R.B. Kitaj, Ileana Sonnabend: R.I.P.

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Cecil Court, London, WC2 (The Refugees), R.B. Kitaj, 1983-84 — Photo:Tate

Greece puts you in mind of the glorious past. Now I learn from yesterday’s International Herald Tribune that two notable people have just become history. (Where, I would guess, the Trib may also end up before long, as more tourists get their news from CNN and their iPhones. Which will be a pity. Good paper.)

First to the American painter R.B. Kitaj, who spent most of his career in the U.K. He was born not far from Cleveland, but you could be forgiven for thinking he was a Brit. That’s how he came to most of us, in the ’60s, when his work arrived back to the U.S. on the same wave of British Pop that brought in David Hockney. No less than Hockney, Kitaj was there to prove that figurative art was still a vital force. But unlike Hockney he wasn’t mostly interested in the here and now, except as contemporary means were a vehicle for coming to terms with the past. This is what I found fascinating about him. The flat colors and collage style imagery of so much Pop didn’t seem to lend itself to reflections on history. Warhol, somebody I loved up through the late 60s, was incapable of dealing with the past. (If you’ve seen his godawful collaborations with Basquiat on The Last Supper, you know what I mean.) Likewise James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. Their diction as painters seemed too modern to cast backwards.

But Kitaj realized that it’s in a modern way, as a succession of broken, sputtering images, that we absorb history now. And that a canvas, properly packed, could hold the whole mental panoply. He was ironic in the old way, reserved, without being juvenile. He believed that reflections on history could still be one of art’s purposes and I’m betting that art history will make more room for him later than we generally accord him now.

Then there’s the art dealer Ileana Sonnabend. I never knew her, but in the 1980s I passed through her Soho gallery so often I felt like I did. From her I learned about Caroll Dunham, Ashley Bickerton (his great steel boxes covered with commercial logos as self portraits — I still love those pieces) and Haim Steinbach, who did utterly dead pan and weirdly elegant rows of consumer objects on handsome shelves —  Duchamp for the Age of Shopping.

I didn’t need to learn from her about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, though she showed them too. It was of course her ex-husband, Leo Castelli, who had discovered them in the 50s. After the break up she and her next husband started her gallery in a building they shared with Castelli. (That always struck me as very civilized.) Eventually Mary Boone moved in across the street. It was the birth of Soho, or of that moment between the Soho of cardboard box factories and artists lofts and the chrome plated shopping mall it’s reduced to now. Her very success as a dealer was part of the transformation. She leant glamor to the place when it was still grimy, but it was the glamor of a woman with daring, intelligence and genuine taste.

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