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A Photographer Who Does It With Mirrors

Times Art Writer

Some photographers go out into the world and choose their subjects from ready-made material. Others go to extremes to set up compositions in their studios or reorganize outdoor subject matter. Barbara Kasten is a photographer of the second kind--and then some. Using a complex system of lights, colored gels and mirrors, she creates collage-like architectural portraits that contain key, identifiable elements of buildings.

Monday night--all night--she labored with a crew of 15 technicians to produce two artfully composite views of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Pavilion for Japanese Art. The project created a spectacle of colored light that made the distinctive pavilion look rather like a spaceship. Aglow from within, with powerful lights shining through the translucent Kalwall siding and flooded in tiers of yellow and pink light on the outside ramps and tower, the pavilion emitted such an otherworldly appearance from Wilshire Boulevard that some motorists suspected a visitation from outer space.

Up close, the building and grounds were crawling with masses of electrical cord, lights on ramps and rooftops, a sleek equipment truck and a table of Gatorade and coffee for weary workers. The workers themselves, under the direction of Tom Feldman, who directs technical aspects of Kasten’s productions, scurried up and down ladders, adjusted mirrors and popped up on the roof to check equipment. Making matters more complicated, all equipment had to be cleared out of the building and the Japanese exhibits put back in order before the museum opened at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

“This is so complex that I sometimes wonder where the art part is,” Kasten said before the all-night shoot. However, like Christo, she views the entire process as a necessary--even enjoyable--aspect of creation. And the results of her efforts are unquestionably art. She is represented by the John Weber Gallery in New York and Krygier-Landau in Santa Monica, and her photographs will be in the inaugural exhibition at the International Center for Photography’s new Midtown Manhattan showcase in September.

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After months of planning, Kasten’s team had everything in order for the first shoot around 11 p.m. on the south side of the building. Then they moved all the lights, colored gels, mirrors and cameras to the northeast side for a second shot before dawn.

Later this week Kasten will oversee the printing of 30x40-inch and 50x60-inch editions of 10 Cibachrome prints of each image. The museum picked up the bill of $15,000 in exchange for two prints for its photography collection and rights to produce a poster from Kasten’s photographs.

Kasten, who moved to New York from Los Angeles in 1985, invented her way of working earlier this decade in her Southern California studio by creating geometric abstractions from colored lights and mirrors. Her first architectural project was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine in 1986, but the accompanying article was shelved and her pictures of New York buildings were never printed.

When the Museum of Contemporary Art opened on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles in December, 1986, Kasten got permission to photograph the building, designed by Arata Isozaki. Later she produced portraits of the Marcel Breuer designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the High Museum in Atlanta, a gleaming white, high-tech structure by Richard Meier, architect of the J. Paul Getty Trust’s new art center under construction in Brentwood.

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Museums are natural subjects for her, Kasten said, because the art world understands her work, museum administrators are generally willing to sponsor it and museum buildings are often distinctive objects of community pride. In making pictures of art palaces, she said, she follows a tradition of “art about art.” So far she has focused primarily on contemporary art institutions but plans to broaden her perspective by photographing a Buddhist temple in Japan and I.M. Pei’s new pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, if she can find a sponsor.

The County Museum of Art’s Pavilion for Japanese Art, which opened in September, fits neatly into Kasten’s museum series, but the controversial structure, designed by the late Bruce Goff, presented unusual challenges, she said. “This is the largest project I’ve done. I needed double the usual crew size, double the number of gels, double everything.

“The building itself is quite different from the others I have photographed. It has a dated quality that’s appealing, but it’s not a building you can zero in on. If you go for one element, you don’t get the whole thing. I usually don’t light as much surface as I did on this building. It’s a huge shoot,” she said.

Added Robert Singer, LACMA’s curator of Japanese art: “For such a quirky building, it’s hard to find details that are explanatory. The building is more than the sum of its parts.”

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Kasten solved the problem of confining the unruly pavilion to a rectangular composite over the last two months. She got to work in late May, surveying the building and taking snapshots of every angle. Back in her New York studio, she edited this raw material down to a few angles and began to decide what shapes of mirrors would reflect details that might contribute to the portrait.

During a second visit to the museum in June, Kasten worked with a view camera and mirrors, finally narrowing her choices to two images. One is a dramatic composition of sweeping curved ramps, soaring tower and reflected landscape; the other is a fairly symmetrical view of the peaked structure seen from the northeast and grounded in arcs of reflected greenery.

Kasten then worked out drawings and colors from these daytime shots, while Feldman mapped out the intricacies of lighting.

“I can only do two or three, at most four, projects like this each year,” said Kasten, who alternates such public spectacles with quiet studio work. “They are wonderful because everyone gets into them. Everyone wants to help because it’s an art project, but you have to like this kind of work to deal with all the business aspects. You get involved in public relations, insurance, catering services. It’s a performance, an event. Sometimes I think I’m in the movie business. This certainly isn’t what they teach you in art school.”

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