Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, R.B. (Ronald Brooks) Kitaj is considered a key figure in European and American contemporary painting. While his work has been considered controversial, he is regarded as a master draftsman with a commitment to figurative art. His highly personal paintings and drawings reflect his deep interest in history; cultural, social and political ideologies; and issues of identity.
Among his various honors are election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982, and election to the Royal Academy in 1985 (the first American since John Singer Sargent to receive this honor.)
Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work include shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.; The Jewish Museum, Berlin; The Jewish Museum, London; and the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany.
Kitaj was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and Troy, New York. In 1949, eager to explore the world, he joined the Merchant Marines.
In 1950, between sailings, he attended classes at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He went on to study drawing at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, Austria.
After time in France with the U.S. Army of Occupation, AFCE HQ, he moved to Oxford, England in 1957, where, under the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford.
In 1959, Kitaj was accepted into Royal College of Art, London. There he met classmate David Hockney, who would remain an important friend throughout his life. Upon graduation from the RCA, Kitaj was quickly signed with Marlborough Fine Art, London, where he had his first solo exhibition in 1963. His art career began in earnest, and he found critical acclaim alongside commercial success.
A second solo show followed at Marlborough Gallery, New York, in 1965, and he sold “The Ohio Gang” to The Museum of Modern Art.
In 1969, Kitaj taught for a year at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In 1976, he coined the term “School of London” in an essay he wrote as curator of the polemical exhibition, “The Human Clay,” at the Hayward Gallery, London. The term, though loose, continues to define a group of artists, including Kitaj, who were working in London at that time with a focus on representation of the figure, though they were stylistically diverse.
In 1981 he spent a year living in Paris, France, where he focused on drawing and use of pastel.
In 1983, he married Sandra Fisher, with David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and Kitaj’s children from a previous marriage as attendants.
In 1994, the Tate Gallery, London, organized a major retrospective of the artist’s work. Hostile and personal attacks from some critics led to what Kitaj referred to as the “Tate War.” Following the close of the exhibition in London, the exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Kitaj returned to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, California, and continued to exhibit with Marlborough Fine Art and the Marlborough Gallery, New York.
In 2001 the National Gallery London organized a solo exhibition of paintings: “R.B. Kitaj In the Aura of Cezanne and Other Masters.” Kitaj spent his days reading, writing, and focusing on his “late style” in his Yellow Studio in Westwood. He died in Los Angeles in 2007, one week before his 75th birthday.
His gift of his archive to the UCLA Library Special Collections was celebrated with exhibitions at the Skirball Cultural Center and UCLA’s Young Research Library.