Frieze Review

Barbara Kasten

Galerie Kadel Willborn

Barbara Kasten, Construct VII-A, 1981

Since the late 1970s, Barbara Kasten’s photographic works have toed a line between the abstract potential of the medium and its inescapable referentiality. Born in Chicago in 1936 and schooled in the historical formal vocabulary of Constructivism, Kasten creates spatial arrangements which oscillate between the graphic flatness of geometric composition and the spectre of photography’s illusionistic space. Under the title ‘A Matter of Perspective’, Galerie Kadel Willborn exhibited a number of photographs from a central block of work by an artist who is now almost forgotten in Europe, namely by combining excerpts from the ‘Construct’ series (1979-84) with two large-format photographs taken from her recent work.

Kasten came to photography indirectly. She trained as a painter in the late 1950s, and then, from the end of the 1960s, she started experimenting with woven sculpture and soft materials before ultimately returning to two-dimensional compositions in the form of reworked photograms which transferred the materiality of sculpture onto the plane. With the ‘Construct’ series in the late 1970s, Kasten began to develop the type of photographic abstraction that has defined her work ever since. Each ‘Construct’ is based on real architectural spaces which Kasten assembles in her studio from a variety of materials: Plexiglas, mirrors, sheet metal, square piping and wire. These spaces are then meticulously illuminated, delineated in shadow and photographed at close quarters.

Barbara Kasten, ‘A matter of perspective’, 2011, Installation view

The first works in the series ‘Construct I-A and Construct I-D’ (both 1979) seem to situate the viewer’s gaze entirely within the interiors of their spatial constructions and organize the compositions kaleidoscopically through reflections, mirror images and the pregnant contours of the construction lines. Then, from the early 1980s, Kasten began using increasingly bold elements of colour. But above all the camera lens pulled away from the architecture, out of its interiors, and opened up a view onto stage-like settings in which individual elements of the composition were brought forward to become geometrical protagonists within the space of the image, as in Construct VI-D (1981). The theatrical qualities of these spatial arrangements find full articulation in later works such as Construct NYC-20 (1984). The surrounding space of the stage is now merely suggested, and the space of the image itself becomes the site of a latent surreal encounter of Postmodern forms and objects. Here, for the first time, Kasten moved away from the strict compositional vocabulary of historical Constructivism and entered into a dialogue with the formal language of contemporary architecture and design – a dialogue that she pursued in the second half of the 1980s with photographic interventions in real-world architecture.

Instead of retracing the subsequent development of Kasten’s work into an aesthetic of the Postmodern as hallucinogenic neo-baroque, the gallerists complemented the works from “Construct” – in a quite convincing way formally – with two recent works from the “Studio Construct” series (2007-10). These seem to connect back to her first spatial arrangements: colour, drama and theatricality are withdrawn in favour of the finest gradations of grey and reflections of light in planar compositions. The illusion of spatiality and the evidential quality of the photograph are still present but only notionally.
Translated by Jonathan Blower

—by Daniel Pies

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