At the entrance to Barbara Kasten: Stages at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, there is a corner-placed grouping of five photographs. Four early Polaroids made in 1982 and 1983 are on the right; with their geometric shapes and pastel colors, they would fit easily into the reigning design aesthetic of the 1980s. On the left is the 2007 silver-dye bleach print Studio Construct 17, a much larger, sparer version of the earlier works. This opening gambit is an excellent introduction to a retrospective that sets viewers to the task of recognizing subtle parallels and echoes in the artist’s practice across time, medium, and approach.
Kasten has spent thirty years circumnavigating a fundamental inquiry into form and color that holds stagecraft and the theater at its center. Unlike more traditional retrospectives that travel along a timeline from early works to recent offerings, the layout of the show discourages a chronological understanding. Instead, temporary walls divide the space to guide visitors through a number of possible viewings; the net effect is a meditation on Kasten’s mode of working, reflecting both the forward motion of her practice and the eddying returns to earlier thoughts and motivations. Within this curatorial device, the viewer can see quite plainly that the subdued black-and-white Studio Construct 125 (2011) and the brightly colored Studio Construct 32 (1986) are intimately related by formal concerns and structure despite the twenty-five years that separate them.