David Kastner

Bonnie Richards Becker sat down with artist David Kastner and spoke with him about growing up in the Midwest, his constant experimentations of materials of the course of his life’s work, and his current phase that has a renewed focus on color and the process of painting.

“Finding that moment when the human mind is free, but before conscious activity develops consecutive thought, was a difficult mental space to understand, exist in, and use for the creative moment of expression..”
– David Kastner
David Kastner, photo by Gale Richards.

My first real recollection of art came from the Art Institute in Chicago. My mother took me to the Museum when I was about five years old. Seeing the various paintings, sculptures, and other media left a deep impression that persists in my life today. Before that, I only knew of my own love for making and building things. But there I first felt the effects of the many great artists who left their ideas for others to see. Without really knowing what the creative process meant, I knew I wanted to create.

While it is possible to reflect on early childhood development, attempting to identify when and how the creative process came into being in one person’s life, it is likely there is a more general creative essence in that person’s life, rather than a singular epiphany. For me, I knew early on that I liked making things. This meant piling sticks, digging, and making marks in mud, etc. These early renderings were a precursor for more complex mark making that became the pursuit of my life’s work to date.

In elementary school we had art class with pencils, paints, and clay – and all the other materials a small child needs to build their first artistic masterpieces. Inspired by books about ancient cultures so different from my own day-to-day life, I set out to fashion a monument that would pay tribute to these distant worlds swirling around in my mind. Armed with a lump of clay, I began my laborious rendition of an ancient Egyptian head. Once perfected, I tucked my sculpture safely away in a shoe box. Proud of my efforts and expecting praise for my clearly masterful creation, I presented the piece to my art teacher. What I received instead was skepticism and accusation that my masterpiece was clearly a fraud, crafted by my parents. My first introduction to the concept of art criticism. It certainly did not motivate me to seek out a mentor from the people around me, so I continued to create on my own.

I made things in my parents’ garage, and when the weather was good, I expanded to painting and building throughout the yard. None of this work likely remains, but I do remember that this was an intense period, when I worked tirelessly to transform the ideas from my thoughts into something that could be seen. Over time ideas evolved, skills became more accurate, and the moments of insight became easier to translate into tangible objects that offered proof of the ideas that had once only existed in my mind.

Growing up in the Midwestern United States was having a dramatic influence on who I was becoming. My parents had a small working farm, so I was surrounded by an array of animals and the creative nature that was inherent in farm life. My family worked constantly each day. Although not always fun, the work was important. The positive side was seeing all of the amazing farm animals as they went through their lives. As a child around the age of five, one of the cows on the farm was my favorite. Nearly every day I would interact with this cow, bringing it grain and experiencing the awesome nature of this creature that was fifty times larger than myself. One day, I went to the pasture, only to find that my favorite animal was not there. I asked my father where this animal went. What transpired was traumatic. Thinking that the experience would be a good learning opportunity, my father took me to the local slaughterhouse.

“Take Care of the Cows”, wood and enamel on panel, 40 x 70 in | cm (each), 2007

For the first time in my life, I saw the evidence of death; the process of transforming a beautiful living animal into a lifeless carcass of blood, bone, and flesh. In learning the meaning of death, I could more fully comprehend the meaning of life. From that moment forward, I was unable to sit at the table when meat was served. It was not until I became an adult that I could reflect on these events without trauma. And it was not until I saw a Rembrandt painting masterfully and poignantly portraying a flayed ox that I could appreciate the complex relationship between art, subject matter, and expression. Life, and its thorough expression and experience, has always been a significant factor in the generation of my own ideas, though until that point I had never seen it quite so clearly.

In addition to farm life, I worked in the iron and steel mills. I began to understand the composition of materials, and the changes that take place when you apply 2700 degrees of heat to their structures. I also became aware of the logic and process required to transform iron ore and scrap metal into complex final forms. Many people were needed to perform specific functions on numerous machines, all of which required a particular sequence of events and precise timing to achieve the finished castings. I took this awareness of process, logic, and sequence with me into the studio. It became central to how I traverse the journey from idea to completed form.

At about age eighteen, separate from any school or teacher, I began building sculptures made of wood. These pieces became central to my interests in making things for the next several years. They evolved from the desire to see simple forms effortlessly moving through space. In some ways, I knew these were important ideas in my own thoughts, although I did not know how they would be important to the development of my life as a working artist. Critics of my sculpture decried that my ideas were derivative, although I knew they were self-generated, independent of others’ artistic influence. At the time, I was unfamiliar with early twentieth century sculptural abstraction, which I came to learn about many years later in modern Art history classes. This distinction is important, since knowing the origin of the ideas informs the work itself. Moving forward in my life I became more self-aware how the works of artists, architects, engineers, writers, musicians, and others influenced the development of my own ideas. 

“Flow”, wood, 30 in tall, 1977

The natural and physical world also has had a dramatic influence on my work. Sometimes, something as simple as observing a jumping frog helped me develop new ideas I would later flesh out in the studio. Most recently, drawings of tree limbs done in the moonlight has informed paintings of mine that are currently in production. The wood sculptures from that early period in the 1970’s developed from an interest in creating a visual representation of a reasonably dense material flowing effortlessly through space. While they were not necessarily meant to mimic the forces of wind pushing materials through space, this was, in a sense, the mood I hoped to evoke. As years passed, the skill in crafting these sculptures improved, allowing for more accurate representations of flow and expression.

Entering the University, I worked to complete my Bachelor of Science in Art education. One of the greatest benefits of this period was the time I spent as part of the school’s campus in London, England. My art teacher there, Laurence Bradbury, pushed me to understand art history, along with all its complexities – psychology, philosophy, politics, culture, materials, technology. Additionally, Laurence showed me the importance of drawing. These two pursuits, art history and Drawing, have had a lifelong influence, and it was Laurence’s masterful skill and knowledge as a teacher that impacted my life’s work in a significantly dynamic and positive way. I began to really understand the meaning of quality – in both ideas and artistic expression. 

Completing my undergraduate art education degree should have logically led to teaching art. However, I returned to the steel mills; working, learning, and planning the next step. My mother offered sage advice. She suggested I return to school to complete an advanced degree. My application to the Graduate School at the University of Notre Dame ultimately led me to a rigorous and intense program. The professors there thoroughly questioned the conceptual identity of the forms I had spent years on. Their scrutiny not a criticism, but rather a challenge to me to identify more solutions in my work. 

Each day I spent time pouring through the extensive offerings of the Notre Dame library, focusing on classical form, structure, and application. Perhaps unknowingly I was channeling that first early experience of researching and creating that Egyptian head – although this time, the pursuit was serious and profound. I also had access to a significantly larger pool of social capital. The faculty, my supervisor, and the school community enabled me to engage in dialogue and communication about my ideas and creations. In a short period of time, research and discourse led to drawings, and other conceptualizations. 

“Homage to the Ancients”, cast iron and copper, 30 in tall, 1980

The work I had become comfortable with, the work I had thought to be complete, transformed before my eyes. Flowing curvilinear forms began to merge with geometric elements, ultimately emerging as theoretical geometric structures based on classical mathematics and proportional relationships. At a certain point, it was necessary to define a focus for my graduate studies, and after many faculty interactions, I began my thesis on “Ancient Egyptian and Greek proportional relationship.” In short, it explored the practical application of theoretical work in mathematical proportions. The Notre Dame library was an excellent source of Classical books for this topic. While I do not remember all of the details from so many years ago, what does endure in my memory was a desire to understand why ancient forms were so exceptional, and why the ideas and concepts they demonstrated had persisted for so many years as examples of classical thinking. 

I came to understand mathematical proportion and ultimately, how mathematics was applied. While aesthetic consideration was central to the fundamental quality found in classical form, it was the underlying mathematics which drove that aesthetic. In fact, Euclid himself taught mathematics in ancient Alexandria, and Pythagoras spent time in Egypt – examples of how the cross-pollination of important figures and ideas from other regions informed these classical forms. 

Beyond the historical anecdotes and romantic notions about ancient cultures portrayed in history books, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying principles found in work from this period. 

I discovered mathematical formulas, some derived from studies of natural forms, and some from machinations of the human imagination. The golden section, pi, the Pythagorean theorem, the Fibonacci series, etc., are all formulas well known to contemporary thinkers. For me, it was fascinating to look back in time to find the original thinkers who first put these principles on paper, and then into practice. All these brilliant historical intellectuals, along with the more contemporary Viollet-le-Duc, informed the work I was producing in two and three dimensions. Soon, the flowing ribbons of wood were replaced by austere geometric monoliths and other forms based on ancient proportional relationships.  

“Homage to Proportion”, wood and lacquer, 12 feet tall, 1978

As I completed my degree, I was offered several impressive teaching opportunities. However, I chose to pursue my work as an artist rather than join the academic community. I returned to the drawing board with a renewed passion. Ideas were flowing and stockpiled money from commercial projects financed my efforts in making my Art come alive. Photographs of completed pieces were distributed to the network of people who followed my furniture production, in addition to galleries. Exhibitions began to appear on my schedule, requiring me to work hard, both in and outside of the studio.

Friends suggested I send images to an exhibition committee in Europe. At the time, I had little idea about what this process entailed, but I sent the application. A few months later I was surprised to receive an invitation to the International Grand Prix d’Art Contemporain de Monte Carlo, and set about learning the processes to participate in my first international exhibition. A sculpture was selected, a crate was built, shipping documents prepared, and the work was sent to the exhibition. At the urging of my parents and friends, I attended the opening of the exhibition, where I met several people who became important to my future. Rene Huyghe spent hours talking with me about my portfolio and creative process. His critical insights opened my eyes to the complexities of how others observe one’s work. This conceptual realization helped me remove the ego driven fervor from years focusing singularly on producing art in the studio. 

I also first met Magori Toshifumi at that exhibition. After extensive questioning about my work and my background we exchanged Meishi (business cards), and parted ways. About six months later, Magori invited me to show my work at an exhibition at the Tokyo Central Museum. I sent the required art and flew to Tokyo, not knowing how this event would change my life and expose me to countless experiences and influences. Since that time, I have returned to Japan several times and have developed many deep friendships. I have hiked the mountains in Yakushima. I have had beautiful food in Hokkaido. I have been privileged to see and do things that many Americans never have, and I have felt the influence of Japanese culture in a way that many never will. 

My work has taken a number of forms and phases. The next major focus came from the idea to understand the origins of language, and the research for the project lasted about two years. Initially, the title began as “Homage to Geometry,” as I believed that geometry and mathematics were the base of language developed by human beings. My extensive research and resulting drawings resulted in a title that had morphed into “Homage to the Ancients.” This period of creativity lasted for several years, consisting of written documentation, drawings, engravings, paintings, and metal/stone sculptures. The iron and bronze castings I produced were the most satisfactory result of this effort. These metal sculptures were driven by a desire to understand how and why ancient humans began making marks that served as expression and communication. I first believed that mathematical markings were the source of human expression. However, I came to realize that pictographs and pictographic language were the precursors. In my research I observed marks, symbols, objects, and languages that were ancient and obscure, some so obscure we are unable to decipher these forms today. 

“Homage to the Ancients”, cast iron and copper, 50 in high, 1980

The next phase focused on trying to free my thoughts from self-imposed conceptual restrictions. Jazz music, Beat poetry, and a desire to connect with that moment of expression released from heavy conscious interaction became the focus of my thoughts. This next series of work was executed initially in drawing. Drawing has always been my first step in capturing my ideas. The work was then executed in ceramic and with paint. Finding that moment when the human mind is free, but before conscious activity develops consecutive thought, was a difficult mental space to understand, exist in, and use for the creative moment of expression. Most of my attempts to capture these free conceptualizations proved unsatisfactory, until one day, I sat at the ceramic wheel with a few pounds of moist clay. Without specific, conscious thoughts, I set the clay spinning, using my hands to cause the clay to flow, and allowing centrifugal force to open and split the clay without much human intervention. This tiny moment showed me it was possible to find an instant devoid of focused, conscious, controlled expression. For me it was like a self-generated flash of awareness, not just some outcome of an academic pursuit.

The work resulting from this effort continued for several years. Paintings and ceramic works appeared almost without effort. Some critics also said this work was derivative, attempting to reinvent action painting. I can understand how they came to this conclusion by observing the evidence of the work itself; simply viewing the paintings and ceramic pieces without context and without interviewing me. I was not trying to reinvent the work of Pollock, Voulkos, Matthieu, Francis, or others. Rather, it was my express intent to know within myself, that precise moment of expression free from conceptualizations. Like Jazz musicians of the highest caliber know that moment free of structure and control. 

“Nose Man”, acrylic on ceramic, 20 in tall, 2017

The current phase of my work has focused on the process of painting. Years ago, I spent a great deal of time studying color and light, and the physical, psychological, and physiological use of color by artists. Chevreul, Itten, Albers, Kueppers, etc., are just a few of note. Attempting to understand what color is, and then, to really understand how to use color as an expressive medium, became central to my thoughts. Theoretical academic study required transformation into practical application of paint. Although color has always been part of my academic study and studio production throughout my life, my recent work has delved deeper into its usage and the imagery it evokes.

I generally draw every day, usually with pencil on paper. These drawings inform me which ideas are worthy of continuing effort. They are then transferred to a board or canvas, after which the application of paint ensues until it is worthy of a signature. This stamp of approval designates the work to be satisfactory to my standards, signaling its completion; a sort of fixture in time. Sometimes I can move quite quickly to this stage. Other times, paintings can be problematic, requiring compositional solutions that simply cannot be hurried. These paintings might require years between initial execution and final completion. I can apply hundreds, sometimes thousands of layers of paint, as well as extensive amounts of curation time, before completion is reached. 

My most recent work is very personal. During the course of the past few years, health issues have intervened in my daily experience. Normally, I would work long days in my studio without interference from any physical limitation. Lately, that free effort has been impaired somewhat. After a lifetime of very hard work, my body finally reacted, requiring hand and arm surgery to relieve pressure of nerves and tendons. Both shoulders may also be following suit. For someone who is accustomed to precise and dexterous hands, as well the ability to lift and move things effortlessly, the changes to my physical capacity have been frustrating. Fortunately, the surgery on my hand and arm was remarkably successful, allowing free motion and control of the hand and fingers once again. Additionally, about two years ago, I had a life-threatening throat surgery. I was fortunate to have two brilliant surgeons and a team of health experts who resolved this major health issue without much incident.

“Ancient Fish”, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 48 in | 76 x 122 cm, 2021
“Finding that moment when the human mind is free, but before conscious activity develops consecutive thought, was a difficult mental space to understand, exist in, and use for the creative moment of expression..”
– David Kastner

These disruptions to my health have made me pointedly aware of mortality and the fragility of human life. This lesson about the fragility of life is informing the subject matter of my newest works. A monstrous ambulating creature, mysterious fish-like entities, skeletal forms in agonizing postures, poisonous spiders, and ravens perched on bare tree limbs are among the many iconic subjects filling my studio. While some might wish to see a more pleasing aesthetic, I am more interested in capturing an unflinchingly honest representation of my experiences. 

Some artists, like Jean Tinguely, created sculptures that would self-destruct. The craft of making the work only part of the equation; the work itself becoming fleeting and ephemeral. While I have created pieces with an intentionally short existence, I have more thematically focused on art that will endure. My life and work have always focused on quality. Only the most outstanding concepts and renderings progress to the next phase. The rest are eliminated. Quality as a concrete concept can be challenging to define. Most of my work has focused on the process of generating ideas I deem important, and so, it follows that I put every effort into the quality of material and craft, so the idea lives on. It becomes evidence not just of focused conceptualization and excellence in craftsmanship, but a legacy of human life, lived well.

– David Kastner, compiled and edited by Bonnie Richards Becker, 2021

Postscript commentary

During my decades as an artist, there have been many explorations not detailed in this essay, or in the photographic portfolio that visually documents my life’s history. In retrospect, a great deal of my artistic production was never documented, and it is very likely that many pieces no longer exist. As a synopsis of my life’s work, this essay brings to light only the essential themes. 

Many people have served as inspiration, helping me become who I am, and especially nurturing my creative process. I thank all of you who helped me become the artist I am today. Too long to list here, I simply say: 

Thank you!

– David Kastner

“Light study”, color photo on cloth paper, 24 x 36 in | 61 x 91 cm, 2000

To learn more about David and his work, visit at www.RobertBerryGallery.com.