Bauhaus professor, painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy once said that 'the salvation of photography comes from the experiment'. In the 200 years since the first camera photographs were produced, the uses of the medium and its subject matter has expanded wildly – yet few photographers have tried to push the experiment as far as removing the subject altogether.
Barbara Kasten has. The Chicago-based artist – who was one of the first artists to be asked by Polaroid to experiment with its new large-format film – has been working with photography for almost 50 years, though it wasn’t her first medium of choice. She trained in painting, textile design and theatre (all three disciplines have left a notable influence on her work). Drawn conceptually to symbolic architectural spaces, and particularly to the intersectional ideas of the Bauhaus school, Kasten has been creating geometric arrangements in which the abstract is sovereign.
Kasten’s first career survey, which went up at the ICA Philadelphia last year, is now opening at MoCA, Los Angeles. In its Californian iteration, the exhibition has a special dialogue with its surroundings: alongside early furniture and design-based sculptures are Kasten’s staged photos of postmodern architecture including Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School building in LA, Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and MoCA's own Grand Avenue building, designed by Arata Isozaki.
To create her photographic series, Kasten builds room-size sets with large-scale triangular mirrors, Plexiglas, plaster pyramids, wooden rods, latticework, mesh and other items that suggest architectural features. She then photographs them using coloured gels and scrims, and rare photographic processes – including the now almost obsolete Cibachrome (with 13 layers of azo dyes, it is the most resistant to colour fading of any known photographic material) and Fujiflex, a superior white polyester-based printing material, also contributing to the incredible richness in colour and razor-sharp definition in her work.
The retrospective – 'Stages' – reveals Kasten’s ongoing interest in the architectural discipline, and her experimental nature as an artist, who through line, form and colour reveals new possibilities in the photographic medium.
'Barbara Kasten: Stages' is on view until 14 August. For more information, visit the MoCA website
Photography courtesy the artist
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Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.
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