Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on March 18, 2015 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Reflections of Otis Kaye
by James M. Bradburne
As a serendipitous consequence of having discovered Kaye's extraordinary painting D'-JIA-VU? at the home of a private collector while organizing "Art and Illusions" at the Palazzo Strozzi in 2009, I met Geraldine Banks, who came to Florence with her daughters to see the exhibition in which Kaye's work was shown for the first time in Europe. We soon found ourselves investigating the mystery of Otis Kaye (1885-1974). Writing a biography means confronting very quickly how little one knows about anyone. It is an interesting paradox that, on the one hand, we all know something about one another (friends, partners, children) but by no means everything. On the other hand, everything is known by someone but often by many different people -- the bank teller, the flight attendant, the shopkeeper, the dentist, the co-worker, and the business colleague. The more complex the life, the more people are needed to complete the picture. Of course, I am not speaking of the interior world of thoughts, ambitions, and dreams but merely of the visible world, of being somewhere at sometime doing something, which in Kaye's case is already difficult enough.
"Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery" is an exceptional exhibition and Otis Kaye is without a doubt an exceptional artist. As Mark Mitchell describes in his essay, "Hidden in Plain Sight: Otis Kaye and Trompe l'Oeil in America," Kaye finds himself sometimes unwillingly, sometimes deliberately, in the tradition of American trompe l'oeil painting that began in the late nineteenth century with William Michael Harnett, John Haberle, John Frederick Peto, and Nicholas Alden Brooks. This exhibition explores the wide range of Otis Kaye's work -- from highly accomplished trompe l'oeil paintings showing carefully detailed bank notes and share certificates, to finely engraved copies of other artists' masterpieces, to less accomplished still lifes, nudes and landscapes. Kaye saw himself as an artist first, and a trompe l'oeil artist second. But, like all artists, Kaye was much better at some genres than others.
Trompe l'oeil painting is notoriously difficult to pin down and often masquerades as other styles. Alfred Frankenstein argued that it is characterized by the use of shallow perspective in order to create the illusion of depth, but that assessment seems limited and technical-an attempt to pour the fluid nature of trompe l'oeil into the rigid confines of an art-historical definition. Trompe l'oeil is distinguished not only by its realism or shallow perspective but also by its wit. In the best trompe l'oeil, the artist deliberately sets out to trick you and, most important, to let you know that you have been tricked. Trompe l'oeil is almost painfully self-conscious. It delights in the existence of the "other" and is the expression of an artist who directs the gaze outward in the expectation of meeting -- and confounding -- other minds.
Trompe l'oeil, to a greater degree than many other genres, is highly inter-subjective. Whereas a work by Monet or Rothko conceivably could have been made without consideration for a future viewer, trompe l'oeil, with its emphasis on deception and irony, seems unthinkable without an imagined observer -- someone to appreciate the joke. In the case of Kaye, however, this assumption is called into question. Kaye was an engineer until the end of World War II and a nomadic semi-recluse afterward. Notwithstanding one unsuccessful episode, he never sold a painting in America during his lifetime. Every one of his major works, which took months of painstaking effort, was stored in the homes of friends and family. His most notable works by today's standards -- his trompe l'oeil money paintings -- were considered unseemly and odd, even by his intimates, and rarely hung. Two things are certain: Kaye never intended his works to be seen, except, perhaps, by his closest friends; and they are full of insider riddles that only his closest contemporaries could unravel. As insider jokes, laughing best and last, it seems the only person Kaye intended to please was himself.
If biography is among the most difficult forms of non-fiction, autobiography might be considered the supreme work of fiction. As can be seen in in the catalog entries and in the essay "Kaye, Money and Morality," the artist wrote his autobiography in trompe l'oeil. From his earliest teasing tributes to earlier trompe l'oeil artists to his later masterpieces such as D'-JIA-VU? (cat. no. 5), Amor Vincit Omnia (cat. no. 24) and Season's Greetings (cat. no. 33), Kaye told and retold the story of his life in trompe l'oeil. Every work is filled with visual puns, one-liners, and clues to the events that marked -- and often scarred -- his life. For Kaye, each painting served as a comment, a moral statement, a catharsis, a reflection, and a reconstruction of a chaotic, capricious, and seemingly immoral world in which everything could be bought, sold, and lost in a continuing game of chance. One of his last works, the imposing 1957 Fate Is the Dealer (cat. no. 25), is not a true trompe l'oeil. It shows a hooded figure dealing out cards while Kaye himself, with beret and painter's smock, palette in hand, looks over his shoulder -- a self-portrait in an autobiography. If every author is her own first reader, a trompe l'oeil seen only by its maker is stripped of the pretence of illusion and is absorbed in the even greater illusion that is memory.
1 Alfred V. Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), p. 54.
About the author
Dr. James M. Bradburne, Director General, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy, is an architect, designer and museologist educated in Canada and England, graduating in architecture with the Architectural Association and completing his doctorate in museology at the University of Amsterdam. Over the past thirty years he has produced exhibitions and organized research projects and conferences for UNESCO, national governments, private foundations and museums in many parts of the world.
About the exhibition
The New Britain Museum of American Art is presenting a retrospective exhibition of artist Otis Kaye (1885-1974), entitled, Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery on view from January 17, 2015 - May 10, 2015. The exhibition will display Kaye's mastery of trompe l'oeil technique and invites the viewer to ponder and explore the mystery that surrounds Kaye and his work. The French term trompe l'oeil translates to "fools the eye," as the genre is defined as an artistic technique that creates the illusion of objects that seem to break out of the picture plane.
Thirty-four oil paintings, watercolors, pastel works, and etchings are accompanied by various materials from the Otis Kaye Archive and Trust. Visitors are asked to uncover the riddles within Kaye's works and life. Although visitors are presented with Kaye's trompe l'oeil paintings, almost no record of the artist himself exists. Kaye did not exhibit or sell any of his paintings during his lifetime, but rather gave his work to family and friends. Kaye's paintings are steeped in mystery, containing currency, letters, and other symbolic items that allude to politics, gambling, and the economic turmoil in 20th century. The Museum invites viewers to help answer the question of who was Otis Kaye by offering interpretations of the artworks and ideas about the artist's origins.
Douglas Hyland, Director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, states, "Among the most compelling genres of American Art is trompe l'oeil and after a hundred year tradition of American paintings, including John Haberle, John Pieto, and dozens of other masters, this art form reaches a new high with the extraordinary canvases of Otis Kaye. In terms of his technical skills and sophistication, Otis Kaye has no equal. It is astonishing to contemplate the complexity of his multiple layered allusions."
The works featured in the retrospective are some of Kaye's most masterful creations, generously loaned from various private collections and the Otis Kaye Archive and Trust. James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Palazzo Strozzi in Italy, and Geraldine Banks, Research Coordinator for the Otis Kaye Family Trust, have worked tirelessly to help produce this expansive retrospective. Ron Cordover's generous contribution through the Cordover Family Foundation has allowed the Museum to produce a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by James M. Bradburne, Mark D. Mitchell, Associate Curator of American Art and Manager of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Geraldine Banks.
Every exhibition accumulates debts of gratitude, and in this case the debts are many and the gratitude especially heartfelt. We would like to extend a special thanks to Ron and Barbara Cordover, committed collectors who have been unflagging supporters of the exhibition and of Kaye scholarship since its inception and who helped make the catalog possible. We would also like to thank Mark Mitchell for his contribution to Kaye scholarship and all the public institutions, galleries, and private collectors who generously supported the exhibition with loans, including Jonathan Boos, Ron and Barbara Cordover, the Manoogian and Hevrdejs families, and Lucille and Walter Rubin. Special thanks go to our colleagues and friends around the world, including Judith Barter, Sylvain Bellenger, Douglas Druick and Sarah Kelly at the Chicago Art Institute; Ilene Susan Fort at LACMA; David Smith and Jean Strouse at the New York Public Library; Sir Mark Fehrs Haukohl, Sophie Kaye, David Margolick, Lawrence Shindell, Lawrence Weschler, and Matthew Wander for their help at various stages of the research into the life of the mysterious Otis Kaye. Thanks to Jan C. Jacobsen, Josua Littig, and Eva Schläfer at the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau and to Alexander Landia, Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, and Matthias Warnig for their help looking for traces of Kaye's German past. Thanks also to Ingrid Kastel at the Albertina in Vienna, Austria, who allowed one of us to compare Kaye's engravings with the originals on which they were based. Thanks go to Carrie Haslett and Betsy Kennedy at the Terra Foundation for having suggested the New Britain Museum of American Art as the ideal venue for this exhibition, and introduced me to its dynamic director. Our most heartfelt thanks go to Douglas Hyland, Emily Misencik, Anna Rogulina, and the rest of the staff of the NBMAA who have provided constant support of every kind during the long gestation of this exhibition, to the catalog editor, Devorah Block, and its designer, Melissa Nardiello, for their patience, critical intelligence and professionalism. Pamela T. Barr worked on the early part of the editing process and is to be thanked for her help and good humor. We would also like to thank the entire Banks family -- Paul M. Banks, Kristen and Oscar Diaz, Craig and Liesl Stiegman, and Rachel and Nathan Young -- for their help with this project and especially Paul III, who has protected Kaye's legacy since Otis Kaye entrusted the works to his father.
GB and JMB
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published in Resource Library on March 18, 2015 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on March 18, 2015.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Claudia Thesing and Emily Misencik, New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for publishing the above essay..
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