The Stages of Barbara Kasten

After spending four decades dedicated to a singular and consistent practice, artist Barbara Kasten’s first comprehensive survey “Barbara Kasten: Stages” is inarguably due. The show, which is currently on view at the Graham Foundation in the 79-year-old’s hometown of Chicago, originated at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and per its title, presents stages of Kasten’s career dating back to 1972, just after she earned her MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts. The significance of the show’s title, however, extends further. Literal stages act as a throughline in Kasten’s varied body of work, providing settings upon which her photographs unfold, while simultaneously hinting at the processes—”staging”—that exist beneath each print’s final surface.

Rather than presenting her work in chronological order, groupings from different time periods are intertwined; lesser-known works such as textile-covered chairs, cyanotypes, and figurative diazotypes are shown alongside her well-known “Studio Constructs,” a series of geometric, photographic studio set-ups from the early ’80s. These visual interactions suggest that Kasten’s frequent classification as a photographer is, to some degree, a misnomer. The construction of every image involves a complex set design, the production of sculptural props, and a nuanced, painterly approach to lighting. Upon inspection, each reveals Kasten’s pedigree as a painter and textile artist through her deep understanding of spatial arrangement and materiality.

“I love [the] interdisciplinarity that the Bauhaus always promoted,” she tells us of the influential school of thought. “[Bauhaus] really was my inspiration to make things, and to also change the reality of things,” she continues. “In a very simple way, it’s even in the work where I’m dealing with the spatial qualities of three dimensionality and putting it onto a two-dimensional surface. There’s this interplay of not only the materials, but [also] the process.”

At the Graham Foundation, Kasten takes the concept of the stage yet another step further by constructing one of her own: a site-specific installation titled Scenario (2015). Scenario marks the first time Kasten has projected a video not only onto a wall, but also onto objects. A set of cubes varying in size—echoing the squat, square shape of the building in which the piece is currently housed and from which it was inspired—sits upon a white stage in a corner with a video projecting onto it. The disorienting experience invites a thought process similar to viewing Kasten’s photographs: interrogate the image, what are you seeing, and what’s really there?

Over the weekend, during the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, we met Kasten and walked through the exhibit while speaking about her process, influences, and start in art.

HALEY WEISS: I read that with some your recent work you’re trying to see if it’s possible to make a totally abstract photograph.

BARBARA KASTEN: Right, that’s where it started. A camera requires an object, and that object usually conveys meaning or metaphor or something that will trigger us to memories of what that represents. That’s why I chose flat pieces of plexiglass [for “Studio Constructs”], for the qualities of the material. [I use] the transparency of the flat plane of plexiglass and then the shadows that occur because of the light—the reality is they have to be together. But this plane—which you really don’t see until the light hits it and creates a shadow—then becomes an object. I’m not photographing light; I’m photographing what light does. It creates a shadow, so that’s the play. In that case, it’s three degrees removed from what is being photographed, but there is still an object there to create the illusion. That, to me, is what I was trying to do, so that the identity isn’t obvious.

WEISS: You don’t use any glue when you’re making the sets, right? It’s all gravity and pieces leaning on one another?

KASTEN: Yes, I find what I call the sweet spot. They come together, and when they come together and I find that they hold each other up, it can stay like that for weeks. It doesn’t come apart; they really unite when they’re in the right place. They don’t keep falling down. But I also have the camera in one position, so the performance is between the camera and what happens in front of it; it’s what’s happening in the front that gets moved or changed, not the camera.

WEISS: You only use 4×5 and 8×10 inch film. How do you think the digital age has changed the reception of your work, and also how produce your prints?

KASTEN: Well, printing is digital, because that’s what is available these days—except in the new work. I wanted a different kind of material for the shininess of the subject, so I tried out different techniques that are still available. The Cibachrome, of course, is the best, but there’s no way to be consistent with it on the scale I wanted, so I went to Fujiflex, which is the next best. It is another kind of digital translation, but it also is more photographic than a printing process. Otherwise, the digital doesn’t enter into the construction of the work or the image that’s made; it enters only into the printing process.

It’s interesting, too, that people look at the work, especially the “Architectural Sites,” and think, “Oh, this is done with a computer,” and it’s like, “Take a look at the date!” [both laugh] “See what you think about it now.” That blows people’s minds, especially young people, because you grew up with digital. It’s nice for them to discover that it doesn’t have to be digital and it’s different, actually, if it’s not. The refraction of light enters the atmosphere—even in this room you can see how it changes the environment with the reflection of color—and that’s what is happening on the set and captured on film. It could be captured digitally, but I use film and the tonalities are different. You can see the difference.

WEISS: It’s a different feeling when you’re shooting, too. I went to school for photography and switched from digital to film and 4×5 because I didn’t like my results with digital.

KASTEN: They are different, aren’t they? The precision of the digital pixel makes everything so specific and fine. You can’t blur the edges; you can’t tilt and make things askew. I think of painting a line with some of the things that I do, because I don’t keep everything in focus. I don’t want it to be in focus, I make sure it isn’t. With the digital, it fights you; it wants to be in focus.

WEISS: It’s the difference between discrete pixels and a gradient having that change of tone.  

KASTEN: Yes, and it’s interesting how technique enters into the subject of the piece. I don’t think of myself as a technological person at all, but I’ve learned about what intervening can do with what you’re trying to record, and how you can manipulate both.

WEISS: Your practice has been multidisciplinary, and your process of creating photos has been, too. You could consider performance and sculpture part of it…

KASTEN: Absolutely. It’s great, at this point in time, to have people educated in a way that’s different than when I was in college. You’re much more open to the possibilities of that exchange, so people see it. In the past, they were just looking for a photographic surface, because that’s where it was concentrated. I think part of that is why it appeals to the younger generation of artists: They see that it was a possibility in the past, but it wasn’t used very much. I did it when people weren’t quite ready to accept it or be open to it, but now they are.

WEISS: Before you went to school for art at the University of Arizona, were you making art? Was it something that interested you as a kid?

KASTEN: Oh yes, and I really give credit to my second grade teacher. I went to a Catholic school, and there was this teacher, a nun, who was an artist. She saw something that she liked in what I was doing, and she encouraged me, and encouraged my parents to give me art lessons. She would take me to the Art Institute [of Chicago] for children’s classes, so that was where it was really put into my mind, that I’m an artist. She kept that going for me.

I have to say that all my life I’ve felt privileged to think I had some talent, that somebody responded to me positively. My parents weren’t artistic people. They were middle class people, with no training or background in art, music, or anything really—well, maybe music, my mother used to play the organ for church, I think [laughs]—but they were very open-minded people and kind of spoiled me and allowed me to do whatever I wanted.

WEISS: For “Architectural Sites,” you shot in the lobbies of buildings, right?

KASTEN: They’re like an extension of the studio. They were in lobbies because the project started with Vanity Fair doing an article on postmodern structures in New York, and the lobbies were intentionally made to be these glorious entrances reflecting the importance of the building. The writer was concentrating on that, and he knew my work, so he got them to invite me to do the [imagery]; that’s how this all started. I brought in mirrors and filmic lighting, because stage lighting is not as flexible and moveable with such heavy stands; filmic lighting can be moved around.

It became a very filmic enterprise. If I did two images in a night, I was lucky. They were preplanned and there was a lot of production involved. It’s not the kind of material experience I had in the studio. I researched the space, decided on the angle, brought in a 4×5 in the daytime hours. It was a very expensive thing, and because it was Vanity Fair, all of these buildings cooperated. That gave me entry I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

WEISS: Did you enjoy that process?

KASTEN: Yes, I liked it, but it was very taxing, and I don’t know if I would do it again. I do things that are stress-related, but this was especially demanding. It was all night. I had 12 people on the crew, and one specific gaffer who would direct everybody. It was a very different experience.

WEISS: Is your studio process usually solitary, or do you have assistants?

KASTEN: That’s funny, because here I had to have 12 assistants, but in the studio it’s hard to tell somebody what to do with a mirror or a reflection. It’s like, “Move it over that way. No, that’s not quite it.” It’s so much more intuitive for me to get in, move it around, experience it close up, and then move back. So I work by myself, except in the videos. That part of the process is somewhat the same, but the technology of the video—the recording and putting it into [Adobe] Premiere—my assistant does all of that. She’s well versed in it, and to tell you the truth, I don’t want to learn another process. I understand what she’s doing, and we talk about all of it, but I don’t want to sit there for hours editing, because I want to continue working on other things.

WEISS: You’ve cited Constructivism as an influence on your work. Did you look at El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko?

KASTEN: Oh yes, all of those people. The “Constructs” are especially related to that time period. Every time I went to New York, I looked at the [Wassily] Kandinskys. I was informed by stage designers from the Bauhaus, like [Oskar] Schlemmer, and there were two stage designers that especially influenced me in making these sort of rickety sculptures and using the wood as line. The translation of object to graphic quality was what I was after, and it was all influenced by the type of image that came from Constructivism. Painters have been a big influence to me; in fact, I probably examine and look at more painting and sculpture than I do photography, because it doesn’t inform what I’m doing. Sculpture and painting does.

WEISS: During your undergraduate studies in painting and graduate studies in textiles, were you doing photography as well?

KASTEN: No, I just did a photography class because I needed it for a job I had. [laughs] So I learned. It turned out well, right?