can no longer be viewed and understood separately. A putatively beautiful, gaily colored work becomes a vexating puzzle.

Desk Murder is a particularly vivid example in this context. At first glance an aesthetically arranged composition, the real subject of the picture is hatred. Kitaj only truly finished it after 14 years of continuous re-interpretation and re-titling, intuitively painting over parts and adding things – until reality caught up with fiction: as the artist read about the death of former SS-officer Walter Rauff and took in his biography, he recognized in his own picture the motif of the mastermind criminal sitting at his desk, designing gassing facilities, and at last gave his work the final title: “Desk Murder.”

Barbara Holzer, Exhibition architect

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