Form and Photography

Light, form and shadow: Barbara Kasten’s experimental photography and cinematic installations are dynamically exposed to audiences at the ICA, Philadelphia.

László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian-born painter, photographer and filmmaker of the early 20th century is famous for his works that focus on light, time, and chance. Maholo-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus, a school whose main ethos was the unification of art and technology. Jump forward about 50 years to the 1970s and the photogenic paintings and photographs of American artist Barbara Kasten (b. 1936), and the enduring influence of Maholy-Nagy becomes readily apparent. Kasten, who studied in California as a painter and textile artist at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in the 1960s, takes light and time, and explores new ways of articulating these phenomena. These works, which encompass large-scale cinematic installations as well as small Polaroids, are the focus of her first major monographic survey, taking place at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

Curator Alex Klein has pulled together over 80 works, including key works from her Construct series (1979 -1986), and presents an overview of nearly 50 years of Kasten’s practice. Klein is quick to point out that she is still a living, working artist – this is not a historical show, but a very current one, with Kasten continually innovating and experimenting. In an interview with Courtney Fiske (Art & America, 2012) Kasten describes this development as very focused and with one result in mind: “I’m trying to realise the idea that a complete photographic abstraction is possible.” The traditional notion of the photograph depicting a representation of reality is and has been upended. Kasten seems to be continuing the same experiments that Maholy-Nagy started, changing our perception of space through the camera’s lens.

An introduction to photographer Leland Rice, who later became her, husband, at the CCAC, paved the way to her use of photography. Though Kasten’s finished work ultimately is in the form of a photograph, she incorporates sculpture, painting, design, and media into the eventual print. Her carefully constructed interpretations of architectural spaces and interiors relate directly to the Bauhaus and constructivism. The distinct lack of narrative in these “constructs” is as ambiguous as the models and studies produced by the Bauhaus and VKhUTEMAS workshops. It is tied to a deeper attempt at understanding form and the utilitarian value of objects. Kasten, like the students and professors of these two schools, creates sculptural forms and objects as a method of investigation into form, volume, space and colour.

Out of these investigations comes her Construct series (perhaps her most famous). In these works, Kasten creates a very staged view of reality. Though the “constructs” appear small and fragile, they are hard, constructivist assemblages: mesh screens, plaster obelisks and cones, metal plates, black rods, and Perspex are meticulously put together to create geometric forms. These sculptures appear mechanised, light glancing off the corners and flat lines, creating a spatial rhythm reminiscent of the works of the great Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. Kasten’s intent has always been to lose any sense of representation, so that the only identifiers that remain are the lines and the corners. She doesn’t want to trigger memories through the represented subject, as is typically the case with traditional photography.

The quest for complete abstraction in photography is not a novel one. American artist Mel Bochner’s Surface Dis/Tension (1968), a composite silver gelatin print of a grid on a studio tabletop, was literally stripped down to its component parts. Bochner soaked the print in water until the emulsion could be peeled away, then photographed the wrinkled image, enlarging it, overlaying the print with different versions of the negative and positive copies, and then mounting the final image on board. The resulting image is ambiguous and unsettling. This was taken even further by artists destroying the actual chemical composition of negatives or prints: works such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s Photo-Fry (1969), where he fried Polaroids of Christmas trees in cooking oil, throwing in gold leaf. The resulting alchemical unidentifiable remains were then boxed and mailed out as Christmas cards. To continue to reference other artists in relation to Kasten’s work is not to devalue it but to underpin the many subtle references and nods to the past.

Aside from Maholy-Nagy and her contemporaries, there are a number of influences in her practice that come together in a rapid listing by Klein: “from Bauhaus form, to California finish-fetish, to enlightened space, to postmodern design and architecture.” The collision of these is evident in her early cyanotypes of cybersculptures made of fibre. Kasten would take the sculptures out into the California sunshine, the sunlight creating an imprint onto the paper. These early cyanotypes were entitled Photogenic paintings, and were completely reliant on natural light. Kasten prefers to avoid the darkroom to create her images, instead relying on either natural light as with these works, or making use of meticulously orchestrated studio lighting.

Kasten creates the arrangements and objects to be lit and then photographed: they exist as vehicles for the final product, the photograph. The German artist Sigmar Polke’s (1941-2010) photographic portfolio Higher Beings Commands (1968) had precisely the same intent: documenting performances, objects and arrangements that were made specifically for the camera. These formal investigations into the relationship between subject and photographer have the result of showing the subject as being without a utilitarian value: a concept directly relating back to Constructivism. The Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko’s early “sculptures” from the 1910s show complicated structures made of geometric elements: “the interest was focused not so much upon the structural qualities of the materials as on the expressive quality of the component geometrical elements” states scholar Christina Lodder when describing Rodchenko’s White Non-objective Sculpture (1918). Rodchenko, Polke and Kasten share the same objective of creating innovative sculptural forms and installations for the photograph.

Kasten travelled to Poznań, Poland, in 1971, as a Fulbright scholar, studying under the direction of sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz. She is known for her use of fibre, creating abstract human forms using rope, string, burlap and cotton gauze. Her use of non-traditional materials inspired Kasten to create her own fibre sculptures; her competency in doing so was a product of her studies of painting and textiles. These investigations ultimately led to her early photograms, the first form of photography she used.

In 1981 she was invited to use the large format 20 x 24 Polaroid camera by the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She continued to use the camera, experimenting with the close- down aperture to achieve deep, dense hues through multiple exposures. While her palette during the 1980s was very focused on colour, Kasten describing it as “electric”, this has evolved into a much more minimal palette. With Construct VIII (1982), a 10 x 8 Polaroid, geometric forms are lit by tungsten lights with strongly coloured gels (pink, purple, green) and lit so that the contrasting shadows work to create a three-dimensional aspect. Art critic/historian Estelle Jussim wrote in 1985, when describing Kasten’s Polacolor prints that “They are theatre, sculpture, painting, light play – all masquerading as photographs. They are obsessively perfect, complex, imaginative, yet completely controlled.”

Her more recent works, such as the Scene (2012-2013) series, primarily use clear Perspex against plain white backgrounds that are again carefully illuminated. Under the camera the Plexiglas is clear, so all you can see is the edges and corners. Colour no longer plays a part in creating a depth of field or a subject: light itself becomes the subject. Similar to the Amalgam series of the 1970s, the Scene series explicitly focus on the interplay of light and shadow on the objects, rather than the applied coloured light on the object as with the Metaphase series of the 1980s. Klein describes her images from this period as having very strong colours and slick production values but the more recent works are stripped of this, being instead “more fragile and precarious looking” and sophisticated. Regardless, all of her works illustrate a pared down version of the forms of the visual world. They trace visual reality rather than reproducing it through the interplay of light, shadow, and object.

Her interest in the phenomenon of light comes out of her education in Arizona and California. The light and space experts Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and James Turrell were incredibly influential in this regard, as they made use of environmental processes as the source of their investigations into light as a medium. Kasten’s preference for geometric shapes and architectural elements stands in direct contrast to these artists’ interest in natural forms and environments, but they all have an overriding interest in the theatricality of light. Kasten took this element of the “theatrical” quite literally to the street in the mid-1980s with her Architectural Sites series.

Arising out of an assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, Kasten (along with a crew of lighting technicians) photographed icons of American post-modern architecture including Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Centre, New York, Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Using high-intensity lights and mirrors up to eight feet in length, Kasten bathed the buildings in brightness, making their familiar architectural forms unfamiliar. Her early training as a painter in the 1950s is demonstrated most efficiently through this use of illumination: light becomes her paint, the camera her paintbrush. The resulting photographs, which were all made with a single exposure and no digital intervention, serve to demonstrate this painterly aesthetic: the forms of the buildings are abstracted through the applied cinematic glow. Kasten says she “deconstructed the post-modern architecture of the 1980s with gels and on-site mirror constructions in overnight photo shoots.”

It is an apt description, as the architecture is destroyed through these photographs: the structures have become strange, ethereal constructs which seem more like Kasten’s own studio constructs than images taken from life.

In Kasten’s more recent works, the large-scale cinematic installations such as Scenes (2013), the shimmering, moving gleam reflects off the screens and geometric shapes. Given a knowledge of Kasten’s earlier work, the viewer experiences her photographs coming to life in these moving multi- media works. This activation of space and geometry necessarily hierarchises movement and light above the subject, as it is not possible without the involvement of these two factors. Kasten describes the process in a 2009 interview with Candida Alvarez: “The movement in line and light is only seen when the markings of the material are revealed. Indeed, materiality can only be observed with the projection of light. The deconstruction of the space is also only perceived by the use of the passing glow as it rotates from the video. The piece could not exist without the phenomena of light.”

The dialogue between sculpture and photography forms the backbone of Kasten’s practice and her early multi-disciplinary approach is reflected in her influence on young contemporary artists working today. Through the dislocated perspective of the camera’s lens and applied light she creates optical meditations in a search for a pure abstract reality.

It is important that the influence and significance of Kasten’s work is recognised, and this exhibition will do much to achieve that. Klein has thereby included an archival section, showcasing her early studies and experiments and video documentation. An ambitious video installation, commissioned for the ICA, will showcase Kasten’s rich vocabulary of illumination and form. This vocabulary is as much informed by artists and movements of the past as it is by a new creative response to photography, which is very much Kasten’s own, and one that is informing an entirely new generation.

Barbara Kasten: Stages is at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania 4 February – 16 August. For more, visit

Niamh Coghlan