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The art of R.B. Kitaj is a testimony to his passion for life, for literature, for history, and for his beautiful young wife, Sandra, who died six years ago. Judging by his new body of work at the L.A. Louver Gallery, she not only continues to be his muse; his longing for her has entered the realm of obsession. In the aftermath of her death, the artist moved back to the United States, leaving London behind, the city he called home for almost forty years. He settled in L.A. where his children and grandchildren live, and where he first met Sandra while teaching at UCLA in 1970.

There are about two dozen small and medium-sized paintings and drawings in the galleries downstairs. Those who are familiar with Kitaj's earlier works will have no trouble recognizing his style - still very much informed by his student years at the Royal College of Art in London, which he entered in 1959. That's where he met David Hockney who became his lifelong friend. While Hockney ultimately settled for comfortable conventions, Kitaj still manages to retain a rebellious streak in his art, and one suspects, in his heart. His bright, almost day-glo colors burn with intensity. The brushstrokes are impatient, and, at times, unruly. Romantic longing, but more often, carnal desires, are the theme of these new paintings in which he chooses to depict himself as a much older man, while his wife is presented as an embodiment of youth; probably the way he remembers her when they met for the first time.

These paintings both intrigue and move me, but I also have to admit that I was disturbed by them, as if I stumbled upon the pages of an excruciatingly private diary. I'm still trying to sort out my feelings, but I have a sense that the pain and tragedy of Kitaj's private life, combined with clever references to Giotto, Titian and Cezanne, is a task too daunting for him to resolve in aesthetic terms.

However, his few larger paintings in the upstairs gallery have less a sense of frenzy, and come across as more multi-layered, more thought-out, both aesthetically and emotionally. Many of these paintings are from his recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London and, according to available information, the artist kept working on some of these canvases for several years and it shows.

Kitaj's pastel and charcoal drawings on paper, including some haunting self-portraits, show the artist at his most restrained and effective: only a few lines, minimum color, emotions in check.

All in all, it's very courageous of the artist to allow the public in on all his personal anguish. As a private person I admire his courage. But as an art critic I have a problem with not fully resolved artworks that substitute for a prolonged therapy session, with an audience invited to watch.

"R.B. Kitaj: Los Angeles Pictures"
L.A. Louver
45 North Venice Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 822-4955

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