When Rod Kagan was a kid growing up in Jersey City across the Hudson River from Manhattan, he built model airplanes and miniature trains. At 15, he stripped and lowered a 1932 Ford into a hot rod while working at the family meat-cutting business. "I've been working with my hands all my life," he says while raising his latest bronze sculpture on a lift at his studio north of Ketchum. The "totem chair" he is finishing looks both tribal and industrial; ancient, yet somehow futuristic. Kagan's sculptures represent a technical mastery and refinement that have become emblematic of his artistic success in Idaho. Over the last four decades, his work has evolved into some of the region's most recognizable abstract forms and found its way into several collections of national significance. Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell has one, as do arts patrons Glenn Janss and Julie Firestone. He is in several museums, including the Boise Art Museum, and Schneider Museum in Ashland, Ore. Several of his pieces are also placed at the Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. In 1984, he won a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Not bad for a young man who, after working 14 years as a butcher back East, accidentally cut off the end of a forefinger. "It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me," he says. "It made me become an artist."
In Kagan's studio, a photographic self-portrait by the Italian sculptor Brancusi looks down on drill presses, cutting torches and scraps of copper and bronze from more than 1,000 sculptures Kagan has produced since moving to the Sun Valley area in the early 1970s. Although Kagan regards the sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro as a more important influence, the photo of Brancusi is piercing and intense, exuding the singular focus that has carried Kagan from a youthful hot-rod builder to a prominent and successful artist. Not that it shows in his self-effacing manner. "It's all just stuff," he says. "Other people read more into certain things and make them more valuable."
People have read a great deal into Kagan's work over the last four decades, including Gail Severen, who shows his work at her gallery in Ketchum. "Rod is soft-spoken and not out beating his own drum," says Severen, who has known Kagan since they both came to town in the early 1970s. "Most regional artists stay regional. Few become nationally or internationally known like he has. In the arts world, artists lead, the rest of us follow.
"Rod has always been willing to experiment and take new directions. I see two forces at play in his work; he clearly understands classical forms and yet is also very much influenced by his surroundings: by the mining history in Idaho, by Native American history and by the environment itself, especially the mountains."
Until recently, Kagan's metal shop was heated by a wood-burning stove connected to a V-8 Chevrolet motor block he salvaged to radiate heat during the winter months when six feet of packed snow can bury his property. The studio and gallery complex where he lives and works lies close to the wilderness of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, yet not far from the glitz of Ketchum and Sun Valley. Looking north, he can see the North Fork Store, where Marilyn Monroe was filmed in the 1955 movie Bus Stop. Beyond the store lie deep woods and icy peaks.
"My mother, who is now 94, painted most of her life," Kagan recalls. "I remember visiting the Whitney Museum in New York with her and laughing at the Andy Warhols like they were a joke, but now you see what history has made of him. I guess I still laugh at him."
Kagan welded some of his first pieces on the tiny deck of a Ketchum condo and sold them in book stores. His fascination with cars led him to visit the Shoshone automobile compactor and salvage yard, where he noticed transmission gears spilling out of the bottom of the crusher. He collected some of these and welded together what look like industrial worker assemblages from the Cold War era. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts exhibited his first pieces of contemporary sculpture in 1975. In 1978, he loaded a station wagon with his work and headed to Los Angeles, promptly got lost and then finally found a gallery to show his work on La Cienaga Boulevard. "It was exciting to be in the land of movie stars and hot rods," he recalls. By February of that year, he had his first one-man show.
His early experiments, as well as entire series of columns and totems for which he became well-known 10 years later, surround his compound. More than 100 of his sculptures large and small are displayed here, yet they represent only about one-tenth of what he has produced. They inhabit the grounds and octagonal gallery buildings he has constructed over the years.
The sheer physical effort of creating this much steel art is difficult to imagine. The early years saw the "Tri-point Series," wedges of unpolished steel angling skyward, balanced point-to-point on pyramidal bases in an act of extraordinary technical skill, if not outright faith. There is also a collection of 25-foot-tall columns that incorporate gears and linkages salvaged from mining operations, as well as very large "Birthday Series" pieces made of painted white steel that are downright urban in feel. The "Lodgepole" series, made from 20 or so painted steel cylinders welded together willy-nilly like pick-up sticks, is an accurate depiction of a lodgepole pine forest floor. In his back yard are a few pieces made of brushed stainless steel, resembling the majestic twin towers of the World Trade Center, which Kagan saw going up in the late 1960s.
It is an eye-opening experience to tour a man's life work. Kagan lives and works in the midst of his own creations, yet they don't stifle, but rather open a visitor up to the surrounding natural beauty. Elsewhere, there are "hanging columns," interpretations of Corinthian Greek columns, waymarks on highways in Iowa. Kagan has gotten around.
Like a great many well-known artists, not all of Kagan's work has met with success. A small forest of "totems" made from salvaged boiler-plate and iron stand rusting in his front yard. Some resemble enormous arrowheads lodged in the earth, while others look like overgrown abstract kachinas, though he draws no connections between his own work and the traditions of totem-building among native Americans. He points out that several of them are more darkly rusted than the others after being displayed in the salt air on the West Coast at a Malibu art gallery. "I never sold one of them," he says, appearing only mildly curious at their lack of success. "To come up with a good idea, you have to make quite a few pieces."
Surely the "good ideas" include the brushed and polished specimens on permanent public display at the corner of Eighth and Main in Boise. They are balanced and sturdy figures with facial characteristics. His anthropomorphic approach settles the work in terms of intention; give a column an eye or chin and you are done wondering whether it has a human nature. They speak of Easter Island moas and perhaps an undiscovered race of playful, yet formidable, off-world chieftains. More figurative still is the Reclining Lady, a hard-edged damsel that Picasso would have enjoyed, and that reclines in his studio back in Kethum.
But some of Kagan's earlier work, like his "Boulder Columns," cast even further in the abstract, somehow have more personality. They are made of column sections with his characteristic motifs—fluted edges, geometric holes and hammered indentations—re-stacked in a seemingly haphazard fashion and juxtaposed in suites of three, like ponderous and bewildered newborns. While his figurative totems are bound to be collected and remembered as distinctly Kagan, these "Boulder Columns," nearly 20 years old, present the Kagan vocabulary at its most unselfconscious and perhaps most self-assured.
He has also done his share of commissions, including a Chanukah Menorah for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and a centerpiece for a steel processing operation back East, but these days, he says he mostly makes what he wants to.
Today, he is finishing that most functional of art pieces—a chair. He has also made many benches, some of which he still waxes for people on an annual basis around the valley. But this is one of several exquisitely formed chairs made of thin sheets of bronze and copper, with a particular series of designs that are the artist's trademark, including hammered, bowl-shaped indentations here and there, which hover like little planets in relief above abstract mountain skylines.
"Well, the indentations also keep the wide sections of metal from warping over time," he says.
This is what makes Kagan essential: The balance of technical mastery and symbolic power, no matter where you find him.