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The curriculum back then also didn’t offer any art electives that would satisfy his appetite for drawing. Rensselaer offered only one drawing course and a painting class that were restricted to architecture students. Kagan considered transferring. He was accepted to Pratt Institute, a premier architecture and design school in New York City. But, by that time, he says, “I liked RPI. I had a lot of friends. I found a nice little community in Troy, and I enjoyed being here.”

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 bachelor’s 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 Albany’s Master’s 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.

Early Works
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 Kagan’s 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 Rensselaer’s Jonsson Engineering Center.

Although Kagan’s early sculpture shows a strong Modernist influence, the late Richard Stankiewicz, a first-generation Abstract Expressionist sculptor and one of Kagan’s professors in graduate school, shaped his artistic vision in metal, which would materialize more than a decade later.

“I was inspired by Richard’s 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 it’s hanging the right way,” Kagan says.

Kagan’s 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.

Opening Boundaries
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 it’s 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, ‘I’m 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.

Larry Kagan brings an open-minded, alternative approach to his teaching as he does to his art.

“Larry has an appreciation for how engineering students think, which is often a very linear approach, and he likes to challenge that. He has had a long-standing interest in teaching students to be more creative, to think in different ways, and to look for interesting, uncommon solutions to problems,” says Rensselaer Vice Provost Gary Gabriele, who has collaborated with Kagan to develop a number of programs including the popular dual-degree program called “Product Design and Innovation“ (PDI) in 1998. Architecture professor Frances Bronet and the late John Schumacher ’66, professor and chairman of science and technology studies, also were collaborators. PDI links the academic essentials for new product invention: the technical, the aesthetic, and the social, with an emphasis on creativity and the application of new technologies and materials.

In his three decades at Rensselaer, Kagan has served as professor, associate dean of undergraduate programs and curriculum initiatives for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and several times as chairman of the arts department. In the late 1970s, he played a pivotal role in the decision to build an electronic arts program in the fledgling department.

“We understood that digital technology was going to transform the way art was conceptualized, produced, and distributed, and we wanted the department here to be in the vanguard of that change,” Kagan says.

One of the first steps was to convert the musicology position into a music technology position. To fill the new spot, Kagan hired a young, savvy composer and electronic musician named Neil Rolnick in 1981.

“Larry has been a key part of the arts team that has developed the strategies for growth, which has so dramatically changed the presence of the arts on the campus,” says Rolnick, a professor in the arts department who also served as its longtime chairman.

These days, in addition to sculpture and drawing, Kagan teaches a first-year course called Seeing and Creativity, which teaches students the cognitive processes that go into seeing and then how to use those processes to develop visual ideas. The course uses digital photography as a teaching tool that makes it possible for a rapid exploration and development of a visual-art vocabulary for students.
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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