25 JUNE 1994, Page 34


R.B. Kitaj (Tate Gallery, till 4 September) Ian Van Wieringen (Corbally Stourton Contemporary, till 4 September)

The age of insouciance

Giles Auty

The big benefit of a museum retrospec- tive is that it allows us to assess the depth of an artist's achievement as well as show- ing work from all periods of his life. For the past fortnight, British art magazines and the serious press have all carried inter- views with R. B. Kitaj or commentaries on his work. Kitaj's art can be seen in depth currently at Marlborough Galleries (6 Albemarle Street, W1) and the V & A as well as at the Tate.

Most of what I have read has been respectful of the artist, dwelling especially on the complexity and encoded nature of much of his subject matter. Enigmatic has become an adjective in danger of dying from exhaustion. I have wondered some- times whether critical enthusiasm is not almost greater for the man than for his art. Kitaj is approachable and articulate and speaks sensibly on the subject to which he has devoted his life.

The artist was born of immigrant stock in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932. His famed early years were spent largely in pursuit of romantic goals — signing on on merchant vessels, for instance — before conscription into the U.S. army and serving in Germany. I did military service in that country myself and can attest to an enthusiasm for poetry at the time among a remarkable number of young men. During the incessant kit inspections held at RAF Fassberg, sited in direct proximity to the Russian Zone, per- sonal belongings such as books also became subject to inspection. I was all but charged while serving there with the inter- esting military offence of reading seditious literature — to wit the poems of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. These two have formed an important core of Kitaj's own extensive list of authors, a voracious appetite for books being one of the healthi- er habits the artist cultivated during his maritime travels and military service. By the time Kitaj entered the Royal College of Art in 1959 as a postgraduate student, he was not just richer — an ex-army gratuity — and older but also infinitely better read than almost all of his contemporaries, among whom he wielded considerable influence. Here, some may think that being better read than the average art student is not too hard. Be this as it may, Kitaj quick- ly established the reputation for himself of a certain 'literariness' and sagacity, an aura he has never lost.

He was linked initially with the Pop Art movement, an association he never liked. Indeed when compared with the emptiness and juvenile nature of much Pop Art, even Kitaj's earlier productions tend to look mature and considered but this alone hard- ly places them in the traditions of major art. Kitaj quickly formulated an idiosyn- cratic way of making art: casual, naive or comic-book passages of drawing, sudden bursts of bright colour, a general air of mystery tempered with insouciance. Kitaj's art is not essentially perceptual. He does not battle out the age-old problems of painting appearances, preferring to substi- tute a personal but rather superficial short- hand when dealing with visual facts. This is an aspect of his art which exempts it, rather conveniently, from some of the traditional barbs of the criticism. By this I mean that few bother to question whether the artist's drawing is as good as it might be. His work has to be accepted instead on its own, utterly personal terms. As with much of Surrealism, Kitaj's art withdraws itself from areas of conventional and legitimate dis- pute. Except in the famous case of the wife in one of James Thurber's cautionary tales, nobody is in a position to argue about the dreams of another. This is what is most unsatisfactory and unsatisfying in Kitaj's art. Unlike major art of a traditional nature which had to be exactly as it was — a wrought and polished gem — Kitaj's productions often have a quality of arbi- trariness which too few choose to question. Some years ago, Kitaj set out to improve the late 20th century standard of his drawings which does not compare favourably with that of the past. This was a brave and sensible move. In the end Kitaj's worst fate has been to become a hero of the non-visual, would- be intellectuals who abound in modern art, often in the highest places.

In the welter of publicity surrounding `Women and Men, by R. B. Kitaj Kitaj, the American-born Jew who prefers to live in London, few seem to have noticed the work of Ian Van Wieringen,a i

Dutch-born Australian who cares to live n Bali. Van Wieringen is an established artist also but of quite a different stripe: passion- ate about paint and its properties, sponta- neous and intuitive, impelled especially by the cultures of the East. His is a show that deserves more than a passing glance and is to be seen at Corbally Stourton Contempo- rary Art (2A Cork Street, W1), a gallery successfully specialising in artists from the Antipodes. Here is fruity hedonism tem- pered more by neat intuition than any dry or laboured thought.