At first sight, Rod Kagan's sculptures have a vaguely industrial quality. His columns and totems, meant to evoke ancient and Native American themes, are triumphant stacks of cubes, spheres and arches. His candlesticks nod at pyramids and rivets, and human representations like "Reclining Lady 3" look like Kagan built them from bronze tangrams.
Kagan's works have been on display at the Smithsonian, and an 8-foot-tall Hanukkah menorah Kagan built is permanently housed at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Groves of his totems stand at the Boise Art Museum sculpture garden and at Eighth and Idaho streets in downtown Boise.
Though Kagan, who lived and worked in Ketchum from 1975 until his death in 2010, is one of Idaho's most widely known artists, interest in his work in Idaho is experiencing a resurgence, with collections slated to go on display at Boise State University and Northwest Nazarene University, and a memorial retrospective scheduled to open Wednesday, Aug. 1, at Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum.
"People have a tendency to not give recognition to local artists," said gallery owner Gail Severn, but the retrospective at her gallery is ambitious--with more than 70 of Kagan's works covering 6,000 square feet in two rooms, as well as gallery walks of Kagan's Ketchum home and workspace, and the production of a coffee table book titled Rod Kagan: Totems and Guardians.
"It's a good time to remind people that these artists are mortal and they won't always be with us," said Severn.
The Gail Severn Gallery exhibition includes small originals representing Kagan's early works, maquettes of sculptures on display elsewhere or in private collections, and newer, larger representatives of his work--including the 9-foot-tall "Reclining Woman" and his takes on Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns.
"It'll end up being like a forest of his totems," Severn said.
The jewel of the memorial show will be by-appointment art walks through Kagan's home and workspace where, for 35 years, he drew inspiration from (and frequently used) industrial materials such as coal carts and circular saw blades, crafting works of art that went on to be displayed in museums, private collections and his own octagon-shaped house, which, along with his studio space.
"His work is totally incorporated with [his home]," she said.
Severn said she has spent more than two years working with Kagan's estate, cataloguing the work he left behind--no small amount of which has been imported from Ketchum to the Treasure Valley. He first made inroads at Boise Art Museum, which received nine works, including an early single column, several "boulder" columns and a stylized park bench in 1984--all of which can be seen at BAM.
"We have one of his very first works made from a cart found in the Boulder Mountains. He was a real friend of the [Boise Art Museum] while we were growing," said BAM Curator Sandy Harthorn.
In 1993, the city of Boise installed several of his columns at the northwest corner of Eighth and Idaho streets. But Kagan's presence in the Treasure Valley is about to expand, with new installations planned for Boise State and Northwest Nazarene University. At Boise State, six as-yet-undelivered columns with an estimated total value of $108,000 will be stored at the university's Federal Way Storage Center until 2015, when a planned new Alumni Center (BW, News,"Up Next at Boise State," Aug. 29, 2012) is scheduled to break ground. The sculptures may then be divided between the Alumni Center and the proposed Fine Arts Building.
The monoliths ("Tapered Columns #2-#7") look like titanic, vertically symmetrical keys to futuristic locks. Neat tetragonal niches in each imply no less mysteriously some sort of notch or other object designed to fit inside. With an average height of 9 feet, the totems will tower imperiously over pedestrians.
In January, Northwest Nazarene University received its most recent Kagan--a white-painted 18-foot by 18-foot by 18-foot steel X titled "42 (Birthday Series)"--from Gail Severn Gallery. It looks like a tank trap designed by Apple. Upon its installation at NNU's Nampa campus Wednesday, Aug. 6, it will be one of "at least eight other Kagans" on display there and is currently being repainted and prepared for installation, according to Paul Kinsman, professor of art at NNU.
While Boise State staff, alumni and administration are finalizing the details of its Kagan collection, NNU has definite plans for its latest addition: the center of the Mary Schaffer Sculpture Park, named after former head of the NNU art department Mary Schaffer. The park will span the distance between the Administration Building and the Brandt Center. Kagan's "42" is slated to occupy the circular intersection of two walkways running through the middle of the park.
"The piece provides a tremendous focal point at the crossroads of our future campus plan. It's simply a beautiful, commanding work of art," wrote Kinsman in an email.
Kagan's resurging popularity in his longtime home state of Idaho is as much a product of his compelling aesthetic sensibilities and seamless execution, as it is of the connections he made with private collectors, museums and critics. Like modern sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Arnoldo Pomodoro, he possessed a design sense that resonated with art viewers around the world; but in Idaho, Kagan's use of salvaged materials, interest in nature and engaged personality helped make him one of the most widely viewed artists in the state.
Two-and-a-half years after his death, the proliferation of his sculptures in Idaho is about to bring Kagan's compelling blend of the local and global, the ancient and contemporary, to the state he made his home.