New York

James Casebere, Empty Studio, 2017, ink-jet print, 44 3/8 × 66 1/2".

James Casebere, Empty Studio, 2017, ink-jet print, 44 3/8 × 66 1/2".

James Casebere

Sean Kelly Gallery

James Casebere, Empty Studio, 2017, ink-jet print, 44 3/8 × 66 1/2".

When Louis Kahn visited Luis Barragán in 1965, their meeting marked one of the greatest meetings of architectural minds in the twentieth century. The American and Mexican masters shared an undeniable affinity—both placed a high premium on tradition and craftsmanship; displayed a preference for rugged building materials, particularly concrete; and had become famous for highly original styles that blended the language of modern architecture with a range of vernacular influences. They did find one point of profound disagreement, however: color. When Kahn saw the brightly painted concrete walls that were one of Barragán’s signatures, he was shocked: One should never paint concrete, he contended, because doing so undermines the substance’s honesty as a pure expression of structure. Color is literally superficial, a merely visual effect independent of the sense of material and tectonic truth that was one of the core principles not just of Kahn’s practice but of the entire modern movement.

Barragán reportedly responded with a shrug: “Okay, you win the argument, but I’m going to keep painting the walls.” This was a revealing response, both an admission that his use of pigment was effectively indefensible from an orthodox modernist point of view and a hint at just how subversive it could be. As Barragán’s friend Josef Albers could have reminded Kahn, when it comes to color, truth is relative; subjective perception often seems more real than objective fact. And so Barragán deployed color not only to warm up the cold efficiency of modernist functionalism, but also to propose a fundamentally different attitude toward space itself—understanding it not just as a logical system of structure and geometry but as an affective medium, a psychological realm shaped by intangible qualities such as color and light.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that Barragán’s work should have captured the imagination of James Casebere, who has spent four decades using his photographs to explore the symbolic, psychological, and mnemonic dimensions of architectural space. His most recent show presented images based on Barragán’s home and studio, housed together in a vibrantly colored complex built in Mexico City in 1947, as well as a handful of the architect’s other best-known projects. Following his usual working method, the artist began by constructing tabletop-size models of Barragán’s buildings, which he then photographed to produce a series of vignettes. These have been constructed with an extraordinary sensitivity to Barragán’s ability to use color and light to produce a rich range of spatial effects that often seem to transcend the material structures in which they exist. In Vestibule, 2016, a re-creation of the central hallway in Barragán’s home, a bubble gum–pink wall seems to leap forward from the right side of the frame, almost distorting the geometry of the room with the sheer force of its color. Courtyard with Orange Wall, 2017, which depicts the roof terrace of the house, shows a brightly lit orange wall suffusing the plain gray concrete of the adjacent surface with a warm glow, the reflected color establishing an atmospheric continuity that seems to break down the spatial hierarchy established by the physical partitions. In Empty Studio, 2017, a view of Barragán’s work space, the raking light streaming through a window creates a bright patch of pure white that spans the corner between floor and wall and momentarily erases the distinction between the two, blurring the two planes into a single ghostly figure.

Because of his reliance on models, Casebere is often described as working like an architect. But his encounter with Barragán suggests precisely the opposite. In the hands of an architect, a model is a tool for rationalizing space, a way to present a building as a unified whole and to study the relationships between its constituent elements. By contrast, Casebere models only those parts of the building he wants to photograph, by his own admission often constructing the models without fully grasping their relationship to each other. By treating the spaces as separate fragments he is able to emphasize the respective visual characters, often subtly altering them in the process—eliminating a stair here, extending a wall there—without worrying about their necessity of maintaining logical relationships between spaces that inevitably constrain even the most creative of architects. And he thereby also reminds us, as Barragán would surely agree, that architecture provides not only the envelope for our physical existence but the scaffolding for our mental life.

Julian Rose