The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts
The work of Barbara Kasten caught me totally by surprise; I, in the interest of full disclosure, am not familiar with her work and in fact, had not even heard of her before. Prior to viewing her work, I only knew that she was a considerably renowned photographer from Chicago – what an inadequate designation! With a formidable career older than I am, Kasten has developed an expansive practice embracing many interests and disciplines, including: sculpture, painting, theater, textile, architecture, and installation; though she is most well known for her remarkable photographs. However, upon viewing this exhibition, it is clear to see that her voice and influence reaches far beyond one narrow category; and what she does, she does seriously and impeccably well across the spectrum.
It is easy to say that Kasten’s photographic work is irresistible, in every marvelous way; but this hardly feels like a big enough word to capture just how fantastic and capacious it actually is. Stemming from a fascination with light (and its inevitable companion, shadow), Kasten’s entry point of her photographic journey and subsequent career began with this one simple element; but it developed into a world of her own making. Using tangible sculptural materials and constructions, Kasten explored (and in many ways continues to explore) the illusionist properties of photography; and the results are complex, sexy, and bold with very few rivals. Triptych II is a stimulating cibachrome series culminating into one image, seductive in its intensity and repetition of color – literally bursting with a vibrancy that leaves me wanting more and more and more. Not surprising, given that Kasten was one of the first artists to be invited by Polaroid to use its new large format cameras; her work is incredibly well-suited to the lush, saturated quality of the medium.
During the 1980s, Kasten embarked on a series titled Constructs: installations she produced specifically to be photographed which incorporated and transformed life-size elements made of metal sheeting, painted wood, mesh, and mirrors into fantastical images bathed in 80’s neon colors with highlights of stark white and abysmal black. Metaphase 3 captures the cinematic lighting, mirrors, and fabrications that were part of Kasten’s monumental productions. At first glance, the image appears as an actual bold structure full of decisive angles, pyramids, and textures; however, upon further examination, I realize it is a deliberate and constructed set. Kasten’s use of colored gels to create implicit neon surfaces and projected subtle landscapes takes the physical objects into the world of the imaginary, and the wanted. Simultaneously concrete and whimsical, I feel the pulsating energy of a magical place I’ve never been (and perhaps may never experience), but ultimately desire to go.
Also on view were a few of the actual props from Barbara Kasten’s studio, made from plaster and wood, that she used to create her dynamic photographs. The stark white pyramids become stalagmites when viewed on their own, growing upward from an equally white pedestal raised slightly off the floor. With varying angles, dimensions, surfaces, and shadows, it is easy to see how these quite simple objects became stand-ins for Kasten – serving as her vocabulary as her interests evolved and allowed for great experimentation with the notions of the set, place, what is imagined, and what is real. Seeing these is like getting a view behind the curtain, a tease if you will, of everything that is possible.
My favorite of these, these stand alone objects of Kasten’s own making, were the hand-woven sisal shapes draped over Thonet chairs on the second floor: Seated Form (green), Seated Form (yellow), and Seated Form (red). Having trained as a textile artist, both in academia with pioneering fiber artist Trude Guermonprez, a former teacher at Black Mountain College and an associate of Anni Albers as well as with other artists such as the noted sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz while on a Fulbright to Poznań, Poland, Kasten displays her many and often forgotten talents with the material. Fibers, for me, ooze with evidence of the artist’s hand and the pure labor of making – these works carry Kasten’s presence in a way that, is sometimes a bit lost in images. There are photographs that illustrate Kasten’s exploitations of these fiberous forms, but I find them unnecessary (or rather, not as engaging) as the objects themselves. In this instance, the objects can stand confidently on their own without further intervention.
More recently, Kasten has been exploring a more minimal palette with the near total absence of color; as seen in Studio Construct 17. Although she is using many of the same materials that shaped her early constructed photographs, she has abolished all color – abandoning the trendy decade-specific colors of the past for soft and subtle hues of white and pale grays. Here Kasten illustrates the coveted “less is more” attitude, cropping her images so that the objects become less three-dimensional and meld into simple, but exquisite two-dimensional distortions. Beautiful and luxurious, the velvety surfaces reflect an artist who has honed her craft – strategically reducing the notion of place to its sheer essence. Kasten is whispering rather than yelling, and I find I am physically drawn closer to these images than any other – and find them utterly divine.
Barbara Kasten: Stages, the first major survey of the work of the Chicago artist, is organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and is curated by ICA Curator Alex Klein. It is open now through January 9, 2016 at The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, located at 4 West Burton Place, Chicago. Organized in conversation with the artist and with full access to her extensive archive, the exhibition includes works spanning her nearly five-decade engagement with abstraction, light, and architectural form. For more about this exhibition, visit: www.grahamfoundation.org/public_exhibitions/5399
Images (from top to bottom): Architectural Site 17, August 29, 1988, Location: High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; architect: Richard Meier, cibachrome, 60 x 50 inches, courtesy of the artist; Triptych II, 1983, silver dye bleach print, (cibachrome), 40 x 90 inches (each panel 40 x 30 inches), courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kadel Willborn, Dusseldorf, GERMANY; Metaphase 3, 1986, silver dye bleach print (cibachrome), 40 x 30 inches, courtesy of the artist and Bortolami, New York; Props from Barbara Kasten’s studio, plaster and wood, dimensions variable; Seated Form (green), 1972, handwoven sisal and Thonet chair, courtesy of the artist & Seated Form (yellow), 1972, handwoven sisal and Thonet chair, courtesy of the artist & Seated Form (red), 1972, handwoven sisal and Thonet chair, courtesy of the artist; Studio Construct 17, 2007, archival pigment print, 53.75 x 43.75 inches, collection of Rodney D. Lubeznik; Documentation of Barbara Kasten working in her studio, New York, NY, 1983, photo: Kurt Kilgus, courtesy of the artist