R.B. Kitaj comes at us out of surrealism and dreams, children's drawings, what he sees as the continuing holocaust, Bosch and Breughel. He paints intricate icons with vague, sometimes unknowable philosophical and intellectual nuances. Fortunately, part of the power of his symbolic images is their mystery. "R.B. Kitaj," the artist's first comprehensive retrospective, opened this week at the Hirshhorn for a two-month stay. The 49 paintings and 50 pastel drawings make up a difficult but rich show. His bright canvases trigger free associations: The experience you bring to the works defines what you take away. The American-born Kitaj is known for his complex human figures, and for weaving social statements into montages of bold colors. Background on the execution of political activist Rosa Luxemburg, in pretty penmanship, occupies a corner of one canvas. A newspaper article ("When Nuns May Use Birth Control"), the gatehouse at Auschwitz and quotes from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot turn up in others. In a self-portrait, Kitaj (pronounced kee-tie) shows himself to be full of fury, a splash of angry thoughts exploding from his mind. "Nietzsche's Moustache" prods us to existential thoughts; the painting depicts the colorful backs of four comedic, Chaplinesque figures in outsized overcoats rooted in bright orange, staring out a window or through a picture. "Pacific Coast Highway" washes over a huge canvas in deep blues with passing figures, palm fronds and a pickaxe (a recurring image) dotting the mindscape. "Land of Lakes" is a dreamy landscape with buttery sand, perfect mountains and a ribbon of river, a full moon, a golden cross and the eye of God in a pyramid of power. One room holds an unsettling, even depressing group of portraits of a bather, an actor, "Communist and Socialist," "The Jew, Etc." and a recurring figure of a man with a hearing aid. They are bleak, sad visions. But pastel and charcoal portraits of his daughter, Dominie, are more natural. If the artist is trying to dislodge us from complacency, and if museums aim to provide unnerving confrontations with our collective past, this show succeeds on both counts.
"R.B. KITAJ" -- At the Hirshhorn through November 15.