Watch This Space

Do you know the name of the last man on the moon?

The painter Michael Kagan does. This April, sitting in an a Williamsburg studio built one brackish spray away from the East River, he spoke about portraying men on the edge of other boundaries.

“Eugene Cernan knew he was going to be the last. He was up there, looking at earth—not religious at all—he said it didn’t really hit him. ‘There’s earth.’ And then he turns around and looks at the blackness of outer space. That was it. The profound thing was seeing nothing.”

Seeing nothing is an odd aspiration for a visual artist, especially one like Kagan, whose large-format oil paintings are predominately figurative, and often include real figures. His main preoccupation, and most fruitful artistic ground, is men like Cernan—the astronauts who flew during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. Rendered in oil, his portraits combine the slickness and formal strength of their source material: old NASA publicity photos, with a bright palette of black, white, and only a couple of dabs of color. As seen most often, condensed into a square on Instagram—Kagan has more than 19,000 followers—the paintings are entirely sensible and compact, taking no more than the duration of a swipe to comprehend.

“Those Who Came Before Us” 2018. Oil on linen. 96″ x 72″.

As Kagan says, “It’s like—boom, astronaut.”

That consumable nature, a stylish repurposing of midcentury propaganda, caught the eye of Pharrell Williams—himself a man who makes serious coin tweaking material from the Space Age. (Williams’s 2014 smash “Happy” is both wholly his own work and a retread, in vocal style and sonic exuberance, of Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “Move On Up.”) In 2012, having seen a profile of Kagan’s work, Pharrell purchased the rights to three paintings. A year later, they appeared on pieces from his streetwear line, Billionaire Boys Club. Half a decade on, they still trade above retail.

All of which is to say that Kagan’s paintings work great in miniature. On a screen, on a card, printed on T-shirts, the spacemen appear antiseptic and tight, with a geometry befitting the era of rocket science. This, the “seeing something” version, works very well.

“Moonwalk” 2018. Oil on linen. 36″ x 36″.

But sitting in the artist’s studio, an arm’s length from some canvases, you see how Cernan’s appraisal of oblivion, or at least of an indiscernible world, appears in Kagan’s work alongside all this order and shapeliness.  

Take “Mercury 7,” an 8-by-8-foot canvas painted from a pre-flight still taken of the Mercury Seven, the name NASA gave its first class of astronauts. Initially, it seems quite heroic.

“These guys were the ultimate rock stars,” he says of Buzz Aldrin, Leland Melvin, John Glenn, and the others in NASA’s pioneering space programs. “People would clap when they walked into restaurants. They had huge parades down Fifth Avenue in New York. Everyone was behind it in a positive way.”

In the painting, the seven men are posed indoors, but washed, somehow, in the harsh, high-contrast light of the sun unfiltered by the atmosphere. With their visors up, you see that the figures are clean-cut pilots, handsome instruments against Communism. Their transgressions—boozing, speeding, and sexual opportunism—quashed by NASA’s press office, scrubbed from the official portraiture.

Yet, in person, you realize that the smooth convexity of those NASA helmets is rendered by Kagan in topographic daubs of oil paint, used as if its didn’t cost $200 a tube, applied with a squeegee as often as with a brush. The forms waver; the balance shifts. The strokes are dispersed, disordered.

“We Have Felt the Ground Shake” at Bill Brady Gallery.

It’s a small violence: To approach a Michael Kagan painting is to watch the pristine whites of a space suit disintegrate.

Kagan likes that conceptual wiggle—from seeing something, to nothing, and back again.

“Some people say I should take a side photo of my paintings with a raking light, but I don’t want to,” he says. “I like that it tightens up in the small Instagram format, but up close, it falls apart.”

It’s the touch of vertigo that swells between “something” and “nothing” that makes Kagan’s work about more than rockets and space. Where Eugene Cernan had an encounter with the void, we, the earthbound, have the opportunity to encounter art, in hopes of forcing a perspectival shift—to see our institutions as edificial and then, in three steps, dissolve into artifice.

The first watch on the moon? Not exactly. Kagan wears an unexpected yet sentimental Seamaster from Omega. (Photo: Christopher Garcia Valle)

“When you’re in space, you don’t see borders. You just see the globe. Everyone comes back and they question why there’s so much fighting and political strife. One of [the astronaut] goals was to see in the future if space travel could be a normal thing—could we take a bunch of politicians up? Could we take people up and see what good could come from that perspective and new way of thinking?” Kagan says.

From space, through a reinforced window that shares Instagram’s aspect ratio, the world is tidy, creamy, and perfect. Only on the ground, after the Command Module has plopped into the sea, do all the jagged divides make themselves visible, and the sense of unity collapse.

The Creative Godhead Behind Hollywood’s Must-Have Apple Watch Accessory

Close to the edge of a rooftop in Tribeca, Harry Bernstein struck a pose, the late afternoon sun filtering through his luxuriant curls.

Beneath him, in stacked glass conference rooms, sat dozens of employees, unaware that their boss was ably modeling a patchwork afghan, selvedge jeans, and a pair of fresh kicks, planted mere inches from the cold, upscale nothingness of undeveloped downtown airspace.

Indigo Patchwork Wrap, Rare Weaves; Indigo Shirt Jacket, Kapital; White T-Shirt, David Michael; Jeans, Double RL; Sneakers, Yeezy; Native American Bolo, vintage; Eyeglasses, Warby Parker

Here’s what they did know: This man on the roof is an advertising godhead, the reason Boost Mobile demanded to know “Where You At?”; the reason Shaquille O’Neal played an improbable jockey for Vitamin Water; the reason kids line up for Supreme drops; and, arguably, the reason influencer marketing exists at all.

Harry “Bee” Bernstein, founder of the groundbreaking digital ad firm Annex 88 (neé, The 88) and current chief creative officer at Havas Worldwide’s flagship New York agency, radiates the excitement of someone coming off two decades of really, really good ideas.

“Let’s have a roof party and just pay the fine! We have good insurance!”

For most corporate heads with “chief” and “officer” in their titles, alfresco photoshoots come as rare as Peter Luger prime rib. But the prolific Bernstein—who does not eat meat—looks nothing like your average exec. He has called his style “streetwear clown,” but that misses the glorious high-taste-hippie of it all, as if Jerry Garcia had lived to see Adidas x Pharrell.

Despite the globally sourced wardrobe of an Afropop Worldwide listener, Bernstein counts a local upbringing—Queens, New York—as the source of his remarkable sensibility.

Apples & Bolos from Bernstein’s personal collection.

“In pre-internet life, what was cool was subculture, the underground and true rarity. Now, the market is about having what everybody else has. You used to want to remain in the subculture. Now everyone wants to be famous … [consumers] buy things because other people have it. Hypebeasts, literally, they buy things on hype.”

So when it came to his own closet, Bernstein, the master of starting and disseminating trends via social channels, wanted something different.

“I want to find a reason to find and to buy things. I had a Rolex that my dad gave me from the 1980s. It’s supreme, but it doesn’t feel like my luxury trope. Whereas what I’m wearing today, there’s a meaning, and a point, and a singularity. I’m searching for singularity, and a unique perspective on the world. That’s my job as Chief Creative Officer. So if I do what everyone else does, I’ll produce what everyone else does.”

One expression of this ethos, worn exclusively by Bernstein and a few high-echelon celebrities, are the turquoise-inlaid, metal-worked bracelet ends that he retrofits to accept an Apple Watch. These two components, from wildly different ends of the American crafts timeline, represent Bernstein’s major preoccupations: the interplay of digital and analog, the singular and the mass produced, the inert and the dazzlingly dynamic. Some of the bracelets use stylized snakes fashioned out of nails, others classic Zuni geometric patterns. Among the stones, the beveled face of a sleeping Apple Watch looks like an enormous black obsidian.

The combination is bizarre, striking, covetable. The backstory is just downright funny. It goes like this: Bernstein, on vacation in Taos, New Mexico, with his fiancée, becomes transfixed by an enormous piece of turquoise, which he promptly purchases for $5,000. It sparks an obsession. Eventually, he gets hooked up with Fish, a turquoise collector from Austin, Texas.

Native American Bolo, vintage; Indigo Patchwork Jacket and Indigo Scarf, Rare Weaves; White T-Shirt, David Michael; Eyeglasses, Warby Parker

“I went to Fish’s house and I didn’t know if I was buying speed or jewelry. There was a parrot and a guy in a La-Z-Boy. One room had flat files full of necklaces, rings. I tell him I was looking for bolos, and he takes me into the bathroom. He puts the seat down, I sit on the toilet, and there are drawers of different pieces.”

Bernstein received a crash course in the foyer. There’s little centralized information on turquoise jewelry, and widespread forgery makes expertise a necessary tool in finding the best pieces. Now, he’s deep into eBay auctions, message boards, ancient websites, hunting for quality stones and bits of history. Which is how, somewhere outside Austin city limits, 1,800 miles from Queens, our man finally found his subculture.

Back inside the Havas offices, after an impromptu piece of performance art—what does it mean to use a glass-walled office as a changing room?—Bernstein leapt barefoot onto his desk. Adorned in bangles, he struck another pose, half-yoga, half-Amy Cuddy, before settling for a Talmudic shrug.

Surveying the small group of employees below through discontinued Warby Parker frames—turquoise, of course—Bernstein murmured, “I’ve done this one before, but it works.” 

Yoga Top and Native American Bolo, vintage; Printed Camouflage Silk Pants, Advisory Board Crystals; Eyeglasses, Warby Parker.

Photos by Christopher Garcia Valle. Styling by Dylan Hogelin.