Harper's is pleased to announce Night Ride, the gallery's first solo presentation with Brooklyn-based artist Michael Kagan. Consisting of new serialized oil and enamel paintings on linen, Night Ride builds upon Kagan's ongoing investigation into the aesthetics of space exploration. The exhibition opens this Thursday, October 21 with a reception attended by the artist.
AT NIGHT WE ARE ALL ASTRONAUTS
Q&A with Michael Kagan and Bill Powers
Bill Powers: Who is the astronaut depicted in your new helmet painting?
Michael Kagan: Inspired by Commander Eugene Cernan who holds the distinction of being the last person to walk on the moon in December 1972. Apollo 17 also happened to be the only night launch which is where the exhibition title Night Ride derives from. I believe the countdown sequence began late in the evening and the actual blast-off was after midnight.
BP: It’s surprising that NASA would choose to do a night launch, feels more dangerous in the dark.
MK: There are so many great descriptions of the previous rocket launches against a bluebird sky, everyone watching with their sunglasses on. Norman Mailer talks about the crackling roar of the engines on the launchpad and how you can feel the tremors of lift-off vibrating in your chest. You can literally hear the sound in your body.
BP: Funny how in recounting or depicting it can color our collective memory of the actual event.
MK: Have you seen First Man? It’s the Ryan Gosling film where he plays Neil Armstrong. The movie grew on me, but at first, I found it off-putting that the fictional Apollo 11 launch takes place with grey skies — quite overcast — because the director wanted a more foreboding background.
BP: And did you find anything cinematic about the Apollo 17 launch?
MK: Things at night can take on so many different connotations: both creepier and more romantic. Also, there are less distractions in the dark so the glow of the engines amplify. The entire mission was strange in that NASA knew funding was getting cut off so this would likely be our last visit to the moon. I think Cernan felt the weight of that. There’s one story about him trying to outdo Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man… as they enter the lunar module to leave for good, but his catchphrase never really caught on we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind….
BP: So basically he went full Terminator—"I’ll be back."
MK: They also knew their angles by Apollo 17. They had Hasselblad cameras by then. There’s one photograph of Cernan with his foot upon a moon buggy like it’s a car commercial.
BP: Honestly though, was it one too many sequels? Was Apollo 17 the space travel equivalent of Fast and Furious Part 19?
MK: It had definitely lost its luster in the public eye. It got too space nerd. There is something about being the first that can never be replicated. Apollo 11 moon landing was the most-watched TV broadcast in history...600 million people...1/5 of the world’s population watched it.
BP: When we first went to the moon in 1969 it felt like a global embrace. All humans were somehow connected to this momentous feat. But by Apollo 17 it was straight-up American propaganda and therefore didn’t prove as awe-inspiring. Cut to 40 years later and instead of the best and the brightest we are flying billionaires and celebrities into outer space.
MK: I think it’s cyclical. Space tourism has almost become a reality show now which tracks culturally I think. With Blue Origin and Space X and Maezawa. Honestly, if you read The Right Stuff those first astronauts were treated like celebrities once they got back with ticker-tape parades and free houses, driving Corvettes.
BP: Captain Kirk in space? Do we need that?
MK: Look at the Mercury Seven astronauts. There’s that famous picture of them in metallic flight suits with lace-up boots on. That was pure theater and marketing!
BP: Are your rocket paintings meant to be sequential? I’m thinking of Muybridge's studies of motion.
MK: The base image is all the same. It's the squeegee-ing that makes them unique. And I wouldn’t add new paint to the screen so by the last one it’s really like the ghost of the engine flares.
BP: In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he points out that now we listen primarily to recorded music so if we hear the same song live we want it to sound like the version we know from Spotify. The recording influences our expectations of what “real music” should sound like. I wonder if that happens in space culture. Does Elon Musk have to contend with expectations about what a spaceship or astronaut suit should look like? In the way that people are making fun of Jeff Bezos’s rocket.
MK: If I ask my 4-year-old daughter to draw a rocket, she’s going to draw a cylinder with a sharp point and the end and orange stuff coming out of the bottom because that is what a rocket looks like. I feel like Space X did their homework better. The design is kind of them tipping their hat at earlier rockets. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard.
BP: Most of your subject matter is throwbacks. Would you ever do a painting of the Elon Musk car floating in space?
MK: There’s a fine line between painting what is iconic and painting what’s trendy. Even with the surfer paintings, the one I did of Laird Hamilton, the way that he surfed in Indonesia was a game-changer in big wave surfing. So I feel like you have to do your homework behind the image too, I wasn’t just painting that image because it looked cool. Of course, it is an amazing picture, but you have to understand the significance behind it.
BP: So you’re not going to do a William Shatner painting?
MK: No. And there’s a larger narrative to consider. Between the astronauts and the Formula One drivers, for instance. With the Louis Hamilton paintings, he’s already an icon. He has won more races than most drivers ever will so I feel like it doesn’t have to be dated. It just has to be iconic. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope.
BP: I’ve heard people talk about some of the Warhol celebrity portraits in that vein. Once people forget who the actors are, then the painting has to live on its own merits, independent of the subject matter. We don’t look back at Renaissance paintings and be like “look, it’s Lord Manchester!” It just has to be a great painting.
MK: At the end of the day, I really just want my paintings to be images. In the same way that a Tuymans painting is an image. I paint representational paintings, but I also don’t want to be like “that’s so-and-so on the moon from that one mission!”
BP: If it’s too exposition-y it falls apart.
MK: If there’s a story to tell, fine. If you want to read the press release and know this is the timeline of images, then go for it.
BP: Your interest in the image should be visceral.
MK: Like Jonas Wood basketball players. I only know a little about basketball. I like his paintings because they’re blown-up basketball cards—they work image-wise.
BP: It shouldn’t matter if it’s a guy’s rookie card or not.
MK: Right. I don’t think one painting is better because it’s a Larry Bird.
BP: When you’re making some of these new helmet sculptures, will you have a reflective face shield? Almost how a Koons’s bunny captures the eternal now by reflecting back the viewer to see themselves.
MK: Yeah, I think that any face shield sculpture I do will have a reflective element. In the to-scale bronze I made, once I saw it finished, I polished the visor and I stood in front of it. If you stand at the right angle and you hold your iPhone kind of chest-level, you become the second astronaut because in all of these astronaut photos—the most iconic ones—there’s always an astronaut in the middle of the helmet. What’s the most iconic space photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon? The image of him reflected in the visor of Buzz Aldrin. The mistake with Apollo 11 is that they gave Neil Armstrong the camera.
Michael Kagan (b. 1980, Virginia Beach, VA) received a BA at George Washington University in 2003, and an MFA at New York Academy of Art in 2005. Most recently, his work has been the subject of solo presentations at Harper’s, New York, NY (2021); Almine Rech, London, UK (forthcoming 2022) and Brussels, BE (2021); Over the Influence, Hong Kong, CN (2021); Half Gallery, New York, NY (2018); Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach, VA (2019); The Journal Gallery, New York, NY (2018); and Bill Brady Gallery, Miami, FL (2018). Kagan has participated in recent group exhibitions at Harper’s, Los Angeles, CA, and East Hampton, NY (2021 and 2020); Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, VT (2021); Nino Mier Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2020); Half Gallery, New York, NY (2020); and NASA Space Center, Houston, TX (2019). Reviews of his work have appeared in BBC, Juxtapoz, and Hypebeast among other publications. A monograph, Michael Kagan: I Was There When It Happened, accompanied the artist’s 2019 exhibition at Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, which featured a forward written by collaborator and fellow Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams and an interview with Bill Powers. Kagan lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.