KARL KASTEN 1916-2010
The art world lost one of its best this week. Karl Kasten died at home in Berkeley. I’m sure that there is an official medical term, but those closest to him say that at 94 years old, his body simply gave out. As one friend put it, “ He was always honorable, courageous, optimistic, and mentally sharp, but his lungs would not go any further.” In the art world Karl Kasten will be remembered as a painter and master printmaker, but also as a teacher. Through the years, there have been many great artists and many great teachers but they are not often the same people. Kasten was one of the exceptions. Maybe because his role models – mainly Worth Ryder and the great Hans Hofmann – were exceptions, too.
As a painter, Kasten was part of the Abstract Expressionist Movement, but he is perhaps best known for his pioneering work in printmaking. He learned from the best, spending a summer studying with Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa. Lasansky had learned technique from the legendary Stanley William Hayter. According to Karl, “Hayter revolutionized printmaking Up until Hayter, printmaking was considered a craft. The artist really wasn’t involved in the printing process and for that reason, many artists looked down on print makers. Hayter changed that.” In simple terms, Hayter got his hands dirty. Instead of making a drawing and transferring it the metal plate for printing, he developed the print as he went along, altering plates along the way. The metal plates were his canvas. It sounds so simple now but it was revolutionary back then. He was the first to use the process to develop the art instead of the other way around. Lasansky took that a step further by cutting or etching deeper into the print plate, giving his prints more complexity. Kasten learned Lasansky’s “intaglio technique” and took it back to California where he set up printmaking departments at both San Francisco State and Berkeley.
When I first met Karl four years ago, he was entering his ninth decade with few signs of advancing age. He shared his vast knowledge of art and art history with humility and patience. His home, just a few blocks from his beloved UC Berkeley campus, where he taught for 33 years, was filled with art – his own and the work of many others including Cezanne, Gauguin, de Kooning, and even a small David Hockney tucked away in the hallway. The studio was in the attic – a sunny place with a beautiful view of Berkeley and beyond. We had to climb a perilous ladder to get up there but the views were worth the effort. After the interview we sat in his modest kitchen with his beautiful wife, Georgette, and shared a pizza and a nice bottle of red wine. We laughed and shared stories – his were much better than mine. Over the next few years we would see each other at various openings, and he would send notes from his travels – lovely letters chocked full of information, and accompanied by a simple drawing. Always the artist and always the teacher, there was no way to separate the two. And I’m quite certain he would be just fine with that characterization. Karl was a great painter and printmaker, and a legendary teacher, but for me the lasting memory will be sitting at that kitchen table and realizing that as a person, there was none finer than Karl Kasten.
Writer’s note: The video was shot in Karl’s studio four years ago. The first shows Karl demonstrating the intaglio printing process. Known as one of the pioneers in printmaking, seeing Karl in action was a real treat. The second clip shows Karl talking about Cezanne and Gauguin. The clip gives you a sense of Karl’s passion for art and teaching about art – he always had a great story. He was a kind and gentle soul and we will miss him.