The multi-disciplinary artist Barbara Kasten’s work emerged from the same creative DNA that birthed the aesthetics of modern Aspen. A Chicago native, she was deeply influenced by the Bauhaus movement that also shaped Aspen’s postwar rebirth.
As an art student, she studied textiles under Bauhausler Trude Guermonprez and worked with László Moholy-Nagy — in the ’70s she once drove a collection of Moholy-Nagy prints in the trunk of her car from Chicago to a West Coast exhibition. She also visited the Aspen icon and Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer late in his life in Montecito, California, where he settled for health reasons when he had to leave the high elevation of Aspen after three decades.
So the Aspen Art Museum is a fitting home for “Scenarios,” an exhibition of Kasten’s recent category-defying work in video, installation and photography.
“In terms of the Bauhaus, we were really excited about that connection to the Bauhaus and Aspen through an unusual angle,” museum director Nicola Lees said this week while walking through the exhibition, on view through early April.
In a 2014 interview, printed with the catalog for her “Stages” retrospective, Kasten recalled studying the Bauhaus and how its groundbreaking ideas influenced her.
“They used the same imagery in paintings and photographs,” she said of the Bauhaus theater. “It was part of an overall practice that didn’t seem to have boundaries, and I liked that.”
The abstract works filling the museum’s second floor use video projection, shadow and reflection, fluorescent Plexiglas sculpture in beams and cones, cubes and squares. Driven by the Bauhaus principle of interdisciplinary practice, they include two new site-specific pieces that play with the shadows cast by Shigeru Ban’s woven museum exterior and make playful use of the natural light in the often-neglected alcove gallery on the second floor.
Her “Sideways” installation draws direct inspiration from Moholy-Nagy “Light Prop for an Electric Stage.”
The work in the Aspen show is recent, all of it made since Kasten’s 79th birthday. It focuses on work she has made since a 2015 career retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Her first major retrospective, it drew new art world attention to Kasten’s career. The Aspen exhibition is the first show collecting the new work she’s made since then.
Best known for her abstract photographs, the octogenarian artist has found a rich new creative vein to mine in recent years, as she has explored works that combine video and sculpture. The Aspen Art Museum show displays three of those new multidisciplinary works.
She maps the projected video onto installations, combining sculpture and moving image of sculptures and installations from her studio, accentuated and complicated by shadows to an uncanny effect.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic presented some unusual challenges for hanging the show. Kasten is normally hands-on with her pieces, often documenting the installation process as a performance in itself.
“I work bodily in the space, moving, touching — I have to be in it,” she said in the 2014 interview. “That’s the way I make the photographs.”
Instead here, she oversaw the installation through Zoom calls with the Aspen Art Museum staff from Chicago.
Pieces from her “Progressions” series position fluorescent fragments of Plexiglas under spotlights, the neon and translucent pieces placed on top of photographs of other sculptures. She began this body of work in 2017, marking her first foray into digital photography. The shadows themselves are key to the works, which Kasten has referred to as “temporary photograms.”
“They really come alive with the spotlight,” Lees said.
Pink shadows cast by a site-specific piece dance against a white museum wall and change with the angle of the sun through the day.
Many visitors will have been thinking about and interacting with Plexiglas frequently in recent months, as it’s become a ubiquitous part of offices, shops and restaurants to separate people during the pandemic. It can’t have been an intention of Kasten’s here, of course, but among the joys in this exhibition is that it offers a Plexiglas experience that is fun and devoid of the stress about contagion it carries elsewhere today.
Her processes are mostly analog, even when they don’t seem so. A large-scale video projected against a wall here, for instance, looks at first glance like a digital animation or computer-generated effect, but was in fact made from Kasten filming shadows as she opened and closed her studio door.
The exhibition is evidence of an artist still actively engaged in creative discovery and a continuing inquiry into image making that Kasten has carried on from the Bauhaus into her textile and painting work, her abstract photographs from the early days of Polaroids to today’s digital images, her stage-based sculptures and video projections. Her career itself embodies the Bauhaus ideal of the “total work of art.”
“She has devoted her life to making art,” Lees noted, “even when she did not have museum shows and a commercial practice. It really is remarkable.”