Born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Kitaj studied at the Cooper Union Institute in New York in 1950-1 and 1952. As a merchant seaman in the early 1950s he visited Havana, Mexico and South America. He was a student at the Academy of Fine Art, Vienna in 1951. He attended the Ruskin School, Oxford in 1958-9, and the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1961. It was at the Royal College that he met David Hockney, who became a close friend.
Kitaj is considered a key figure in European and American contemporary painting. While his work has been considered controversial, he is regarded as a master draughtsman with a commitment to figurative art. His highly personal paintings and drawings reflect his deep interest in history; cultural, social and political ideologies; and issues of identity. Known for his expressive, figurative works that playfully depict contemporary life, art historical references, and sexuality. Using an array of aesthetic styles, he merged the collage techniques of Pop Art with the agitated brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Fascinated by his family’s Viennese and Russian-Jewish heritage, Kitaj introduced the narratives, self-analysis, and Judeo-Christian mysticism embedded in the early 20th-century literature of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin into his art practice.
His first one-man exhibition was held at Marlborough Fine Art, London in 1963. He taught at the University of California Berkeley in 1967-8 and the University of California Los Angeles in 1970-1. In 1976 Kitaj selected for the Arts Council of Great Britain a group of British works, connected by a common theme, which formed the core of an exhibition called The Human Clay. The show included works by Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff, Moore, Hodgkin, Hockney, Kitaj himself, and others. Kitaj's essay for the catalogue, in which he proposed the idea of a School of London, became one of the key art historical texts of the period. In 1989 he published the First Diasporist Manifesto, the longest and most impassioned of his many texts discussing the Jewish dimension in his art and thought.
His various honors 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 and tour 1981-2; and the Tate Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1994-5.
Today, the artist's works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London, among others.