Connections: 48 Years

Architectural Site 17, High Museum, 1988 © Barbara Kasten

 

Lecture by artist Barbara Kasten co-presented by the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) and the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. Introduction by Karen Irvine, Chief Curator and Deputy Director, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.
 

An Enrichment of Vision

Barbara Kasten (American, b. 1936) is an architect’s photographer. All of her works address the perception of space, the interplay between two and three dimensions, the physical qualities of materials, and, ultimately, how all of these aspects of her work are affected by light. For Kasten, in fact, light is a medium. Her photographs of light-saturated sculptural forms and architectural sites are geometric, colorful, layered, and almost, but not quite, abstract.

Trained in textiles and painting, Kasten began making photographs in the 1970s. Unburdened by the conventions of formal photographic training, she was passionately experimental from the start, and approached photography much as a painter or sculptor would. Her earliest photographic works are cyanotypes―a blue-hued process created with liquid emulsion on paper. Made from direct impressions of materials such as window screening on the treated paper, Kasten’s cyanotypes recall architectural blueprints. In the late 1970s, she began to design and build sets to be recorded with her camera—arranging forms made out of materials such as painted wood and plaster, mirrors, plexiglass, screens, furniture, and fibers, and then carefully, to use her term, “directing” the light onto them in order to make a dynamic composition.

Although most of her works have been studio-based, Kasten has also executed ambitious projects in the built environment, most notably her series Architectural Sites (1986–90), set in locations like office buildings and museums designed by well-known architects such as Richard Meier and César Pelli. Often working overnight with film crews, Kasten sets up elaborate arrangements of colored lights and mirrors in the spaces, transforming them into vibrant two-dimensional compositions, toying with the legibility of the original space and rendering it nearly indecipherable. She has also recently projected video imagery in museum and gallery spaces, adding movement to the experience of light and color, in sequences that transform both the sculptural forms she places in the space and the architecture surrounding them. Reminiscent of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic Light Space Modulator (1922–30), which she cites as an influence, these installations are exhilarating and complicated. Kasten further expressed her interest in Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus Movement when she was an artist-in-residence at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2018, where she arranged steel table frames and colored plexiglass to make a site-specific installation recorded in photographs that add a chaotic and colorful touch to Mies’s austere modernism.

For nearly fifty years, the hallmark of Barbara Kasten’s work has been to mine tensions between highlight and shadow, representation and abstraction. Interested in “changing the reality of things,” she extends many traditions of the Bauhaus Movement through the interdisciplinary and experimental nature of her work. Indeed, Kasten’s works provide formal proof that, as Moholy-Nagy once observed regarding one of his own photograms: “The organization of light and shadow effects produce a new enrichment of vision.”

Karen Irvine
Chief Curator and Deputy Director
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago

 

Collision, 2016 © Barbara Kasten

 

Connections: 48 Years
Lecture by Barbara Kasten delivered on Thursday, November 29, 2018 

For this lecture, I decided to put together my own little survey of work and show some things in my work that I think have connections to each other. I hope that you will find some other works that connect as well. It is always really interesting to put together a slide show because you see your own work in different ways. I will cover forty-eight years, from 1970, the year I got my graduate degree, until now. I took about ten years between undergrad and grad school, so I encourage students to give yourself a little time in between to find out who you are and what you like to do. I am still trying to figure it out so it does take a while.

I am not giving any chronological order to the works. I am starting with a project titled Artist/City Crown Hall that I did this past summer at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). I grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, and that is not too far away from IIT. I moved with my parents to Arizona when I was out of high school so I didn’t know about IIT or the people who were going to influence my life that came to IIT like Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe. But the people that have taught at IIT have really influenced my career.
 

Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Artist/City Crown Hall, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

The idea behind the project was to merge Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, and myself into a perspective that would be unique to me but also reflect some of the ideas that were important to them. Crown Hall is like the epitome and one of the most iconic buildings that Mies van der Rohe designed. Used as IIT’s College of Architecture, during the year the entire space is filled with worktables that the students use and those were the objects that I used to make the sculptures.

The project is a series of worktables stacked one upon another in different formations. To that, I interjected brightly colored plexiglass that I have recently discovered and fallen in-love with as a counterpoint to the very solemn gray, black, and white of the architecture of the building. But the building has the most incredible diffused light that I have seen in any place. In the summer, it was really glorious. I wanted to make work in that space and also comment on it, make independent sculptures, make photographs, and use the entire space as an ad hoc studio.

I had about six weeks to assemble the pieces. IIT was very generous in allowing me to use the space and all of the tables. I would go in and start with one arrangement. The next time I came, I added another one and then, the next time I came, I added a third one. After that, I started mixing them up, so they never stayed the same. It was like being in the studio. You go in, you experiment, things happen, and you are motivated to do something else. That is the way I treated the project. I made beams out of the same colored acrylic that I fell in-love with. Crown Hall’s floor was so shiny that it acted like a mirrored surface. If you know my work, you know that I have used mirrors a lot.

There were all these elements in there that I was really happy to use. I think I made a total of twenty pieces but I ended up with eight pieces that actually remained as “finished” constructions. They stayed up for a week after which we had to take it down because the students were coming back for the fall semester and all those tables had to be put back to work. None of these sculptural elements were attached. They were just there by balance, finding the right point for that to happen.
 

Intervention marathon, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Intervention marathon, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Intervention marathon, Hairy Who artists and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Navy Pier, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

From that, I took that same concept and used it for a stage sculpture titled Intervention that I made for the marathon interviews that Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted on September 29 at Navy Pier during EXPO Chicago and as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

There, I used the same tables. IIT allowed me to take some with me and I reconstructed and reproduced some of them because by now, I felt they were my own and I needed to have more. But I started making more beams, beams that reflected some of the real architectural and industrial construction beams, and one or two that were based on the iconic beam that holds Crown Hall together. It is a structure that has four great beams across the roof holding the open area inside up without a visible support system.

I worked on it for many weeks in my studio at Mana Contemporary and then, it went up for one afternoon in this giant space of the ballroom at Navy Pier. It had to go up in two hours and come down in fifteen minutes, and it was up for just the time of the event. I think you might be able to see something similar in March for Mies’s birthday on March 28. We will put up a sculpture and there will be a performance with a dance group. 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus which, of course, Moholy-Nagy was connected to as well and brought the New Bauhaus to Chicago.
 

Parallels, 2017 © Barbara Kasten

 

These are forms that I made for an exhibition at Bortolami Gallery in New York last year titled Parallels. These are again, individual pieces that are not attached, but stacked one against another and held in very precarious positions by the balance and the weight of each form. The reason I ended up making these box-like forms was that plexiglass doesn’t have any strength until it is constructed into an object that holds it together. I made these boxes, which made them very strong, that could be leveled one on top of another.
 

Progression Nine, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Progression Eight, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 

Progression Four, 2017 © Barbara Kasten

 

At the same time, I did a series I called Progression that was exhibited at Bortolami Gallery in New York. It is an object that has a photograph as the base, a sculpture relief attached to it, and light going through it creating another level of shadows. This is the epitome of everything I have been working with, which is the illusion of photography, the sculptural identity of the work that I photograph, and light, which is an element that is essential to everything that I do.

These are unique pieces and very difficult to put together. This is a whole new process for me where first, I make the photograph. I use the same material in the photograph that I attach to the piece itself afterwards. The printed photograph is inside a plexiglass box frame. To make the design on top of it, I work with an architectural student from IIT, Devin Gora, and he puts it into a plan. Ten steps later and probably a few thousand dollars, each piece is complete. It really does match the whole idea that I have been after for years. I am really excited to be working in this physical space as well as with the illusion of the photograph, and putting it all together.
 

Yurakucho Asahi Gallery, Tokyo, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

Yurakucho Asahi Gallery, Tokyo, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

It reminded me of an exhibition I did in 1986 at Yurakucho Asahi Gallery in Tokyo. What I did there was also make sculptures of the same material that I used in the photograph. All the objects in this sculpture are independent pieces, not attached to anything and so, it comes apart. Everything I do needs to be flexible and rely on balance. All the objects that you see in my photographs from that time period reappear in newer works. I have used some of them just recently to make a proposal for a mural. I never let go of any props. I store them or reuse them.
 

Barbara Kasten, Warsaw, Poland, 1972 © Barbara Kasten

 

Seated Form, 1972 © Barbara Kasten

 

Seated Form, 1972 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is me in 1972 in Poland. I was on a Fulbright grant right after grad school. At that time, I was working with three dimensional form, but in textile. I was exploring abstraction, an abstraction that relied on reality such as identifiable body forms. I hand-wove them out of sisal, big, heavy ropes that came from the ports in Gdańsk. I would unfurl, dye, and I reweave them. They were made on a tapestry loom in shapes that then I could pull together to create these forms.
 

Seated Forms solo exhibit, 1973 © Barbara Kasten

 

Figure Chair diazotype, 1973 © Barbara Kasten

 

Diazotype, 1973 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is a show I did when I came back at my alma mater, California College of Arts and Crafts [now California College of Arts] in San Francisco. You will notice that there were a few pictures on the wall. It is probably one of the first “installations” I ever did where the objects and photographs related to one another, but it is the same as I do now. They were not photographs of the sculpture. They were companion pieces that interpreted the same concept differently. These are diazotypes, an architectural blueprint process, and they were 8 x 10 contact prints on film that were made using a model. One of the only times I think I have ever photographed a human. Of course, I couldn’t let it go at that. I had to abstract it.
 

Exhibit at UC Irvine, 1981 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is a little survey of installations from the 1980s. All my work has always been involved with three-dimensional space and making photographs of it, or just making installations. In the show, they were not installations that were photographed, but they come from the way that the photographs were made in the studio. I found fiberglass screening material that I have used ever since, and that was some of the material in this small setup at a show at UC Irvine. Photographs that were made in a similar manner were on the wall.
 

Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is to show you the scale of where the photographs went to very quickly in 1982. I did a show called Centric 2: Barbara Kasten, installation/ photographs at Cal State University, Long Beach. There was this 30 to 40-foot room and, on one side of it, there was an ongoing set of multiple little vignettes that I made Polaroids of. At that time, I showed sculptures in different venues but it was all much more related to the photographs than what I do today.
 

Capp Street Project, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

I was invited to the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, which no longer exists. It was a house that was a residency offered to three or four artists a year, and one would go there, live there, make work in the space and then, exhibit it in the space. It was open to the public for part of the time of the residency. Here I saw that I could incorporate this spatial placement in a home, a different type of place than a big stage or a big gallery. I wanted the human element in it, so I invited Margaret Jenkins from the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, who had her troupe down the street not too far from the house, to dance in the space, which she did. Consequently, she invited me to collaborate with her. I never made photographs there however.
 

Wright State University, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

Wright State University, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

The next slide shows how the elements that came from one place went to another one, and into another arrangement, into another environment in an exhibition. This is at Wright State University. I have to note that those big pyramids came from the San Francisco Opera. I like all these hand-me-downs, using articles and objects, and repurposing them for different things. These came in very handy and I used them for several exhibitions. Here is the downward view because it was a two-story gallery with a mezzanine, and on the mezzanine, I had shown some 20 x 24 Polaroids.
 

Polaroid Corporation Studio, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

Barbara Kasten at Polaroid Corporation Studio, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

These are few setups of the Polaroid studio, the 20 x 24 studio that I was invited to use. I was very fortunate to be part of an early group of photographers who were invited to use this big camera that, at that time, was not available to the public. You can see the size of it. It was a very makeshift camera, but it ended up with great 20 x 24 instant photographs. Polaroid was very generous by offering the use of this camera to artists. You could work for a day or two, or however long they invited you for. In return, one of the images would have to be given to their collections. They amassed a huge collection. At that time I lived in California and they were located in Cambridge, so I had to do a lot of planning to have mirrors cut and ready for me to assemble into a stage setting that I would then photograph. It was probably the most that I have ever planned a studio photograph. Now, I rely on materials that I am interested in and find shapes that I like or make them. I have a more free-form attitude about it. But, at that time, it was much more planned and it took so much orchestration to get things ready as I only had a day or two to make photographs. I relied on mirrors and a big backdrop, and the thing that was the most important for me was the instant feedback. Coming from being a painter and not liking the darkroom, I had to find a way to visualize the work. I usually worked with one setup until I was happy with the results. Then, it came down when I went to the next setup. This is still my photographic process today.
 

Construct 2B, 1981 © Barbara Kasten

 

Construct 5A, 1981 © Barbara Kasten

 

Construct IX, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

When making photographs, I didn’t ever shoot many things at the same time. I never shot many angles. I only set the camera up and then, made changes to the set in front of the camera. I didn’t move the camera. It was a different way of working than I think a lot of photographers are trained to. I learned by doing. If I wanted to do something, I found somebody who could help me do it or tell me what to do. I only took one class in Photography at CCAC and that was it. I learned a lot about photography during a great well-paying job I had at the Presidio where they ran a photography program for the military on base, as it was a base at that time. I didn’t know what a darkroom really was. But, I said, “I know the job.” You take chances when you are young. I told them that I knew what I was doing and I bought the photographer’s handbook, talked to a lot of people, and ran the darkroom. That is one of the ways I got started. But I never liked the darkroom, it was too smelly for me. My magic comes in the studio when the light gets turned on, not when I see it coming up through the chemistry. This is a different mentality. These are the types of images I was making and the kind of things I was looking at that time: mostly constructivist painters such as Moholy-Nagy, Malevich, and Lyubov Popova, a fantastic Russian woman-painter from that time period.

I was not looking to photography as my inspiration. I knew photographers because I started a collection of photography with my husband Leland Rice who actually was the professor that taught me that one photography class at CCAC. He became my husband afterwards. You know, those romances that happen. He is the one that taught me the most about photography but mostly about the history, not about the technique. I also learned more about history by observing and seeing things firsthand, which of course in the 1970s was a lot easier to find and do than it is right now. Great photographs are much rarer to collect now than there were at that time.
 

NYC studio, 1984 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is my studio in New York. I moved to New York in 1982 from California, where I had been since I came back from Europe in 1973. I taught a little bit at UCLA, married Leland, and when I got divorced, I moved to New York. In this photo I am cheating as I am standing on the backdrop with my shoes on. You don’t do that in my photographs because you have to look down and it has to change the illusion of the space with no idea of horizon lines. I always had a sweep that is curved and I was always looking downward into that. These are some of the first images I made with an 8 x 10 camera. Polaroid Corporation had given some 8 x 10 Polaroid to my husband and he wasn’t interested in it. According to him, he gave it to me. According to me, they gave the material to me. I am not sure which is the real story but, in any case, I used it and that was really the beginning of how I used a camera. I had no reason to use a camera before as I was making photograms.
 

Construct VI B, 1981 © Barbara Kasten

 

Construct XI A, 1981 © Barbara Kasten

 

Construct XVIII, 1982 © Barbara Kasten

 

I made sculptural sets related to things that were made in the Bauhaus by set designers using a lot of found industrial materials and relying on constructivism for the imagery and the spatial ambiguity of the photograph. Again, light was the essential thing that made everything become very ephemeral and lose its reality, especially if it had mirror and those shapes bounce to other mirrors or to other walls and surfaces. It was, and still is, very magical to be there in the set and because, of the scale of most of the sets, I was really in the set. It wasn’t a matter of a tabletop where I was moving small things around. I actually physically moved around in these sets, so it had a performance-like aspect to what I was doing. I soon became very attached and involved in the spatial construction as much as what happened when that construction was transformed to the back of the view camera and it then became a flat piece of paper in my mind where shapes had to be rearranged. If I wanted a red half-circle moved up there, I got into the set and moved it up there. I was back and forth between the construction of the subject and back to the back of the camera, and saw things very differently from both points of view.

Some are titled Construct NYC. I have these codified titles that just means they were constructs and made in New York City. It is just a way of tracking it. I never went for metaphoric titles or explanatory things. I liked keeping it very clean, straightforward, “This is number one. That is number two.” Everything has a very theatrical feel to it because of the performance aspect and the whole idea of moving around in it myself.
 

Dance collaboration, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, 1985 © Barbara Kasten

 

Here are some images of the collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that I mentioned earlier that came out of Capp Street Project. It was a real, true collaboration. It wasn’t that she danced and I made the sets separately. We actually worked together. I made the sets so that the pieces were movable and the dancers could move them from one place to another. The lighting changed so I worked with the lighting designer to replicate the colors in the way that I make photographs. The movement was really important to me because I followed the Bauhaus philosophy of interdisciplinary ways of art making like they did then. I liked the idea of adding motion to these large-scale settings. The imagery ends up looking somewhat like my photographs and I liked the idea that the lights could change and the people changed. It inspired me for many photographs that came afterwards.

In 2011, the idea of performance and a space including people came about when I got interested in video. This is a short clip from a video piece that I did in Chicago in 2011. The sound was from the Lucky Dragons. They gave me sound clips and I put together the music. They were very generous to allow me to do whatever I wanted to do with it. It was really a great environment to see people walking in and out of the changing lights. In a way, it was my own dance routine, but it was all of you involved to make it happen.

That issue of scale, the idea of being in an environment that was very architectural, inspired me on a project that was commissioned by Vanity Fair. The project was to photograph in architectural settings in New York for an article that was being written about the new architecture, the postmodern architecture of the 1980s and the big, open, glorious entryways, and atriums, that are still prevalent in many buildings. It was a huge production. It was like a movie production. I had to photograph at night because lighting could not be controlled unless it was dark outside.
 

Architectural Site 17, High Museum, 1988 © Barbara Kasten

 

Architectural Site 17, High Museum installation, 1988 © Barbara Kasten

 

I had a crew of ten twelve people including experts in lighting from the cinema world. If I thought about it too long, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it was exciting and I learned a lot. You can see all these are mirrors that are set up and that are visible in the view of the camera. I had to use a 4 x 5, not an 8 x 10 because of the lighting that would have been required for 8 x 10 film. It took a lot of pre-planning to make sure everything was in the right position and then you get one shot, that is all you get. I don’t know how many sheets of film we used just in case something went wrong when they got it developed. You don’t shoot one piece of film and spend $20,000 a night to do it.

I got into these buildings because it was Vanity Fair. You can’t just go up and knock on the door and say, “I want to use your atrium all night long.” But they were getting something in exchange, or that’s what they thought because, in the end, they never got published. I ended up being moved out by Leona Helmsley or somebody like that who had some kind of an affair, and that was the end of that. But it started me on a whole new track and it really got me excited about working in large-scale, big product, which has paid off for things that I am doing now.
 

Architectural Site 6, World Financial Center, NY, 1986 © Barbara Kasten

 

This is at the World Financial Center by Cesar Pelli, across the street from the World Trade Center, so it still exists. I remember seeing a photograph of it after the Twin Towers came down and it was just covered in white. It was the eeriest thing to see. But this series was a very joyful and playful look at it, and also commentary on how our money is spent. After that, I thought, “Oh, dear. Now, what do I do? I’m hooked. Where am I going to photograph?” I used connections that I had, which were directors of museums, people who knew who I was and trusted me. I also had the Vanity Fair shots to show that I could do it. This is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta designed by Richard Meier. If you know Richard Meier, you know that all his buildings are white. He would be horrified if he saw this photograph. It is totally against his sensibility, which is something I did in the same way I did the work at IIT with Mies van der Rohe. Inserting those really lurid, huge, colorful pieces was the antithesis to what they do. In a way, this was my commentary on architecture, maybe a little too blatant, but it worked. I liked it and the imagery changes your whole perspective of the place. If you go to there now, you’re going to say, “Well, where’s the red wall?” This is what it looked like around the camera: lots of cables, lots of big lights, and a lot of people moving them around. I would do two photographs in one night, but they had to be very pre-planned. I knew exactly what I was doing. There was no, “Go in and let’s see where the camera should go.” It had to be totally orchestrated.
 

Architectural Site 8, Loyola Law School, LA, 1986 © Barbara Kasten

 

This was Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. I don’t like the most recent architecture of Frank Gehry. I can’t say I am crazy about his Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. But I liked this. It had a more modernist look to me and it was pre-computer architecture. Everything was pre-computer: my photographs, the architecture. This is a much more modern point of view. Then, I did Isozaki’s MOCA in Los Angeles practically the week after it opened. We had to carry lights into the museum so that the skylight could be lit with that color….traipsing by a Jackson Pollock with one of those big lights…that was a little scary but we got things in there. These men were so professional and they did it partially as a labor of love because I couldn’t pay them what they get paid for their commercial jobs. They did it because they were helping an artist make art, which is something I found really great in the world. People are always interested in helping other people make a creative gesture, and I think that is really something we have to preserve and we have to keep alive in this time that we are in right now where creativity will be the thing that gets challenged and put out of any of our minds before we know it. We just have to keep being artists so that doesn’t happen.
 

Architectural Site 19, LACMA, LA, 1989 © Barbara Kasten

 

This was the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It is right next to the main part that they are now going to tear down but this will remain. This was one of the biggest events because it took two nights just to set up the lights. We were working totally at night and we were lighting only the parts that were appearing in the image. It was a huge cross-section view of the building, not just a little corner. I was lighting the front, scanning the whole front of the building.

This one is a second shot at MOCA in Los Angeles. The cinematic lights are Tungsten balanced and the film is also Tungsten so it responds to daylight in this blue. Because of needing to work very quickly, in this image I relied on the changing daylight as well as what I was coloring with gels. I had to have some knowledge of what was going to happen if exposures were made when the light was changing and it did. I have varying degrees of this blue in many pieces of film that I made as the sun was coming up.
 

Architectural Site 15, Whitney Museum, NY, 1987 © Barbara Kasten

 

This was at the Whitney Museum in New York designed by Marcel Breuer. The people in charge of these buildings knew who I was and I was able to convince them that I was a low security risk. But I also enticed them with a photograph for their collection and an image that they could sell as a poster in their bookstore, so they made money back from that. I had to get a little entrepreneurial and make a deal there, but they saw the value. For me, it was valuable because it was a lot more exposure than just making one photograph. A lot of people saw it and they sold out the posters.
 

Juxtaposition Site 2, 1988 © Barbara Kasten

 

Juxtaposition Site 4, 1988 © Barbara Kasten

 

New Mexico Puye Cliffs, The Cliffs, 1992 © Barbara Kasten

 

I was invited to do the Jackson Pollock Studio, which was in Springs, New York. The floor that he painted on was covered over by Lee Krasner, his wife and also a great painter who used the studio after Pollock’s death. When she passed away, they started taking out the flooring and they discovered the painting created by drips while Jackson Pollock worked on his canvases. My work was made as a commission for a series that they offered for fundraising. I also did some work out in the real outdoors because I wanted to go back to the nature that I loved and the architecture of that was in Santa Clara in New Mexico. These are the Puye Cliff Dwellings that were shot at night, lighting them dramatically and changing it to a very eerie landscape. I did a similar project in 1992 in Tarragona, Spain, where I made a 40-foot mural that was backlit.
 

Scenario Video, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2015 © Barbara Kasten

 

Scenario Video, Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2015 © Barbara Kasten

 

Corners, MOCA, 2016 © Barbara Kasten

 

Corners, MOCA, 2016 © Barbara Kasten

 

Untitled 79 25, Silver Gelatin, 20×16, 1979 © Barbara Kasten

 

Untitled 79 9, 1979 © Barbara Kasten

 

I am going to show another video piece that was part of the 2015 Stages exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia when I really started getting into video. I did this piece with the help of my good friend Kate Bowen. The next iteration of the exhibition came to the Graham Foundation in Chicago later that year. There we created a different video (Scenario) because we didn’t have another 34-foot wall like the one at ICA. I constructed this set, which is an assemblage of cubes and geometric forms that are three-dimensional and then overlaid it with a video of the same cubes going through various colorations. These are some of the stills from the whole set. When the show went to MOCA in LA in 2016, we did a third video (Corner) that we fit up into this skylight corner. Each exhibition really was a whole different show. The work was all the same but it got rearranged and put into a different architecture. Each video made its own statement about the space as well as about the show. This reminded me of the very first pieces I did in 1979 on silver gelatin photograms. They were shots from the studio, then projected, and finally, the photogram on top. (Amalgam) I also painted on some of them. It just keeps coming around, the same props, the same obsession with geometry and photograms, and a concept of a similar nature.
 

Scene III, 2012 © Barbara Kasten

 

Scene IV, 2012 © Barbara Kasten

 

Studio Construct 8, 2007 © Barbara Kasten

 

Here is some of that same material in 2012 that ended up in an abstraction that came directly after my experience here teaching in Columbia. I wanted to make a photograph that was truly abstract, and I didn’t want to have anything identified or representational. I wanted it all to be a matter of form and light. I took away the color and I worked with the moiré. I worked with sheets of plexiglass that would stop the light and create shadows, but you could also see through and would create form. But it was the shadows that really became important to me, and that is what I looked for. These are just two or three pieces of plexiglass, but the form is really the shadow, not the plexiglass. I was really interested in that illusion and the ephemeral light. It is hard to identify what is really there, but there is form there. I chose something that couldn’t be labeled.

When I was teaching here at Columbia College, I was the first artist faculty member that they gave a Faculty Distinguished Artist award to. They gave me a studio and a couple of years release from teaching most classes. It came at a time in my life where it was very, very important to get back into the studio. I received the grant in 2006 and I worked while I was teaching. But when I retired, I was on my way to creating, having a practice that I could develop and really concentrate on. If I hadn’t had that, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get to where I am now, and have the work that I had in order to have that big ICA survey. I have to say that I am really grateful to Columbia for this support that they have given me.

I still work with film. It’s not that I don’t like digital. There are things and qualities about digital that are very helpful. But there is something about film and the way that it records light and color that I still respond to. It is getting more difficult. I use positive film as I can’t use negative film because that means you have to transpose it. I can’t do that. I have to see what I am doing just like I have to see the sculpture, move it around, and touch it. I can’t take many pictures and edit them. It is too hard for me. I have to work in one direction.
 


Photogenic Painting, Untitled 21, 1975 © Barbara Kasten

 


Photogenic Painting, Untitled 23, 1975 © Barbara Kasten

 


Photogenic Painting, Untitled 19, 1976 © Barbara Kasten

 

I work with film and I work with photograms. I have done a lot of photograms in my career and these are some of the earliest. These were done using cyanotype for the photograms. Moholy-Nagy said that photogram is the most direct route to abstraction, and I believed him and I still do. I really love photograms because they relate to painting. I started it so that I could incorporate photography into my painting. It was a whole another perspective that I approached using a photogram for, and these were the results of those first things.
 

Shadow at the Met 43, New York, 2006 © Barbara Kasten

 

Shadow at the Met 63, New York, 2006 © Barbara Kasten

 

Again, I am enthralled with shadows. They allowed me to go to the MET in New York and photograph. I headed towards the African masks sections, as I loved all those fetishes. But when I got there, I photographed the floor. I loved what happened with the light and the shadow. The boxes, cubes, plexiglass… It is amazing how I always keep coming back to the same thing.
 

Incidence 1, 2009 © Barbara Kasten

 

Incidence 3, 2010 © Barbara Kasten

 

These are a few things you probably have never seen. They are 8 x 10 contact prints featuring very simple objects relying on light and shadow. They are very nondescript forms, very minimal, very painterly in an approach of how they are positioned and how I record them. This is a series that came right when I was on this mini grant from Columbia, and I worked with the way light interacts with surfaces, different materials, and scratch materials. I love the idea that one can see the application of the human hand and how the materials might have been cut or altered in some way.
 

Elemental 2, 2015 © Barbara Kasten

 

Elemental 3, 2015 © Barbara Kasten

 

These are some of the largest pieces I have made to date, experimenting with cardboard boxes. Simple shapes. Geometry has always been an interest of mine even from high school days. It has always been something I aim to try to solve and it is reflected in my choice of shapes and forms. It seems very natural.
 

Transposition 3, 2014 © Barbara Kasten

 

Transposition 27, 2016 © Barbara Kasten

 

This was when I decided, “Okay, I think now I’ll add a little more color.” But I needed to add it in small doses so I added shapes of gel that then got reflected and didn’t fill the frame in the same manner as it did earlier. This was the beginning of working with plexiglass and the reflection, and the reflection of light on different surfaces. I am trying to figure out how I could capture that and balance it into an abstract form. It reminds me of drawing. In making my own work, I feel like I am drawing on the back of the camera. That is how I interpret it.
 


Collision 7 T E, 2018 © Barbara Kasten

 


Triptych Composition, 7D, 7T, 7E, 2016 © Barbara Kasten

 

It is all kind of coming full circle back to form and light. It seems like I have had a very zigzag course through my practice but eventually it comes together. Zigzag might happen with years in between but it still seems to be reliant on who I am as an artist. It keeps going back to that same message inside myself that says, “You got to do what you love to do.” And thank goodness, I have been able to do it for all these many years.

Thank you to all of you for being here tonight.

 

Barbara Kasten is known for photographs that transform architecture into formal abstract compositions using lighting, color gels, and mirrors. Originally from Chicago, Kasten is the recipient of many prestigious awards, and her work has been widely exhibited by major museums in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Her photographs are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; International Center of Photography, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, Lodz, Poland; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, among others.
www.barbarakasten.net
 

Courtesy of:
Bortolami Gallery, New York: www.bortolamigallery.com
Kadel Willborn, Dusseldorf: www.kadel-willborn.de
Thomas Dane, London: www.thomasdanegallery.com
 

Karen Irvine is Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. She has organized over forty exhibitions of contemporary photography at the MoCP and other institutions and written essays for numerous artist monographs and magazines. Irvine is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague, Czech Republic, and an MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
www.mocp.org | @MoCP_Chicago



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