American artist R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) was a teenager when he started traveling in South America, working as a merchant seaman on cargo ships. His life at sea and his international experiences—he later joined the U.S. Army as an illustrator and lived in the United Kingdom for more than 30 years—deeply affected him as a person and as an artist. Kitaj became one of the major figures in the London art scene of the 1960s, but he never lost his sense of being an outsider while living as an expatriate in the U.K. Kitaj did, however, find an intellectual home among books. An avid and eclectic reader, he loved books not only for their contents but as tangible objects to be held and used.
Kitaj created an imagined library in screen prints, which is on display in the Huntington Art Gallery through March 4, 2024. Working in collaboration with master screen printer Chris Prater and his team at Kelpra Studio in London, Kitaj produced a series of 51 screen prints from 1969 to 1970 titled In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part. These screen prints—22 of which are on view in the exhibition “In Our Time: Prints by R.B. Kitaj”—show hyperrealistic, monumental images of covers and dust jackets of books, periodicals, and booklets that Kitaj had in his personal library, found in his friends’ libraries, or purchased in bookstores. The set of prints offers insight into the world and culture of the 20th century while also revealing meaningful aspects of Kitaj’s life and thought.
Kitaj’s screen print O’Neill celebrates the work of the Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. On the horizon appears the ship at the heart of a series of seven maritime dramas written by O’Neill in which he portrays life on the high seas while exploring the nature of love, death, and freedom. The 17-year-old Kitaj decided to try his luck at sea after watching the 1940 film The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford, which was based on the plays by O’Neill. Right after completing high school, Kitaj decided to leave New York and work on cargo ships. Describing his seafaring experiences in relation to the O’Neill screen print, Kitaj wrote: “When my ships slipped away from New York harbor, I could leave behind all the stuff one still wishes to leave but can’t.” For Kitaj, traveling became not only an escape from reality but also an opportunity to explore the world.
The series In Our Time reflects Kitaj’s exploration of his identity and origins. Born in Cleveland, he was raised by his mother, Jeanne Brooks, the American-born daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and his stepfather, Walter Kitaj, a research chemist who fled the rise of Nazism in Europe. Even though Kitaj grew up in an agnostic and liberal environment, he pondered his Russian Jewish origins early in life.
Benia Krik is one of the screen prints in Kitaj’s series that documents the artist’s interest in Jewish culture as well as Russian literature and history. The print replicates the cover of a rare, limited-run paperback copy of a film script published in 1935 by the Russian Jewish journalist and author Isaac Babel (1894–1940). Babel wrote a collection of short stories set in the underworld of Moldavanka, the Jewish ghetto in the city of Odesa, Ukraine, during the last days of the Russian Empire (1721–1917) and the period of the Russian Revolution (1917–1923). In Babel’s short stories, the focus is on Benia Krik, a Russian Jewish leader in the criminal underworld. Kitaj deeply admired Babel, who was executed for espionage in 1940 on orders from the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Kitaj’s fascination with cinema and his great admiration for filmmakers inform his screen prints of books about movies. Vampyr, for example, reproduces the cover of a book published in 1948 about the black-and-white film Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray, written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968) and filmed in 1930. Kitaj admired the Danish filmmaker Dreyer, whom he considered “one of the masters of masters,” and Vampyr was one of Dreyer’s most famous films. Interestingly, Kitaj’s Vampyr screen print portrays a rare Italian edition of the book produced just after World War II, indicating the artist’s passion for collecting hard-to-find books.
Most of the prints in Kitaj’s series honor the physical nature of the original volumes portrayed, showing the design, style, and texture of the covers or dust jackets. Permit Me Voyage replicates the worn paper dust jacket of a collection of poems by the American author and film critic James Agee (1909–1955). As an artist who was also a passionate book collector, Kitaj deeply appreciated a book’s signs of wear and tear, and he depicted them in almost scientific detail.
Kitaj’s screen prints provide us with an imagined library that forms an intellectual self-portrait of the artist. But Kitaj also invites us to reflect on the importance that books have in our lives—the way they mirror our interests and the power they have to awaken our curiosity and inspire new ideas.
Support for the exhibition “In Our Time: Prints by R.B. Kitaj” is provided by the Cassat Art Endowment.
Sabina Zonno is the research associate in European art at The Huntington.