Modernism and other Twentieth Century

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Otis Kaye
Bet You Can’t Do That Again, 1969
Oil on panel
18 x 13 inches
Signed at lower left: O. Kaye

PROVENANCE
To the current owner by descent in the family of the artist

In 1932, Kaye undertook a composition similar to the current work. What A Hit (Hevdrejs Collection) has a baseball lodged at top center of the panel, with bills of various denominations bundled beneath it in the rough shape of home plate. A newspaper clipping and ticket stub at the center of the image identify the moment as game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Kaye lived in Chicago much of his life and “may even have attended the third game of the 1932 World Series,” speculated Geraldine Banks [in Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery (2014), p. 58]. The game is remembered for one of the most famous moments in sports: Babe Ruth’s “called shot.” Baseball legend has it that Ruth, coming to bat in a tie game at Wrigley Field, pointed to the bleachers behind center field before hitting a towering home run to that location on the very next pitch. Kaye memorializes this moment with a small photograph of Ruth and newspaper clippings that give the work its title, (“What a Hit!”). The work implies that the Sultan of Swat not only called the shot, but knocked the baseball through the outfield fence, leaving it lodged within splintering wood, as it appears in the painting.

While this home run was a heroic one for fans of the Babe—it was his fifteenth and final home run in his post-season career—it was a bitter defeat for Chicago. The Cubs had not taken home the World Series title since 1908 and would not do so again until 2016. Kaye enjoyed depicting sports in his work (eg., Will You Play Ball 1954, Win Place Show, 1958), but what most fascinated the artist were games of chance. His obsessions with the stock market, gambling, and accident featured in almost every of his trompe l’oeil works. Given the bitterness of Chicago’s loss and Kaye’s own predilections, he frames the moment not as a heroic gesture but as a freak accident. The fame of the called shot rests on the idea of Ruth hitting a home run at will. Kaye taunts him in one of the clippings in the work reading “Bets big and small were placed near home plate as fans chanted, five get you 10 can’t do it again.” (Gambling on sports is an especially touchy subject in Chicago, where an entire White Sox team was banned from baseball for their part in gambling on the 1919 World Series.) Kaye called Ruth’s bluff: if you can hit homers at will, prove it and do it again. The feat is legend because Ruth looked omnipotent; Kaye countered that he was lucky.

Heroic feats didn’t go far in Kaye’s book, and perhaps to underscore the point, he added himself as a target for heckling. He slipped his own name into one of the newspaper clippings so that it can also be read: “Otis, 5 getcha 10, you, Kaye, can’t do it again.” This is a cutting jibe to a trompe l’oeil artist: his craft is, more than any other style of painting, an heroic feat. The painting works if the eye is tricked, and when it does, there is a miraculous quality, like a magic act. The viewer is fooled, but, like a magic show, we dare you to fool us again. The flip side to this coin is that Kaye’s art was one of total calculation: his technique was mastery and perfection, leaving nothing to chance.

To this end, he took himself up on on his own dare, executing a very similar composition in the present work. In this, perhaps his last finished trompe l’oeil painting, he cites his own challenge in the title, Bet You Can’t Do That Again. Here, once more, is the baseball, pounded through the outfield wall, and the bills folded in the shape of home plate are also reprised. The title is inscribed on a simple bit of red paper—perhaps the back of the red ticket to Wrigley Field thirty-seven years before? The link to the earlier painting is explicit: the baseball is inscribed “from Babe Ruth.” But the tone of the picture has turned from taunting to nostalgic. Babe Ruth has done it again (the player had been dead over twenty years in 1969), and so has the artist. The tool for this heroic feat was Kaye’s pencil—the brand is “Louisville Slugger.” Kaye inscribes his signature in the picture as a crudely-carved grafitti, recalling the trompe l’oeil masterpieces of the late 19th century. The works of William Harnett and John Peto are suffused with nostalgia, often including portraits of Lincoln and Washington along with care-worn mementos from the Civil War. Kaye’s callbacks to these masters take the form of different relics — baseballs and dollar bills—but they all look backwards to the magic of heroic gestures. In this, one of his very last works, Kaye evinces a more tender view of the past, and his own career, trotting out his old sleight of hand for just one more trick.

RECORDED

James M. Bradburne, Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery (2015), p. 136, illus.

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