The R.B. Kitaj exhibition at the Hirshhorn includes a large, recent, emotionally devastating self-portrait done in charcoal and pastel. The intensity of the head is palpable -- it literally explodes at the crown -- but the cause of that clenched-jaw expression remains ambiguous. It could be anger, passion, pain, terminal surprise.
"It reminds me of a lot, that face," comments Joe Shannon, the artist and the exhibits designer at the Hirshhorn who put the Kitaj show together from beginning to end. "It reminds me of Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Degas . . . me."
Obviously, Shannon wasn't just acknowledging the physical similarity between himself and Kitaj -- they're the same age, 48, with taut, in-shape bodies, hard jaw lines, beards. He was talking, basically, about artistic kinship: Back in 1969, in his first major museum show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Shannon exhibited a "Portrait of Myself" whose expressive, teeth-grinding ressemblance to the Kitaj portrait is uncanny.
"In the late '60s, when I was doing my 'Shoe Salesman' series," Shannon recalls, referring to the startling, violent pictures featured in the Corcoran show, "I ran across a reproduction of a painting called 'Juan de la Cruz' by Kitaj. I hadn't heard of the artist before but the picture knocked me down. I recognized right away that we were in the same boat, figurative painters dealing with storytelling subject matter, alluding to events and things not on the canvas. It was an important discovery. Kitaj reinforced the direction I was taking. In fact, before I saw that painting I hadn't been able to take on the Vietnam war in my work. Right afterwards, I did."
Back then it was a very small boat in an ocean of abstract, formal, idea-oriented art. Today, in the essay he wrote for the catalogue of the Hirshhorn exhibition, Shannon can happily refer to Kitaj as one of "the leaders of resurgent figuration" in painting.
Shannon never dreamed he would ever be in a position to repay an artistic debt so magnificently. Like so many artists, in order to make ends meet, Shannon has used his visual skills to forge a second career in the museum world -- a rarely recognized form of indirect subsidy on the part of Washington's museums. (On Shannon's Hirshhorn staff alone, for instance, there are two sculptors, Lee Aks and Edward Schiesser, and artists Brian Kavanagh and Jody Mussoff work in other departments of the museum. Among many others, elsewhere in town, there is Willem de Looper at the Phillips Collection, Val Lewton at the National Museum of American Art, and Mark Leithauser at the National Gallery.)
When Shannon took the job as chief of exhibitions design at the Hirshhorn six years ago, the idea of originating and organizing shows on his own, of operating, in effect, as a curator, simply didn't occur to him, but his persistent belief in Kitaj's work led him two years ago to write a memorandum to his bosses urging that the museum do a major Kitaj retrospective. Recognizing an impassioned good idea when they saw one, his bosses told Shannon to do the show himself.
"I made a strong case in that proposal," Shannon admits. "I guess I was trying to prove to them that I could write, and maybe unconsciously I was fishing for the project. But I was stunned and delighted when they called me in and gave it to me."
Kitaj was impressed and delighted when he read the proposal, although, Shannon was told, he did ask, "Who's this Joe Shannon?" Now he knows.