If you drive or look east you begin to see the blue abstraction of the Sierra Foot Hills. There is a theory in art that the further away an object is the more abstract it is and because of the distance the color of the object turns blue for the light is cooler. The closer one gets the more vivid the shapes become, and the clarity of color comes clearer warmer, more vivid. This is what my relationship with Karl Kasten was for the last ten years. First from a distance and in time the colors became richer and warmer and the details became clearer. I saw how remarkable an artist, a teacher and a man he was.
Nearly every day at 11:30 Karl came into the Art Department office to check his mail, chat with folks and make some phone calls and say Hi. It was easy to talk with him. It didn’t take him long to find out that I ran the noon lecture series for the department. It didn’t take long for him to drop the question, “So Kevin, how about I do a lecture one of these days. The students would love it.” Karl wasn’t shy to ask for anything, and he was nearly impossible to say no to. So I scheduled him for a noon talk and hoped for the best. That wasn’t something I needed to worry about, especially filling the room with attendees. Karl seemed to have his own audience of friends family, colleagues, folks he had over lunch, and perhaps a dealer or two. As for the talks themselves, they were less like lectures than intricate weavings of the ideas of the history of art, from Lascaux to Matisse, from Cezanne to post-modernism, from the ying /yang symbol to his theories of pictorial composition, from the beauty of egg tempera to the physical splash of abstract expressionism, from the early formation of the newly developed UC Berkeley Art Department in the 1920’s to The Berkeley School, and always mentioning his lifelong mentor Worth Ryder, and the remarkable array of artists that influenced Karl throughout his artistic life: Hans Hoffman, Wilem De Kooning, Chiura Obata, and John Haley among so many others.
As the cycle of life tells us, our history is what provides us with the reasoning for the moment we live in. I too love that department: it gave me the reason to be, to work, to teach to shape the future. There was a kinship I had developed with Karl through a couple of earlier lectures he presented. So in 2007 I popped the plan. I told him I wanted to show his work in the gallery as a retrospective and an homage to the early years of the Art Department and in the place that was named after his great mentor and the house he had helped build, The Worth Ryder Gallery. Karl loved the idea. I really didn’t know much about Karl’s work, but I was certain that the exhibition would be sensational, and we both relished the idea of bringing a historical perspective to the department.
The next step, lunch. That seemed to be Karl’s way of making concrete the plans for the show. First stop: the Faculty Club. We meet in the Great Hall. I had been in the club a number of times. For me it was more of an act of subversion, waiting to get thrown out. Karl on the other hand walked easily, smoothly among the distinguished emeriti, Nobel recipients and educators alike. He belonged there and he loved it and knew it. He takes me down a short hall to a sign that reads “the O’Neill Room,” and opens the door. There on the wall a fresco completed in 1930 by faculty member Roy Boynton. Karl restored it to its original beauty. He didn’t stop there. He saw the perfect opportunity to enshrine the small hall with Berkeley’s first art faculty members: Chuira Obata, Erle Loran, Margaret Petersen ,Worth Ryder and others. Suddenly it came to me this small room was more than a show or an exhibition but an endowed shrine paying homage to the university’s first gesture into modernity through its art faculty. Quite a revolution. He was there, I was stunned.
Next stop the “Chateau”, Karl’s house which he called the Chateau. Chateau? We all love our homes, kings’ castle and all, but here I am stopping at the front of the house. I’ll be damned, it is a chateau! That was the last time I remotely thought anything cynical about what Karl would say. He was never cynical or dismissive, and I was served a lesson.
Karl answers the door, Georgette standing behind. The house is filled head to toe wall to wall with art, objects, paintings by friends colleagues, his work, students works, copper objects from who knows where, Italian Renaissance painting, and his newest find, four Afghan Buddhist sculptures. It’s stunning. Georgette was charming, tall and cracking jokes at the drop of a hat. Two hours later we have traveled the world of stories, of the past, of Worth Ryder, Chiura, former students, art ideas, etc. The sandwiches are so good.
Karl had the same drink every lunch, Bulgarian Buttermilk and this brown liquid he poured in every once and a while. For some reason I thought it was prune juice, I tried the buttermilk, but not the prune juice. I ask him “why do you pour prune juice in the milk”, “Prune juice”, Karl laughed, “that’s not prune juice, silly, it’s coffee.” Prune Juice. It’s one of those moments where I was just a dumb young dog.
As for the exhibition, it was to be in three parts, “The Berkeley School “ in the small gallery, Karl’s work, and an array of students’ work in the back gallery. About the Berkeley School: a number of the first faculty had studied with Hans Hoffman, it was Hoffman’s ideas that pushed this newly founded Art Department into the Modernist trajectory. It was Worth Ryder who championed the call and it was Karl as a young student in Worth’s class that seemed to have absorbed all the precepts that Hoffman put forth. Ryder knew it, saw it, and I’m totally convinced that Karl, in Ryder’s eyes represented the next generation of artist/educators in which the young department needed to invest, even if he was as a student.
One of the first steps in curating an exhibition is to look for the earliest works that help shape an artist’s ideas. Meeting at the “Chateau” proved to be a treasure trove of Karl’s art, his colleagues, students, and so much more. One painting caught my eye nearly instantly. It seemed to firmly establish what Ryder and his colleagues saw in Karl’s work. That painting was “F Train”, an astonishing egg tempera.
Completed in 1938 while Karl was in his last semesters as an undergrad at Berkeley. “F Train” was composed by series of neatly constructed triangles that create the platform, beautifully proportioned rectangles create the stairs, and a hot red sliver controls the center of the work. Spread throughout the composition a series of orange and hot red Y shapes paired, grouped and gathered over the works surface. It is a remarkably Bauhausian/ Constructivist work with a dash of Duchamp and it’s egg tempera! Again, it’s egg tempera. Karl is 22 years old. I loved that piece. At Worth’s insistence, Karl would join the Berkeley faculty in 1949.
What Worth Ryder and his colleagues saw in this dashing young man was his audacity to fall into the realm of the modern. He seemed to be whisked away by every aspect of what made great ideas, the pleasure of leaping into the unknown and the skill to shape it’s outcome into something tangible and beautiful. Karl also had the ability to share that adventure and that audacity with other artists, like Hoffman, and De Kooning and, deepest and most importantly in his heart, his students whom he guided and encouraged for decades. Artists like Adelie Bishoff, Eileen Downey, Nancy Genn, Sonya Rappaport, Jean Lowe, Walter Askin, BB Smith. Bruce Beasley and Norman Kanter. Whose work we still are moved by and respect.
In the end I’ve some to realize how many of us now share that same audacity of art, adventure, of sharing our ideas and investing in the unknown.
Director of Worth Ryder Gallery 1993 – 2008
UCB Department of Art Practice.