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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Shape and Shadow: The Sculpture of Larry Kagan at Albany Institute of History & Art

Larry Kagan - Hershey Art, 2011 - light and steel wire
all photos by Gary Gold
There's a particularly close relationship between sculpture and drawing. I first noticed this during college, where drawing teachers are often sculptors, and have seen the parallel reinforced regularly ever since. I think this is partly due to the fact that sculptures, like most drawings, tend to be monochromatic, as well as the fact that modern sculptors typically piece together bits of material in an additive process that is far more similar to drawing than it is to painting (where color tends to be the driving force).

Spike, 1977 - cast acrylic
I've also noted a similarity between photography and sculpture, based on other factors, particularly the concreteness of three-dimensional art and the reliance of photography on three-dimensional reality as its subject. Now, in the work of Larry Kagan as presented in a sumptuous retrospective at the Albany Institute of History & Art entitled Shape and Shadow, these connections are made even stronger through a different element altogether: Light.

According to catalog material provided by the Institute, the Troy-based Kagan began as a printmaker before switching to sculpture in the 1970s. One can see evidence of the tactile qualities of prints in some of his first steel works (more on that later), but the earliest body of work represented in this exhibition uses colorless cast acrylic, a medium that plays directly with light within its transparent and translucent forms.

We're Losing Our Ozone, 1989 - steel
In several of the acrylic pieces on display, Kagan has added electric lights to the pieces, energizing them in ways that exploit the particular light-transmitting qualities of the material, while defying the viewer's received experience of viewing a sculptural object under illumination from without. One of those pieces, Wormholes, also seems to break new ground by adding twisting tubes to undulating folds of flat acrylic. Another, entitled Spike, uses hyper-geometric forms and contrasting textures - but no special lighting - to play with our perceptions.

Later, Kagan would return to playing directly with light, but a middle period in which he picked up industrial scrap as a medium would find him flattening his forms into wall reliefs, in effect drawing with steel. One example, shown above at left, perfectly exemplifies that period in a piece entitled We're Losing Our Ozone, which belongs to the Institute, and is displayed to good effect with a smaller maquette of similar design that led to the monumentally scaled final version.

Smoke, 1980 - steel
Crevice, 1979 - steel
First, though, Kagan held onto the robust three-dimensionality of his acrylic work in rough-hewn plate-steel works that emphasize simple forms and heavily rusted textures. A group of eight miniatures from 1979-1981 are presented near the start of the exhibition on two shelves, like friendly toys that beg to be picked up and played with (in the museum it's strictly "do not touch," but these pieces were in fact intended to be handled). These are the tactile qualities I was referring to earlier in relation to Kagan's start in printmaking. The two examples shown above represent the spirit of that group.

Cousin Rose, 1997 - light and found steel
Kagan's wall reliefs (such as Ozone) are the first works by him that I recall seeing when they were being exhibited locally in current exhibitions in the '80s, and I recall that there was shadow play going on then, but it was subtle and not particularly directed. In a striking exception, unique in this show and perhaps unique altogether, Kagan's 1997 Cousin Rose combines two wall-mounted found-steel forms of wire and mesh with the unfocused shadows cast by standard gallery spotlights to make an amusing and affectionate portrait of a lady whose flowery hat draws her face and whose fluttering scarf renders her shoulders.

Hibiscus, 2015 - light and steel wire
This presages what would come ten years later, as Kagan began to craft his steel-wire constructions to cast astonishingly precise shadow drawings from focused spotlights, and is reprised in some of the later shadow pieces in which Kagan takes a simpler and looser approach. For example, Hibiscus, shown at left, much more closely resembles Cousin Rose than it does the work that comes between them in time, such as Stiletto II, shown at the bottom of this post.

Several other of the more recent works in the show also reveal a softening of the starkly illustrative style Kagan had adopted with the earlier shadow works, and with that they also add a looseness to the handling of the steel wire that draws the eye away from the shadow image and back into the sculptural form that makes it.

Light Bulb, 2013 - light and steel wire
While the images cast by these more recent works are still quite representational (including a wry portrait of Andy Warhol), their simplified armatures and freed-up gestures make them more appealing and engaging than the earlier shadow works. It's a subtle shift that shows Kagan continues to evolve and improve, a welcome development in what is already a distinguished career. The show will remain on view through June 9.

Stiletto II, 2010 - light and steel wire

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