Otis Kaye was a master trompe l’oeil painter in the mid-twentieth century. Working primarily in Chicago, Kaye’s innovative works are heavily coded meditations on fortune, chance, and money. He worked outside of the trompe l’oeil genre, but his near-obsession with the peculiar power of money abides across his oeuvre. His works are riddled with rebuses, calligrams and visual puns, very often turning on a gallows humor about the vicissitudes of the market.
Much of Kaye’s biography is murky, a record dimmed by fallible records, many transatlantic crossings, and the artist’s own predilection for a playful relationship with the truth. It is at least known that he was born in Dresden in 1885, emigrating with his parents at a young age and settling in Michigan. Around age twenty, Kaye moved to New York, but later returned to his native Germany to study engineering. In the stock market crash of 1929, Kaye’s financial losses are unknown, but the emotional toll was high. Whether through soured investments or simply because of the stagnant economy, Kaye had difficulty making ends meet for the following decade. Spending more of his free time painting evidently contributed to the strain on his marriage, and in 1937 his wife returned to her native Germany, taking both of their children. Kaye would essentially append himself to the family of his close friend, and later business partner, Paul Banks, from that point forward. He also left the depression profoundly impressed with the power of markets, money, and chance.
His finances and family in shambles, Kaye turned increasingly to the refuge of his art. His eye for precision led him to the lineage of the trompe l’oeil still life – a style popular in America chiefly in the nineteenth century. The basic conceit of the trompe l’oeil technique is to “trick the eye” into believing the objects depicted are physically present, a practice tracing its roots to Greek legend, and more immediately, to certain works by the Peale family in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nineteenth century American still life frequently used fruit and floral arrangements as metaphors for material success. In its late nineteenth century American form, tromp l’oeil often added to the still life tradition an element of nostalgia for simpler times, including a cult worship for founding fathers and an idealization of frontier life.
Kaye took all these elements and drew them together with his own financial woes and produced a mid-twentieth century revival of the form, now with a world-weary cynicism and deep-cutting irony. The veneration of Lincoln and Washington found expression in the proliferation of bills and coins in Kaye’s works, and every convention of still life’s metaphors of bounty was upended into a storm of speculation and loss. Stock tickers and market graphs—always plummeting – proliferate in Kaye’s work. Kaye’s best works crystallize a philosophical equation of fortune, wealth, and chance, building on ambiguous symbols like coins (monetary units, but also something you toss) and even paintings themselves. Tying all of this together was a prodigious talent for extraordinary visual fidelity. Whether in his trompe l’oeil paintings or his many studies of birds, flowers, and even genre scenes, Kaye’s hand recreated the precision of his engineer’s mind.
The luck that Kaye found in the nineteen thirties—all of it bad—dogged him the rest of his life. Kaye sold few of his works in his own lifetime, but recent interest, including a major retrospective at the New Britain Museum in Connecticut, have fueled a revival in his market and renewed critical interest in this brilliant artist.