Space as a stage of a changing reality is the central motif of Barbara Kasten’s photographs and film installations. Barbara Kasten’s works are produced in an “interdisciplinary performance” between photography, sculpture, architecture, and painting. Since the 1970s, Barbara Kasten has been constructing expansive installations made of architectural “props” such as glass, mirrors, or wood constructions in front of the camera for her abstract “photographs.” These theatrical arrangements are restaged with colored light, an approach going back to Barbara Kasten’s roots as a painter and sculptor. During her sojourn in Germany in the 1960s, she intensively engaged with the Bauhaus and modernism’s notions of space, stage, and architecture. While living in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the “Light and Space Movement” had an influence on her subsequent work. Barbara Kasten’s cross-genre practice, her continued use of analogue photographic materials and her “pre-digital vision” heralding the digital image vocabulary of Photoshop or 3D rendering influenced a new generation of contemporary artists.
Barbara Kasten’s work has been acknowledged by international exhibitions since the 1970s and is included in numerous museum collections such as of those of the Museum of Modern Art New York, Tate Modern London, Centre Pompidou Paris, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Museum of Modern Art New York, or the Hirshhorn Museum Washington. In 2015 and 2016, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Graham Foundation Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles Pacific Design Center have presented her survey “Stages,” curated by Alex Klein.
Between 1979 and 1986, Barbara Kasten produced the well-known Construct series. The title “Construct” implies several crucial aspects of Barbara Kasten’s work: First, the actual construction of her scenes in the studio; second, the art-historical references to modernism; and finally the photographic image as a construct of the artist herself. The New York City Constructs were created from 1982 onward, after Barbara Kasten moved to New York City. The motifs reveal both an adaptation and an abstraction of the postmodern zeitgeist and simultaneously remind one of the present-day, digital illusions of synthetic image worlds. The crucial difference, however, is that Barbara Kasten’s photographs are based on an analogue work process in which real space and bodies are essential components. In her studio, Barbara Kasten constructed her “sculptural scenes” with mirrors, and color gels in addition to industrial materials and theatrical objects such as columns, corrugated roof parts and pyramids built specifically for the photographic set. Staged in front of the camera, theatrical lighting techniques from the Hollywood film industry were used to activate the assemblage with light and shadows. Comparable with the sensitivity of an architect, Barbara Kasten repeatedly plumbed the size ratios between body and space by moving through her installations. She constantly changed the perspective and the position of her objects to newly determine the refraction, reflection, or incidence of light. With multiple tests, she found the “perfect moment” which she then captured on the Polaroid 24 x 20 camera or 8x10 film for cibachrome prints. She describes the process as an “idea based progression of abstraction.” An important point is that without the use of light, Barbara Kasten’s theatrical installations would remain “asleep.” While the “magical moment” for other photographers working with analogue means is when the picture becomes visible in the darkroom, for Barbara Kasten this moment is when light brings the neutral stage set to life in the studio. In this sense, Barbara Kasten’s New York City Constructs could be understood as the mise-en-scène of past parameters of visible reality. Already in the 1980s, Barbara Kasten’s color Polaroids and cibachrome photographs of the New York City Constructs played with the gap between reality and representation, as it is still highly topical today for our digital image world. Or, as the art critic Devika Singh aptly pointed out: “Barbara Kasten’s giant Polaroids and cibachromes speak to our digital age from an analogue past that feels incredibly close.”