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Don't Listen to the Fools

R. B. Kitaj’s book covers and collages at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

It turns out something happened on the way to see the “Gutai” exhibition at the Albright-Knox—there was no “Gutai” exhibition at the Albright-Knox. I had misheard “G” for “K” and thought there was a timely exhibit of the post-war Japanese artist group that came together to explore the creative potential of physical abandon and eccentric methodology. (“Gutai” means in Japanese “embodiment” or “concrete action.”)

The art work on view down in the Clifton Hall passageway was by R. B. Kitaj, an American painter, born in Ohio but best known for being part of the company of young British painters of the 1950s that included David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Francis Bacon. Kitaj’s large figurative painting included in this show, Walter Lippmann (1966), fuses academic portrait style in an iconic tableau of then contemporary figures with collaged elements and narrative commentary underlined in a schoolboy’s cursive penmanship.

But Kitaj was equally obsessed with language and image in graphic design, evident in a series of book covers both popular and obscure that is displayed in the underpass gallery.

All along the brightly lighted walls of the passageway are more than 75 works from the museum’s permanent collection: two-dimensional literary graphics, images taken from Kitaj’s personal library blown up as large-formatted artworks covering social, political, and artistic issues of the 20th century, from the Holocaust to baseball.

Kitaj’s sense of the surrealist Marcel Duchamp‘s art practice, using objects “ready made,” and Duchamp’s concept of the “inherited meaning of borrowed imagery,” underwrites the artist’s choice of pictorial sources, linking his own personal history with contemporary art in an array of historical and literary book covers. The work shown displays a wide range of dated illustrations, whimsical, anecdotal, proto-Art Nouveau, post-war kitsch, Cold War propaganda. Kitaj’s appropriated images resist metaphoric meaning, presenting decorative motifs and colorful surfaces of typographic and diagrammatic elegance with an emphasis on understatement: flawless composition, unobtrusive illustration, simple borders, minimalist type. As Kitaj was quoted to say, “Some book have pictures, some pictures have books.”

While Pop artists were drawn to the absence of perspective in commercial graphic design and the ability to integrate a wide range of existing fonts and formats for commercial appeal, collagists like Kitaj used the rarefied strata of publishing to produce photo silkscreen art in a surprising juxtaposition of disparate elements: photo scraps, film references, fragmented documents of the recent past carrying associations accumulated and transformed by time. Kitaj’s subtle draftsmanship and restrained detachment, his creative exploration in form and technique, produce striking and acute images. In an era where graphic design and product design are barely distinguishable, his vintage books covers are also well worth a lingering view.

The exhibit continues though September 15.

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