‘It’s a Strength’: Watch Artist Barbara Kasten Explain Why Beautiful Art Isn’t as Powerless as She Once Thought

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Barbara Kasten: Beauty Was a Problem." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Can an artwork be too beautiful? That’s the question that prompted artist Barbara Kasten to abandon a series of experimental photographs she made early in her career.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s Extended Play series in 2018, Kasten said she didn’t initially show the works because, “for a long time, I thought they were too beautiful”—a suggestion that might sound odd. But “in the 70’s, the rest of the world thought that beauty was a weakness.” 

Kasten made her works almost by accident. While teaching a sculpture class, in the midst of describing how to render a flat, woven textile as a three-dimensional object, she got the idea to use non-traditional materials with textures incorporated onto prints.

This led Kasten to begin making cyanotypes, a kind of photograph that results in deep blue surfaces because of the type of compound in the emulsion. By placing layers of materials like crinkled paper or window screens onto the emulsion, the resulting works appeared almost like abstracted shadows. 

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Barbara Kasten: Beauty Was a Problem." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Barbara Kasten: Beauty Was a Problem.” © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Her early trials with cyanotypes gave way to other experimental photographic and printmaking practices. Although she has since branched out to use kaleidoscopic colors, the legacy of the cyanotypes is evident in the shape-shifting abstract works.

I still have an affinity for materials,” she told Art21. “I still respond to the transparencies and textures of different surfaces.” That’s especially apparent in “Barbara Kasten: Scenarios,” a show up now at the Aspen Museum of Art.

And happily for us, she no longer finds weakness in beauty: “the reality is, it’s a strength.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. Barbara Kasten: Scenarios” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum through April 4, 2021.

 This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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