For those who know Barbara Kasten’s meticulously staged, cinematic photographs, the recent retrospective organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia held surprises. In addition to her disrupted photographs of postmodern architecture and elaborate geometric constructions, the exhibition included two rarely seen bodies of work from the beginning of her career: a group of sculptures from 1972 and a series of diazotype prints created in 1973 that together revealed a set of conceptual concerns that can be seen to underpin all the work that followed.
The diazotypes, titled Figure/Chair, constitute some of Kasten’s earliest work with photography. Diazotype is a photomechanical print process, similar to cyanotype, that was still commonly used for architectural drafting in the 1970s. Printed on newsprint, the diazotypes offer a perspectival variety and ingenuity similar to her later, color photographic series such as Architectural Sites and Constructs. But while her later work depends on complex arrangements of mirrors and objects and space, the diazotypes are far simpler. They document a nude model shot from various angles and assuming peculiar positions—twisting, crouching, and straddling a chair situated in a grassy area. On each sheet the subject is represented in multiple formats—positive/negative, left/right reversed, profile/frontal. Laying over some of these images is a grid, grounding and emphasizing the figure in space and reinforcing the architectural overtones of the diazotype.1 Though the images do not feature the photographer herself, they bring to mind the body and performance work of Joan Jonas and Ana Mendieta from the 1960s and ’70s.2 These underscore Kasten’s wavering between the two- and three-dimensional at this time, lingering between perceived and actual space, a tension that evolves throughout subsequent series.
- This grid can also be seen in the screen in Kasten’s Photogenic Paintings from the mid-1970s, as well as in Torso (1974).
- It should be noted that unlike these artists and others of the period, Kasten did not participate in any feminist dialogue or activism through her work. However, in an interview included in Barbara Kasten: The Diazotypes, the artist states: “There is a synergy between the figure and the chair, which can be seen as symbolic of the manipulations that are imposed on women to fit into conforming roles in society; they present another way of looking at the female nude, in defiance of social mores. In both the sculptures and the prints, the body’s relationship to designed form implies a rejection of prevailing societal structures even by simply making visible the practical difficulty of a body becoming one with a chair and the contortions that need to take place to accomplish this!” See Alex Klein’s interview with Kasten, in Barbara Kasten: The Diazotypes (Chicago: Graham Foundation and D.A.P., 2015), n.p.