Born Ronald Brooks Kitaj in Cleveland, Ohio, to an American family with Viennese and Russian-Jewish heritage, R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007) is widely regarded as one of the most erudite and iconographically complex artists of the last half-century; he is subsequently considered to be a key figure in the canon of European and American art. His expressive, figurative works combine aspects of contemporary life with art historical and socio-political references, sexuality,self-analysis and Judeo-Christian mysticism embedded in the early 20th-century literature of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. While his work has occasionally been considered controversial, he is undeniably viewed as a master draughtsman with a commitment to figurative art. His highly personal paintings, prints and drawings reflect his deep interest in history; cultural, social and political ideologies; and issues of identity.
As a child, attended art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Following his studies at Cooper Union in New York and the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, he spent two years in Europe serving for the United States Army. He then continued his studies at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University, and at the Royal College of Art in London. He enrolled at the latter in 1959, where he became a close friend of David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield and Allen Jones, he was inititally identified as a pioneer of Pop Art, before recontextualising himself as a School of London painter alongside admired contemporaries that included Auerbach, Bacon, Freud and Kossoff. Kitaj remained in in London for 40 years, until 1997 when he moved to Los Angeles. He died at his home there in 2007, one week before his 75th birthday.
Despite his early association with Pop Art, Kitaj had limited interest in the culture of mass media and instead works from pictorial and literary sources. Renowned for his use of intellectually stimulating historical references, Kitaj's work was often inspired by late 19th-century French art and by his Jewish identity. His paintings and prints add up to an extraordinary body of work; the latter function as an illustrated journal of an artist's life, characterized by a quest for new subject matter and innovative ways to depict it. R.B. Kitaj remains one of the most influential artists since the late 1950's and continues to link personal history with contemporary art through his unique vision.
His various honours include election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982. In 1985 he became the first American since Sargent to be elected to the Royal Academy. Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held, including shows at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, the Tate Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and most recently The Jewish Museum, Berlin, The Jewish Museum, London and the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Kitaj's work is included in numerous important private and public collections, including the British Museum, London, England; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo; Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel; Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, Germany; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London, England; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.