James Cagle’s terminal illness informed his final art show

Photographer didn't live to see his last show.
person holding an animal skull
"Zoology" by James Cagle, 2019

*Editor’s Note: MMoCA is currently closed through April 24.

Photographer James Cagle didn’t expect to live to see the exhibit of his work now at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Diagnosed with terminal blood cancer six years ago, Cagle passed away on Jan. 26. He was 81.

Cagle, a St. Norbert College professor emeritus of art, was contemplating the end of his life when he titled the collection of 15 black-and-white images of familar, every-day objects “A Final Meditation on Art.”

According to his wife, Katherine McCabe, myelodysplastic syndrome had limited Cagle’s mobility, but in other ways, it had enhanced his artistic abilities. “My seeing has become more vivid and more focused,” Cagle said via McCabe. “My field of vision has become generally richer and new pathways for seeing and experiencing have become opened.”

Cagle said the exhibit of his newest work at MMoCA “brings together some of the best work I’ve made at a time in my life where hopefully a unique elevating visual experience occurs.”

Leah Kolb, curator of exhibitions for MMoCA, says Cagle had told her “confronting the inevitable had given him a creative burst of energy.”

Kolb put together a retrospective on Cagle’s work by adding 15 images from the museum’s permanent collection as well as the short film “Waterwork,” which he made in 1973. Kolb brought the 11-minute film — one of four experimental films Cagle made decades ago — from the Film-makers Cooperative in New York City to have it digitized and projected on a wall of the museum in a continual loop.

Kolb says she first became enamored with Cagle’s photography when he submitted work for the 2013 Wisconsin Triennial, a MMoCA exhibit of art in various media by dozens of artists across the state held every three years. Cagle had a piece in the 2016 edition of the show as well.

“What he’s masterful at in photography is isolating these moments we would normally overlook in everyday life — the beauty around us, the quietness, stillness. It’s meditative,” Kolb says. “Each photo stands on its own but you start to get lost in the associative possibilities.”

Cagle, who trained as a painter and a draftsman at the Art Institute of Chicago, taught courses on painting, photography and film at St. Norbert College in DePere from 1963 until he retired in 2007.

MMoCA closed, and will remain closed at least until April 24, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason museum staff extended the stay of the exhibition “James Cagle: A Final Meditation on Art” until July 26.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.