Second Diasporist Manifesto
R. B. Kitaj, who died in 2007 in Los Angeles, is one of the most important American painters of the last half of the twentieth century. Less well known in the United States than in Britain, Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio. After studying at Cooper Union in New York City, where his earliest work resembled that of abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. This took him to Europe, where he remained after his army service; he continued his studies under the G.I. Bill in London, which became his home for the next thirty years. He befriended the painters David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Lucien Freud, who together with Kitaj constituted the London School, a sobriquet given to the group by Kitaj himself in 1976. Their art gradually posed a formidable challenge to the abstractionism that dominated modern art. Kitaj’s brightly colored figurative paintings impressed critics and the public with his formidable drawing. With unusual economy he could express a great range of emotions. A superb draftsman, his linear control invited comparison with European masters like Giotto and Pablo Picasso. He won many awards and honors, including appointment to the Royal Academy. He is the only American painter, other than the famous James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), to receive that distinction, and “one of only a handful of American painters given a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during his own lifetime.”
It is necessary to know at least the above about this artist in order to overcome an initial skepticism and bemusement when confronted with the book under review, his Second Diasporist Manifesto (A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses). This volume follows the First Diasporist Manifesto, published in 1989. These “manifestos” are fragmented, rhapsodic, repetitive, and, at first glance, superficially intellectual. They allude to countless writers, thinkers, and artists of the modern age but rarely rise above a curious nominalism. A thinker is merely cited, sometimes quoted, and the quotation is often followed by a personal commentwhimsical, unpretentious, but rarely inductive or analytical. There is the suggestion of some kind of dialectic, but it never rises to the surface.
Almost any page taken at random in the Second Diasporist Manifesto will yield passages like the following:
218 “I myself am a part of Nature.” Einstein I myself am a part of Nature and it is in my Nature to paint Jewish pictures. 219 “My views are near to those of Spinoza.” Einstein My views are near to those of Spinoza but closer still to Kafka, Einstein (essays) and Cézanne plus Matisse and Munch, etc. And latterly, Mondrian, in a strange way (see 231).
As the reader comes under Kitaj’s spell, the impression of aimlessness gives way to a growing trust in the patterning of Kitaj’s mind, the way he is trying to impose order on the stream of his own thinking. The 615 entries seem to be journal or diary notes that Kitaj has numbered. At times they seem sequential, but their principal connection is through cross-reference. That is where the numbers come in. There is no pagination in this book. The reader must navigate by flipping back and forth and following the numbers wherever they go. In the 1989 manifesto, the pages are numbered, and the entries are longer and resemble miniature essays. In this second manifesto, the entries are much shorter, often breathless, and the only reference points are the numbers. One could argue that the painter Kitaj, as writer, is producing a kind of verbal collage.
There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) to which every observant Jew must comply. To his own 613 observations, Kitaj adds two to give his manifesto the added clout it needs to live up to the code of religious laws it imitates. One has to remember that Jewish prohibition against “graven images” that represent the deity has tended to mitigate the importance of figurative art in Jewish culture. This is what makes Kitaj’s numbered entries “free verses.” Their purpose is to vindicate Diasporism as an intrinsic artistic program necessary to ensure Jewish survival in the post-Holocaust world:
614 Rabbi Emil Fackenheim declared a famous 614th commandment: “The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.” So be it! Now, paint that! 615 As I make to die, here’s my 615th: EASEL-PAINTINGS ARE NOT IDOLS, so, JEWISH ART IS OK to do without consulting your Rabbi, so do it! It’s good and universal!
What does Kitaj mean by “Diasporism”? In the manifesto of 1989, Kitaj...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)