Barbara Kasten in Bexhill: postmodern play in Mendelsohn’s modernism
Celebrated American artist Barbara Kasten, who has played with architectural space, form, and material for six decades presents her work in the De La Warr Pavilion, an early moment of modernism in the UK. Her work is an interplay of form, material, and representation, and here plays her postmodern, conceptual work against the formality of an architecture key to her reading of space. Will Jennings visited to see how the bright, playful, and irreverent sculpture landed in the Pavilion.

“I look like I’ve lost five stone!”

Usually, in art galleries, overheard conversations are musings on meaning, aesthetic, and importance. Not in the De La Warr Pavilion, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff’s Bexhill-on-Sea masterpiece of modernism. In the ground floor gallery, Barbara Kasten’s architecturally-shifting sculptures are shown, an arrangement of works deliberately planned to play with the International Style and structural engineering of the building around it, as well as an interference with the seaside view from its windows.

Kasten was born in Chicago in 1936, a time and place infused with architecture. Perhaps absorbed through childhood, architecture and the relationship of art to it infused her career as she first studied arts with an interest in painting and textiles in Arizona, an MFA in California, and then on a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship at Poznań’s University of Fine Arts. During her first education, she was taught by Trude Guermonprez, a German-American Bauhaus-influenced textile artist who had escaped from Germany in 1939 with her Jewish parents.

Architecture remained central to Kasten’s practice, though always as an ingredient within her fine art practice rather than as the central actor or with Kasten as architect. It was, though, always present, which is why the invitation to present at the De La Warr makes total sense for an artist whose creative interest in the world always had attachments to the modernist ideals present in the most unexpected but still one of the most perfect moments of English seaside design.


Upon entering the gallery, a single large-format photograph faces the visitor. One image of the artist’s Architectural Site series, photographs made on location with a single exposure that attempted to capture postmodern architecture and also play with it through gels, cinematic lighting, and in situ mirrors. The result were images that one might now assume were digital collages. The single image is alluring, distracting, and enticing. We are not told the site is captures, and perhaps in true postmodern style we should not know it, but there is something of Palm Springs and post Frank Lloyd Wright present, albeit illuminated in colour and distorted with reflection.

It acts as a useful entry point for the main presentation behind the dividing wall, a room of playful colour and reflection. A series of standalone sculptural objects are positioned across the left side of the rectangular room, while to the right, and carefully positioned around each external column and mullion within the picture window, are configurations of bright acrylic.

It is inviting, and suitable seaside. The sculptural objects are formed of commercial metal framework which holds distorted, reflective plastic sheeting. It creates an unreliable mirror, using the very machine-made tools of the modernist method to create an anti-order, disrupting structure with a distrustful reflection. “I look like I’ve lost five stone,” that visitor said. Another dances and looks at a transformed version of themselves wobbling back. Nearly everybody comments on its similarity to a seaside fairground hall of mirrors.


The actual Bexhill seaside outside can be seen, twisted, through the reflections or by looking out through the Pavilion’s vast glazing. That view is, however, punctuated by Kasten’s piled Perspex in an action that exhibition text states as “[reconceiving] the gallery’s windows as a proscenium: a threshold between inside and outside space.” An architect reading this may pause here, wondering what a window is if it’s not a threshold between inside and outside, and if an artistic intervention was needed to remind us of this separation.

The plastic components are fun, and they are architectural. There are I-beams, square bars, and channels, all considered architectural elements. None of which, however, really feature in the De La Warr Pavilion, formed as it is of quite unique and specific elements. As the first welded steel frame building in England it created a typology, and so the work leaning against it comes across as pastiche and lazy, a plasticised and bastardised version of the original, rather than a revering reference. This clash of plastic and metal, original and copy, could all potentially speak to a critique about the journey and eventual loss of modernism, from system-led democratic idea towards a commercial and structural framework containing a neoliberal version of the equitable and social idea, but that critique seems lacking.

Instead, the elements – as beautiful and colourfully diffracting as they are – seem like a pile. The exhibition text says that they are a response to the building, and that they “echo the internal and external columns,” but in proximity to the original they read more as whisper. This is also true of the sculptural elements on the other side of the room. They are fun, and there is a worthwhile game using system-made elements to structurally support a wobbly and twisted surface – there is potential here for critique around a desire for baroque and order. But it gets lost in the curation and context.

The gallery of De La Warr pavilion sits on the ground floor. It’s a handsome space, flooded with south coast light and – as could be expected – has a formal order that is neat and perfect for showing art and objects. But they are also conditions that are demanding, with a clarity of light and space that can result in works struggling to hold their own against their situation. Walking around the gallery space, the few repeating sculptural objects, evenly spread around the space, appear a bit lost and distant from one another. There is a horizontal line through the room, splitting the space into blue and white, but it’s totally unclear if this is designed in relation to the work or a leftover geometry from something previously presented in the gallery. The bright structural sculptures leaning against the windows are exciting in hue, but only make reference to the building through a spatial situation and columnar clustering but not anything related to the form or history of the place.


Barbara Kasten is an important artist. As witnessed in the collision of aesthetic, colour, architecture, and form in the Architectural Site photograph, the energy and excitement with her work is in the busyness, compression and transformation of place. At the De La Warr this excitement doesn’t happen because of the distance between works with a regularity and order of their arrangement in space. It becomes formulaic more than fun, and while visitors clearly enjoyed seeing their distorted selves looking back in Kasten’s twisting mirrors, there was little opportunity for the modernist surrounds to relax in similarly reflective games.

This is a shame. If there was more connection between the form of the Perspex sculptural columns and that of the De La Warr, so they seriously referenced the place, then it would have sung. If there had been more columns and they had not been clustered so rigidly to the form of the building then the play between installation and frame would have been more abrasive. If the reflective sculptures had been less repetitive, less discretely arranged, and less having the same relationship to the room, window, and one another, then they would read less as a fairground hall of mirrors and more as a conversation between their setting and themselves.

Kasten’s Architectural Sites photographs are seminal and are instructive to both the works on display and the wider postmodern riff of modernist conventions. It is a shame, therefore, that there was only one image included, which acted as an entrance welcome, when to witness more of these – or other images from the artist’s wide range of wall-based works – would really have helped set the scene and create a richer diversity of hang, helping fill what otherwise reads as a somewhat empty space.


Kasten’s life and work has been about clashing. Her works sit across painting, photography, and sculpture in what she terms “interdisciplinary performance” to create a drama of light, shadow, colour, material, formality, breaking, order, and the uncanny. To present such work in a white cube gallery – where lighting, space, and compression can be contained – is a different act to curating in a space such as the De La Warr, and while in her Architectural Sites series Kasten controls the architecture into her singular aesthetic language, in this exhibition the architecture refuses to be corralled.

On this occasion, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff win. The picture window, regularity, and scale of Bexhill’s modernism do not yield to the arrangement of Kasten playful, postmodern work. This is not to say the work does not have joy – as the visitors laughing at the twisted versions of themselves is testament to – but the joke and conversation should be on the building, the reflected coastal view through the windows, and the architectural setting, but it would take much more than this to bend the strength of the De La Warr.

Barbara Kasten lives and works in Chicago. Her works are included in institutional collections such as the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Centre Pompidou Paris, the Tate Modern London, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum Washington DC, the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California. Solo exhibitions include Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; the Aspen Art Museum (both 2020); the Philara Collection in Düsseldorf, Germany (2018); the ICA Philadelphia (2015), and the MoCA Los Angeles (2016). Her work has been part of international group exhibitions, including Women in Abstraction at the Centre Pompidou, the Sharjah Biennial 14, Bauhaus and America, LWL – Landesmuseum Münster, History of Photography at Sprengel Museum Hannover, Shape of Light at Tate Modern London, and Color Mania at Fotomuseum Winterthur.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha Studios.


Barbara Kasten: Site Lines is presented at the De La Warr pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until 01 September. Further details are available at:


fig.i Photograph © Will Jennings.
figs.ii-iv Photographs © Rob Harris.

publication date
06  July 2024

Bexhill-on-Sea,Serge Chermayeff, Columns, De La Warr Pavilion, International Style, Will Jennings, Erich Mendelsohn, Modernism, Perspex, PlasticPostmodernism, Structure