A perplexing painting: Los Angeles, London and Providence

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On our first flying vacation since COVID arrived, Betsey and I recently visited Los Angeles, my hometown. We were eager to see my siblings, their spouses and the towering new social hall built by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where Betty and Keith are members.

I was also eager to visit some of my favorite art museums. But a perplexing painting also seemed to visit me.

Betsey and I went to lunch in a beautiful hotel, whose main dining room was decorated with handsome paintings by such prominent avant-gardists as Josef Albers, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Yayoi Kusama and Sean Scully. On the restaurant’s sparkling patio, there was also a sculptural rendering of Indiana’s favorite image, which is formed by the letters L-O-V-E.

While walking to our table, I happened to notice a slender oil painting, about 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide, hanging in an alcove near the kitchen. I imagined that the restaurant’s manager placed it in the least conspicuous space he could find. Though the canvas was unsigned and undated, I immediately recognized it as a creation of the deceased American Jewish artist Ronald Kitaj (1932-2007).

I never met Kitaj, who grew up in Cleveland and Troy, New York, but spent most of his life in London. He was closely associated with such major British figurative painters as David Hockney, and some fellow Jews, including Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, who began to gain critical acclaim by the early 1960s.

A bit later, another Kitaj acquaintance was the Israeli painter Avigdor Arihka, who designed the glorious stained-glass windows in Woonsocket’s B’nai Israel, which were dedicated in 1962.

Though Kitaj and Hockney were loosely associated with the Pop Art movement, they were far less interested in commercial imagery than their American-based contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol. Ironically, the hip, London-based painters were more devoted to such traditional genres as portraiture, still life, landscape and allegory.

I do not recall seeing Kitaj’s first museum exhibition, which was held at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1965, but I enjoyed seeing some of his paintings there, in group exhibitions, in 1971 and 1975. Kitaj’s prestigious dealer was Marlborough Fine Arts, and his paintings, drawings and prints were already being acquired by leading European and American museums.

In 1976, I began conducting numerous recorded interviews with artists, dealers, collectors and museum officials for the University of California, Los Angeles’ Oral History Program. I particularly enjoyed getting acquainted with James Byrnes, a retired art museum director, who introduced me to several of his artist friends. These included Ethel Fisher, a painter, and her second husband, Seymour Kott, who were Jews living in the Pacific Palisades, not far from the new Getty Villa.

Ethel asked if she could paint my portrait, and I posed on a few occasions, but was not thrilled with the results. I framed the small work, but Betsey and I have displayed it only inside a closet.

Ethel’s daughter, Sandra, was also a painter, and she and Kitaj had met in Los Angeles in 1970 and again, perhaps by accident, in London, a year later. By this time, Kitaj’s first wife, Elsi, had died. Ronald and Sandra lived together for a dozen years in London before their marriage in 1983 at Bevis Marks, Britain’s oldest synagogue, where Hockney served as best man.

In 1994, Kitaj was honored with a major exhibition at the Tate Gallery, Britain’s stellar modern museum. The retrospective was later shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately, it was not well received by many British critics. Sandra was devastated, and that same year, at 47 years of age, she passed away from a brain aneurysm.

No longer able or willing to live in London, Kitaj decided to settle in Los Angeles, near his mother, Jeanne, and his older son Clem, but also so his younger son, Max David, could live near his other grandmother, Ethel, and Seymour.

Fortunately, Kitaj continued to paint, but his death in 2007, at 74 years of age, was eventually ruled a suicide. I saw a small memorial exhibition, “Portrait of a Jewish Artist,” held at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish institution in Los Angeles, the following year.

As chair of Temple Beth-El’s library committee, I help recommend annual purchases. Given Kitaj’s prominence as a Jewish artist, I suggested a book about him to our rabbis. I had already acquired a used copy of the catalog from the artist’s Tate retrospective – it had once belonged to Roger Mandle, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Though the rabbis were not aware of Kitaj, they kindly accepted my recommendation.

Then a year or two later, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman told me an amazing story. When a stranger showed up for a Shabbat morning service, Howard introduced himself and asked the fellow’s name. Fortunately, when the visitor said Kitaj, our senior rabbi recognized it. Then he took him into the Braude Library to show him the book about his late father.

Max, who had served as an Army medic, was a student at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Already married, he had at least one youngster. Rabbi Howard did not write down Kitaj’s contact information, but I quickly contacted the medical school and obtained it.

Betsey and I were eager to invite the Kitaj family to our home. How many Rhode Islanders felt they were acquainted with his parents? Indeed, how many could claim a portrait painted by his deceased grandmother? I also so much wanted to share some stories.

During the worst of the COVID pandemic, however, Max was quite reluctant to visit. I extended a few more invitations, but following his graduation in 2021, the Kitaj family returned to Southern California, where Max could pursue further training in psychiatry. We wished each other well, sensing that a personal meeting would probably never occur.

So here was a Kitaj painting – not in London, New York City or Boston – but in Los Angeles, a city that means so much to the Goodwins and Kitajs. Its major image is a lighthouse, but it includes two mysterious, or phantasmagorical, creatures. The larger one, at the top, is a man’s head in profile; the smaller one, at the bottom, is a naked woman standing in a doorway.

It’s tempting, but perhaps foolish, to guess who or what these haunting figures represent. By contrast, the restaurant’s cheerful, outdoor sculpture by Robert Indiana had been so easy to embrace and discard.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.