D'Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman?: An Interview with Michael Kagan

Mar 23, 2018Bill Brady Gallery, Miami

Bill Brady Gallery continues their 2018 program with a solo exhibition by one of our favorite contemporary painters, Michael Kagan, intriguingly titled We Have Felt The Ground Shake. Opening on March 23, 2018, the NYC-based artist will be introducing a new body of paintings that are revisiting his arguably most successful series, astronauts, four years since his last solo showing.

In times of the SpaceX program and massive evolutions in terms of space exploration, Michael Kagan went back in time to explore the golden days of human spaceflight. Capturing his subjects in the moments they first stepped onto the Moon, Kagan highlights modern history in the most traditional, artistic way. His portraits are using classic 3/4 cropped format, but are constructed using his peculiar brush work that effectively depicts the peculiar textures and light effects. The same brush marks are also create a feeling of weight, accenting the roughness of the technology and materials used for these milestone expeditions.

We had a chance to talk with Michael as he worked on this show, to find out more about his motives to paint astronauts and his continued exploration of his most popular body of work.

Sasha Bogojev: Where does the title of the showWe Have Felt The Ground Shake, come from?
Michael Kagan: All the paintings in the show are of Apollo astronauts, just the ones that touched down on the moon. The title of the show is a line from the famous "We Choose To Go To The Moon" speech that Kennedy gave and put into everything into motion.

michael kagan04

How come you've decided to focus on such particular subject?
I like the idea of focusing on the Apollo missions. The gallery is one big room and I wanted to be focus there. The paintings can work on their own or tell a story when shown together. The Mercury astronauts were the test pilots the ones that showed man can go into space. The Apollo astronauts were the guys who slammed dunk the ball. It was always about getting to the moon.

How do you feel about that whole Apollo Program from a perspective of living in times of Falcon Heavy launch and everything it means for space exploration?
There is a romanticism now when you look back on what we did and how we did it so well. The "We" is important. Kennedy said it again and again in that speech. He wanted everyone to feel that we were doing this together, as mankind. There was Apollo mission after mission from 11-17. In the 1960s and '70s, the public almost got used to the moon landings in the fact that this would be the norm and things would only progress.

michael kagan06

What types of work did you paint for this show?
I've always had my "go to" sizes ranging from 24 x 24 inches all the way to 96 x 72 inches. For this show I have 4 paintings of a new size: 40 x 30 inches. These paintings are cropped bust portraits of astronauts. With most of my work I try to keep the figure/subject central and to scale/life size or bigger. I want the paintings to be more of a snap shot, a quick read rather than a narrative.

Are they meant to be portraits?
I like that they almost become portraiture because of the way they are classically 3/4 cropped and with very little information behind them. The face is abstracted by the reflection on the shield on the helmet. The reflection always shows the moonscape and also the second astronaut that is actually taking the photo. It almost becomes a double portrait. For these painting I am titling them by the last name of the astronaut—Aldrin, Conrad, Young, and Cernan, etc.

michael kagan11

What about the big landscape oriented image? That is quite a stand out piece when compared to others.
The 60 x 80 inch painting is a cropped landscape painting of the Apollo 15 mission. It shows an astronaut in foreground and the cropped rover on the side. The rover was a game changer in the Apollo mission as astronauts could got more done, they went further etc.

So all the works are based of actual reference photographs?
Yes. If the reference image was black and white I made the painting black and white. If it was color I went with color. I let the reference dictate the vibe.

What about the biggest ones? Is there any special thought process behind those?
The two very big paintings in the show are 96 x 72 inches. One is of Aldrin from Apollo 11, the first moon landing, and the second is of Cernan, the very last man to this day that set foot on the moon. These are kind of the bookends/anchors of the show the beginning of the Apollo and the end.

michael kagan08

The Astronaut series is arguably one of your most successful ones. How come you've decided to go back and revisit this imagery and how do you feel about the result comparing it to similar works you've painted in the past?
I consider these the best of the best astronauts that I have painted to date. Bill was cool and said "paint whatever you want" and I like that he had faith in my work enough to let me go with whatever felt right. Making the best version of work I am known for just felt right.

Yeah, you seemed to mastered your technique with these ones too. The brush work is pretty impressive.
These paintings are the most layered up and built up of any of the paintings I have made. I think they fall apart and hold together visually the best too, meaning that from a few feet away they tighten up into a high contrast photographic image, and from up close they dissolve into abstract squeegee marks and brush marks.

For more information about We Have Felt The Ground Shake, visit