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The artwork, which Kagan has termed “object/shadow sculpture,” calls attention to — and challenges — how we perceive the world and process information. Kagan’s art carries an element of surprise because the steel structures bear no resemblance to the visual information they carry within them.

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Shadows, for example, are typically seen as unintended, often-ignored byproducts of the object of focus. In Kagan’s art, the wires hold the critical information in an encrypted, deconstructed way that is then reassembled by light. The shadow grabs the viewer’s attention, and the metal becomes the byproduct. As a result, his hybrid sculptural forms induce a potent visual experience because they violate everything that viewers know about object-shadow relationships.

“That’s an astonishing conception — the idea of an abstraction that creates an ineffable mystery,” says Ivan Karp, director of the OK Harris gallery in Manhattan where Kagan’s work is regularly showcased. “The object itself is a real work of art, but to have a secondary life (of the shadow) is remarkable. That secondary life is only visible in a particular light in a particular space. A kind of magic occurs in the creation of these works.”

Kagan puts the concept in technological terms.

“Think of the delivery of information, such as an e-mail. You compose a message. The message gets broken up into chunks and distributed to different routes. An algorithm reconnects the pieces to be delivered as one neatly packaged message to another’s inbox,” Kagan explains. “In this case, the wires present the paths distributing chunks of information. The algorithm is the light, and all of a sudden the pieces connect and make sense.”

Artful Success
Kagan’s object/shadow sculptures are included in private and public collections around the country and internationally. He exhibits his work in high-profile galleries in New York City, where he also maintains a studio. Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson is one fan. She has borrowed an object/shadow piece of a large opened box, which is mounted on a wall outside her office. No titles are attached to many of his sculptures, including this one. But, for Jackson, the art easily translates into “think outside the box.”

On March 6, Kagan will show his latest body of work at OK Harris. His renderings for this exhibit are focused more on people rather than objects and reveal some stories he’s been “capturing” these days.

One piece, titled “Farber,” portrays a surviving member of the immigrant, mostly Jewish arm of the French Resistance during WWII. Kagan, who read about Jacques Farber in a film review a few years ago, was captivated by the accompanying photo, which showed Farber as an aged tailor sitting in a chair holding an old Luger pistol on his lap.

While much of Kagan’s imagery is fun and familiar, the theme of war is instilled in some of his pieces, which in part is a reflection on his own life. His only sibling, a sister, was killed by the Nazis. Seven years ago, a cousin in Israel was killed by a terrorist bomb in an attack in Tel Aviv. Her daughter was a doctor whose Israeli clinic was blown up three years ago. She survived.

The Beginnings of an Artist
Although he was known by his family and friends as “the kid who could draw,” Kagan initially did not set out to be an artist.

He was born in a German refugee camp after World War II. His family moved to Israel when he was 5, and later relocated to the Bronx when he turned 12. Like so many other boys growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was fascinated with space exploration and wanted to design rockets and spaceships. He spent his teens drawing all sorts of flying contraptions, building model planes, and setting off toy rockets.

“My parents were from Russia and Poland. In Eastern Europe, the people who had the power and prestige were engineers. So, I grew up with this idea that engineering was cool,” Kagan says. “I was totally engrossed by building things, and I also drew all the time. It really wasn’t a question of separating art from engineering.”

In 1964, Kagan enrolled as an aeronautical engineering major at Rensselaer. But, for him, the discipline was too cut-and-dried to hold his interest.

“In the old days when students took engineering at RPI, they didn’t get to do anything creative until their senior year. The idea was that it took a complete three years to learn basic fundamentals — physics, math, equations, fluid mechanics, and the like — and if you didn’t flunk out by the time you were a junior, then during your senior year, you got to do a design project,” Kagan says. “I didn’t like that kind of approach to life.”

“The way engineering has been taught has radically changed from the time I graduated,” Kagan adds. “If I were to study at RPI today, there’s little doubt that I would graduate as an engineering major.”

Art Photography by Gary Gold

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Rensselaer Magazine: Winter 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
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