New York

Barbara Kasten

John Weber Gallery

Barbara Kasten’s style might be called Bauhaus on acid. In her photographs she usually combines geometric forms—triangles, circles, and so on, often cut out of mirrors—with colored lights, creating intricate and deceptive spatial effects. The result has been work that combines the clean-cut progressivism of the Bauhaus with the cozy tawdriness of resort-motel decor. These two design strains, seemingly so much at odds with one another—one promising a Modernist future of rational progress, the other a past of luxury and gentility—are now tinged equally with nostalgia and have been equally relegated to the history of 20th-century style. As such they are able to coexist nicely within Kasten’s work.

Much of Kasten’s work in this vein has been photographs of small setups, recalling the “light modulators” that photography students at László Moholy-Nagy’s new Bauhaus in Chicago were asked to design. These were typically boxes whose insides were crisscrossed with string, bits of mirror, and so on, and whose sides were cut away in various patterns; the student would then photograph the resulting abstract patterns of light and shade. (On the other hand, Kasten’s photos recall another kind of setup as well—store display windows.)

In the new work shown here, though, Kasten has moved to a larger scale, photographing a number of new buildings in New York and Los Angeles. In translating her style to her new subjects she hired teams of technicians to help her set up the lights that bathed the buildings in pallid pastels. She also had to increase the size of her mirrors—some of the ones here are eight feet long, and were held in place by clamps and tripods.

The Cibachrome prints are huge, too (up to 4 feet by 5 feet), but the pictures still seem to be photo illustration. (Kasten made the first photos in this group on assignment for Vanity Fair and then continued the series on her own.) In all of them she appears to use her style not so much for its own meanings but to comment on the subjects—buildings such as Kevin Roche’s E. F. Hutton Building and Edward Larrabee Barnes’ Equitable Center, in New York, and Arato Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Frank Gehry’s Loyola Marymount University Law School, both in Los Angeles. The idea of commissioning Kasten to undertake this project was an inspired one. Her blend of styles, with its kitschy idealism and overtones of Hollywood special effects, matches that of Post-Modernist architecture, and her photographs accentuate the fantasy image that these buildings project. Thus in a night shot of lsozaki’s MOCA building, Kasten places triangular mirrors in the foreground, playing off the pyramidal roofs of the building behind. For Gehry’s Loyola Law School, in another night shot, she tilts the frame at an unnerving angle and shoots up through a decorative colonnade toward the inside of the dome beyond, which she has lit in an ominous red; a mirror slashes across the foreground, further fracturing an already shattered scene.

In many cases the formal melodramas that Kasten constructs take on the quality of science fiction. Photographed largely at night, these depopulated scenes have an eerie, alien feeling. It’s not always easy to say whether that sense comes from the building or the photograph. In a photograph of Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center in New York, for example, a large oval mirror appears to be floating down a skewed staircase; Kasten has place the mirror to reflect the delicate web pattern on the ceiling. The effect, though, is not to provide more information, about the building itself but to transform the mirror into a monstrous, embryonic creature, an alien alone on the bridge of his spaceship. Kasten’s photographs revel in the extravagance of their style; as such they are well suited to these buildings. The baroque opulence of both buildings and photograph is not comfortable, but undeniably spectacular.

Charles Hagen