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James Cagle, “Green Painting with Afternoon Shadows,” 2016. Archival pigment print, 12x18 inches (20x26 inches). Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of the artist.

An Influential SNC Artist Offers a Poignant Farewell

As the college community mourns the loss of James Cagle (Art, Emeritus), who died Jan. 26, a new exhibit of his work provides a meet and moving epitaph. In this sensitive interview with Cagle published just days before his death, arts writer Michael Muckian focuses on the upcoming solo show: a show that was in preparation even as the artist contemplated his final days. Muckian's story is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

Final Vision: James Cagle Faces His Own Immortality in MMoCA Exhibit
By Michael Muckian
First published in Isthmus, the Madison, Wis., alt-weekly, on Jan. 23, 2020

"All art is immortal,” author Oscar Wilde once wrote. But few artists have a chance to design their own final exhibits.

“A Final Meditation on Art” is a fitting epitaph for James Cagle, a painter-turned-photographer and filmmaker who believes he won’t live long enough to see his exhibit open at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s State Street Gallery on Feb. 29.

Cagle, an emeritus art professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, has displayed work in MMoCA’s Wisconsin Triennial exhibitions in 2013 and 2016. For the upcoming solo exhibition, he created a single work of 15 individual 5-inch by 6-inch photos of seemingly random images. Set in three stacked rows of five images each, the photos provide emotional links with their neighboring images, whether viewed horizontally, vertically or diagonally. The ordering of the photos is deliberate, and the overall impact is profound. A Final Meditation was carefully planned to stimulate free association and creative thinking, Cagle says. The images don’t appear to belong together, but elements in each create emotional responses that their proximity to each other magnifies.

The 15 images run the gamut from seemingly abstract figures to a sculpture of a bird on a stone, an old photo of the photographer’s parents and uncle, an image of a creased paperback book cover painting of a 19th-century woman’s searing stare, and a self-portrait of Cagle himself in hospital scrubs and mask. Taken alone or together, the images offer much to contemplate.

“This is a group of images that relate to the fact that I have a terminal illness, but they do not reflect what it’s like to die,” says Cagle. “This is a little like looking out the window and maybe seeing a leaf fall from a tree and wondering about the connections you can draw to your own life.”

Cagle, 81, is suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome, cancer of the red blood cells that will inevitably claim his life. “This is not a good place to be,” he says when reached by phone in December at his Sturgeon Bay residence. “I don’t have acute pain, but I do suffer from severe anemia and lack of energy. I don’t sleep well, and have a lot of night sweats. I have stopped chemotherapy and exist on regular blood transfusions.”

Cagle has survived five years with the disease, but he entered hospice recently and says he is unlikely to make it to the end of February. “I will try and be there, but some part of this experience suggests that I am not going to be around very much longer,” he says.

Cagle, a native of Sweetwater, Tennessee, originally considered submitting the work for the 2019 Wisconsin Triennial, but revised his approach, creating his own exhibit after talking with Leah Kolb, MMoCA’s curator of exhibits.

“Jim contacted me in the fall of 2018 to say that giving up on cancer treatments had sparked a major creative fervor in him,” Kolb says. “He explained his artistic concept, and it seemed like a beautiful and poetic project."

“Jim wants people to slow down and engage with his work through active seeing and to recognize our surroundings in a more contemplative way,” she adds. “As he’s confronted his death he’s thought more and more about this.”

Cagle was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his mother moved after his father died when he was 6. After high school, he spent four years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which led to a teaching fellowship at Michigan State University, where in 1963 he earned his master’s degree in fine art. He was immediately hired to teach painting at St. Norbert, where he taught for 42 years before retiring in 2005.

“I taught painting, but by then had moved to photography in my personal work because I got tired of spending six to eight hours a day alone in a room putting a brush to canvas,” Cagle says. “I loved taking my camera out into the physical world and hearing the gravel crunch under my boots."

“The school was a little disappointed because they thought they had hired a painter, but you can open up your life through photography in ways that painting doesn’t allow,” he adds. “There’s also no question that photography is the art medium of our time, surpassing all others because of its use of the intellect.”

MMoCA will augment Cagle’s new work with an additional exhibition of 15 images from the 23 photos the photographer had already gifted to the museum. In addition, Cagle’s 1973 experimental film “Waterwork” will run in a continuous 11-minute loop as part of the exhibit.

Cagle says his upcoming show makes him “feel good. It’s a nice thing to happen to me at the end of my life.”

Feb. 4, 2020