Gustave Kaitz, the last Art Deco artist
The Art Deco movement of the 1920s and ’30s is best known for its stylish and geometric design: streamlined, modern furniture, textiles and jewelry, not to mention iconic New York City skyscrapers such as Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
It’s an aesthetic that heavily influenced the Jewish-American painter Gustave Kaitz, one of the last artists to paint in that style. In 1930, at the age of 17, he picked up his brush and painted “Sacrifice” — which depicts a Mesoamerican woman gazing upward, with angular features and a highly stylized headdress — and went on to create hundreds of paintings that he sold to department stores and collectors.
Kaitz in his Manhattan studio circa 1935
The first public retrospective of Kaitz’s work is now on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. More than 20 pieces will be shown, ranging from his earliest work of the 1930s and ’40s to the second chapter of his career in the 1970s, after he had put down his brush for more than two decades. The show doesn’t have a closing date but is expected to be on view for about nine months.
An automotive museum might seem like an odd venue for such an exhibit, but museum founder and chairman Peter W. Mullin said it fits his interest in Art Deco style, including French cars of the 1920s and ’30s.
“His artistry is not something that people know a lot about or have seen, and part of our museum’s objective is to bring back for public view and enjoyment something special about the Art Deco period,” Mullin said.
Mullin serves as the co-founder and chairman of the board of M Financial Holdings Inc. and as chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Kaitz’s daughter, Revalee Kaitz Brody, who is loaning the artwork to the museum, said that in a spiritual world, Mullin and her father would be kindred spirits.
“Peter has a very innate understanding of many of the things that my father was searching for,” she said.
Kaitz’s paintings have a strong religious and spiritual component. He incorporated symbols and themes of mythology and science fiction in his work, which was unusual for the genre, according to Brittanie Kinch, the museum’s historian and guest curator.
“He was unique in that he was infusing his personal knowledge about philosophy and combined it with the aesthetic movement of the Art Deco period,” Kinch said. “He was very interested in myth and in infusing pieces of the dream world and personal mythologies, or even cultural mythologies.”
Kaitz’s figures evoke Mayan and Aztec civilizations, as well as Native American cultures and the classical elements of Greco-Roman sculpture. He regularly sought out the company of religious leaders from other faiths as well, spending time with Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and the Siddha Yoga guru Swami Muktananda. In the mid-’70s, he made the paintings “Buddha and the Eight Fold Path” and “Jesus the Jew.”
“My father loved being Jewish. He wouldn’t have wanted to be anything but Jewish,” Brody said. “When he was in discourse with men or women of other religions, he was able to learn more about Judaism from some of them. It helped him understand who he was.”
Kaitz was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 6, 1913, to Polish immigrant parents. His father was a businessman who ran a nightclub on Coney Island, and his mother was a homemaker. They encouraged his interest in art, and he channeled his love for French artists of the Art Deco movement into his paintings.
“He continued painting in that way. He didn’t really have an evolution in painting,” Kinch said. “He preserved that painting style into his later works, which is why we call him one of the last to continue painting in that style.”
Kaitz took a 23-year hiatus from painting while he ran an antique store in Brooklyn with his wife, Mildred. They collected 19th-century art and oil paintings — expanding to three stores before relocating their collection to Monticello in upstate New York. There they had a summer home, where they entertained artists, writers and poets. Longtime friend and Pulitzer Prize nominee, the Yiddish poet Menke Katz, once wrote that Kaitz “is always walking the mountaintops, but he knows what’s going on in the streets.”
Kaitz’s first era of painting focused on mythical, goddess-like figures, while his later work involved celestial landscapes that could have been inhabited by the creatures in his earlier paintings. One futurist-inspired painting is “Voyager,” made in 1975. The abstract landscape appears to show a jagged spear of ice pointing toward a fractured moon, while orange ribbons of smoke curl around it, as if from a spaceship.
“Even the title, ‘Voyager,’ kind of insinuates that this is a place you can travel to and escape in your brain,” Kinch said.
“Society needs fantasy,” Kaitz was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article reporting his 1992 death. “Reality is cruel, people seek a way out. The Deco movement was one of the ways out, to fantasize reality, to make it something we wish we were.”
As a child of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, it also might have been Kaitz’s way of exploring a foreign culture and seeking a way in.
“He was probably in a pretty isolated community, in that they had very specific rules and structures and stories that created their community. So he had the ability to anthropologically go into different societies and pick out how those people worked,” Kinch said.
Perhaps his best-known work is “The Gatsby Girl,” painted in the 1930s and reflective of the Jazz Age as depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel “The Great Gatsby,” which focused on millionaire Jay Gatsby and his obsession with the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. The subject of the painting wears a flapper hat and gazes at the viewer, with her head tilted and one hand covering her breast.
'The Gatsby Girl'
Kaitz continued his interest in strange and alluring women later in life, as in “Terra,” painted in the 1980s. The woman wears space-age jewelry and is holding a crescent-shaped, multicolored object. “Her divinity encompasses all of existence. In her hand she holds the spiritual realm of eternity,” Kaitz once said of the painting.
When Kaitz passed away, his daughter moved his extensive art collection to her home in New Jersey.
“There were about 150 paintings and sketches, and probably 1,000 or more that are in homes and in families from three generations ago,” Brody said. “In the 1940s, he sold his art not only to private individuals but to department stores. If you’ve ever heard of Fortunoff or Gimbels in Manhattan, they’d buy them by the hundreds. The list was so long, it was as long as a roll of toilet paper. And he got so nervous, he hired some kids on the block to come and help him frame them.”
This is the first time a body of his work will be gathered for public view, and Brody said she hopes the show will help her father gain the widespread recognition he sought during his life.