‘I Never Think of Photography as Recording Life’: Watch Artist Barbara Kasten Blend Pictures Into Mind-Bending Constructivist Compositions

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

Production still from the
Production still from the "Chicago" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 8. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

What is a photograph, really? Is it simply an image on a two-dimensional surface? What if it could be more?

These are some of the questions the Chicago-born artist Barbara Kasten seeks to pose and answer in her complex photographic works, which straddle printmaking, sculpture, and textile combinations. 

Kasten’s first exposure to art was through a nun at her Catholic school, who introduced Kasten to works at the Art Institute of Chicago. Those experiences set her on a path to pursue a formal education studying painting and sculpture, before developing an interest in photography.

“It just seemed to be part of my DNA” she says while laughing in an interview with Art21 as part of the PBS series “Art in the Twenty-First Century.”

A stint living in Germany studying Bauhaus philosophies inspired Kasten to incorporate certain forms of geometric abstraction into her work, which often resembles the photograms of László Moholy-Nagy and other Constructivists.

Barbara Kasten, <i>Architectural Site 8, December 21, 1986</i> (1986). Cibachrome © Barbara Kasten, Courtesy the artist.

Barbara Kasten, Architectural Site 8, December 21, 1986 (1986). Cibachrome © Barbara Kasten, Courtesy the artist.

To create her elaborate photographs and videos, Kasten creates scenes in her studio using props, theatrical lighting, mirrors, and other objects that are manipulated through her lens.

“I always think of myself as actually photographing the shadows, not the light. I never think of photography as recording life in general,” she tells Art21, adding: “it was an experimental medium.”

The optical illusions that result are destabilizing and often challenging in the way they contend with space, light, and objecthood.

This summer, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg is staging the largest solo show of Kasten’s work in Europe, with a survey of her decades-long career, spanning her first forays into the medium, as well as her early sculptures and most recent work in video.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. “Barbara Kasten: Works” is expected on view this summer at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; more information is available on the museum’s website. 


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 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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