He stayed at Rensselaer, but changed his major to architecture so he could take the art courses. He would eventually switch majors one more time, receiving his bachelors degree in language and literature in 1968.
Every time I switched majors, I had to make up all the courses for that particular curriculum, Kagan says. I know that when I left here, I could have done all kinds of things. I got a great education at RPI.
Kagan went on to graduate from the University at Albanys Masters in Studio Art program in 1970. He moved to Israel for two years where he taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and at the University of Haifa. He then landed a job at Rensselaer as a professor, a joint position in which he taught design in the School of Architecture and drawing in the Arts Department, which had just been established. Kagan and his wife, Lisa, eventually settled in Troy, where they raised two sons, Moses and Eli.
As a graduate student, Kagan immersed himself in a variety of mediums, including etching, lithography, painting, and acrylic sculpture.
His first art show, mostly of etchings and lithographs, was held in the newly built Rensselaer Student Union in 1967. He soon began working with acrylic, which he exhibited locally and in New York City. People began buying his artwork, and Kagans reputation in the art world grew. One of his works, consisting of large prisms and cubes held together by threaded rope, still hangs from the ceiling in Rensselaers Jonsson Engineering Center.
Although Kagans early sculpture shows a strong Modernist influence, the late Richard Stankiewicz, a first-generation Abstract Expressionist sculptor and one of Kagans professors in graduate school, shaped his artistic vision in metal, which would materialize more than a decade later.
I was inspired by Richards in-your-face attitude that challenged the art world to confront rusted-out hulks of steel up close, Kagan says. This kind of steel had a surface that ran totally counter to the glass-and-chrome of modern interiors. When displayed, it dared you to put up with it.
Steely Works of Art
Like Stankiewicz, Kagan is fond of typical junkyard scrap metal from rusty saw blades, chairs, and pipes, to rods of folded steel and chain links.
In his early steel work, Kagan made a series of American flag images. Part of his obsession with the banners came from driving daily to his Troy studio from his home in Kinderhook, where he began to notice how ubiquitous they are. He would see them on old factories, stores, homes, and incorporated in fences along the countryside. He soon realized that he could get people to see flags in almost anything.
The parts just have to be in the right location. Something has to be attached to a pole, and then you can make anything look like a flag. You can make a chair look like a flag, if its hanging the right way, Kagan says.
Kagans funky flags evolved into framed flags and then framed landscapes and other motifs inside the metal rectangles.
Kagan turned to his object/shadow sculptures about 12 years ago. He draws his shadows from old heavy-duty bailing wire used primarily for binding large steel beams before being loaded onto ships. Eventually, the wire is shucked from the metal bundles in a steelyard and discarded or sold as scrap.
His present focus on shadows arose when he began mounting his framed metal pieces. He noticed how the walls caught the shadows of the sculptures. The black marks added double lines and distorted the aesthetics of the artwork. He looked past his frustrations, however, and began to incorporate the shadows in his designs as planned visual elements.
It became a way of designing the work that would leave room for the shadows to become part of the piece instead of just sort of being there, Kagan says.
The shadows soon became the primary narrative of his work.
As an arts professor, Kagan sees himself in his students, many of whom are engineering and science majors who take his courses as electives. They want to explore a variety of challenges without being confined to a single discipline. Yet, many choose technical majors for the same reasons he initially did.
I take great comfort in engineering because its based on real-world calculations, Kagan says. What drew me to engineering in the first place was it provided a straightforward way through math and science to understand and accept the world.
As friend and colleague Gary Gabriele points out, many engineers tend to tackle a problem with the first solution that comes to mind. As an artist, Larry is used to being more reflective about his work, a quality that he often instills in his students, says Gabriele, Rensselaer vice provost.
I enjoy working with Larry because his creative impulses challenge our thinking, Gabriele adds. And, when you react with, Im not sure we can, he often counters with a smile and a Well, why not?
That, Kagan says, is what art and teaching to him is all about pushing boundaries.
I like the feeling that I am opening up a new way of seeing and understanding the world for students, he says.
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