An exhibit titled “Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery” runs
though May 10 at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.
The show includes 34 of Kaye’s paintings in the artist’s signature trompe
l’oeil technique and is of interest to numismatists because he often
used coins, paper money and other items as symbols in his realistic
still life paintings to represent greater political and social issues.
The term “trompe l’oeil” is a French term that means trick or fool
the eye. It is the name for a painting style that is highly realistic
and utilizes optical illusions so that the viewer is unsure of what is
painted and what is real.
As the museum states, “More puzzling than Kaye’s work, which is
steeped in mystery and symbolism, is the enigma that surrounds the
artist himself. The record of Kaye’s life is nearly non-existent. The
artist did not exhibit or sell his work during his lifetime, but gave
his art to close family and friends.”
Kaye was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1885 and moved to Michigan as
a toddler. There is almost no documentation to confirm the simplest
facts of his life, such as a birth certificate or documentation of his
entry to America.
He appears to have started painting trompe l’oeil oil paintings for
his own amusement in the 1920s. As he developed as an artist, his
paintings became increasingly complex as they evolved to reflect the
artist’s ideas on social issues. Sometime after 1969, Kaye returned to
Germany, and he died there in 1974. During his lifetime he enjoyed a
local reputation in the areas where he lived, including the Chicago
area, but widespread success eluded him.
A 188-page catalog of the exhibition has been published by the
museum and is being distributed by University Press of New England.
The introduction describes the enigmatic artist’s works: “To look at a
still life by twentieth century artist Otis Kaye is to enter a world
filled with minute details. Seduced by the painting’s semblance to
reality, its beckoning illusionism, the viewer moves in to examine
object after object, scrap after scrap, discovering clues, texts, and
felicitous arrangements that portray pithy morals and bitter truths.”
The catalog also includes an appendix that documents almost all of
the artist’s artistic output, making it a sort of “catalogue
raisonné,” or inventory, of the artist’s works. According to the
catalog authors, documenting the “full breadth of Kaye’s output in all
media allows us to assess Kaye’s enormous technical skills, the
complexity of his allusions, the diversity of his interests and his
strengths and weaknesses as an artist in different media.”
Surprisingly, though Kaye’s paintings of money are best-known today,
these were not popular with his family members, who did not hang the
money paintings in their home, since they were viewed as not
Check back later for more on the robust market for Kaye's work.
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