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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.