Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

Retrospective: Kitaj versus Doig

This excerpt was part of an MA written submission.

Back in 1994, R.B.Kitaj was given the opportunity of a retrospective at what was then just called the Tate Gallery. Kitaj was an old school technician coming from a golden era at the Royal College of Art, which produced artists of similar technical gifts such as Peter Blake and David Hockney. But sadly for him, his brand of neurotic fauvism, however brilliantly painted, was not to the assembled critics’ tastes; nor his intellectual Old Testament posing. Was he just too good, too proficient? The assembled critics, or so it seemed at the time, preferred to see painting that had been relentlessly ground out; to witness the painful squeeze of creative constipation and worship the hesitant, clumsy mark.

This type of thinking appears to have changed little in the intervening years, which brings me to Peter Doig’s widely acclaimed retrospective at the Tate Britain last year (2008) . Unlike Kitaj, Doig had an unpromising early career in which he made paintings that perfectly complemented the 80s taste for graphic line, primary colours and comic book aesthetics; the sort which one easily associates with the meretricious wall hangings of 80s’ wine bars. A subsequent period in Canada however put him back in touch with his roots and in the autumn of 1989, now enrolled at Chelsea School Of Art, he started to paint elegiac, pastoral images of cabins, fields and lakes that were in direct contrast to late 80s Britain and for that matter Europe, now gripped in revolutionary turmoil after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unperturbed by these historical calamities, Doig painted Baked (1990) a redder than red painting of a lake about a million miles from anywhere, let alone the polluted runnel of the King’s Road, by then populated with liberated Trabants.

Sourced from rose tinted memories and travel brochures and clearly short of the technical gifts that would have given him some idea of how to paint Baked, Doig appears to try everything in the book, eventually settling on a sort of pointillist technique, no doubt with a little help from Ian Stephenson (the Sixties dot man supreme) who was running the show at Chelsea at the time. One can see them now dotting away in those troubled times.

‘Did you hear about Ceausescu, Peter?’
‘Ye, another dot over there Ian, Ta.’

The Chelsea work and that which immediately follows up to 1993 is surely Doig’ s best. The heavily worked surfaces are a joy to peruse and even detractors of the Doig legend cannot underestimate how difficult it is to paint cohesive images on such a large scale with so much apparent painterly confusion. Perhaps one can make a comparison between the rise of democracy and freedom of thought in Europe at the time with the explosive quality of Doig’s technique. In which case, he marks an end to the Iron Curtain of 80s conceptualism and the beginning of something akin to free thinking anarchy and you’d have put money on him failing, but some how he doesn’t. He wins the John Moores’ Painting Prize with an insipid painting of a boy standing on a frozen lake that sets the officially validated standard by which all his subsequent work is then judged; and from there on, it is all downhill with a few so called masterpieces along the way and quite a lot of milking the art market with dodgy studies, drawings and prints that would have been better consigned to a drawer.

By the final room of his Tate retrospective you witness the risible manifestations of an artist in creative meltdown. Vast, hugely expensive linen grounds framed in oak on which Doig has knocked up nothing more than an underpainting. It is a hugely disappointing end to an uneven show that proves more than anything that Doig is a dogged and devoted painter, lacking the intellectual rigour and technical ability to be first class – who just got lucky. But someone really should have told him you are supposed to get better not worse. Ron Kitaj, at the very least, got better.

Jun 26, 12:35 PM by Donald Short