Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Harriet Casdin-Silver

In 1968, Brookline artist Harriet Casdin-Silver attended a talk on holography by physicist Raoul van Ligten that would change her career.

“I had been at a meeting in Boston where the head of the optical department of American Optical spoke,” she told me a couple weeks ago. “This is a long time ago. He showed little four-by-five holograms with a laser, not with a light. You could barely see it. You had to twist and turn. I thought a three-dimensional medium would be a strong political force.”

Her idea was to use this alluring new medium to draw people into her political statements – in particular, feminist ones. So she visited American Optical Laboratories in Framingham.

“I went actually to borrow a laser, I wasn’t going to try to do holography. Very lovely Raoul van Ligten invited me in to do holography. When I first started, there were only a couple days during a week [that she could work there]. Then I couldn’t be there for six to eight weeks. They would call me to tell me when I could come. The lab was being used for science. Raoul had the heart of an artist. He’d done a lot of photography.”

So as van Ligten advanced up the company hierarchy, he arranged for her to have daily use of one lab. The legacy of that decision is evident in a small exhibit by the now 82-year-old Casdin-Silver at Gallery Naga through March 24. (Here’s my preview.) DeCordova Museum curator Nick Capasso trumpeted her as “America’s foremost art holographer” and “a pioneer of the art-and-technology movement of the second half of the twentieth century” when the museum mounted a retrospective of her work in 1998.

“A lot of people use light to get technical effects,” Casdin-Silver told me. “That was never my mission. My mission was to help women grow in every way – psychologically, sociologically, and in believe in themselves. And I taught too so I did reach a lot of women.”

The show includes a handful of holograms of curled up nude men and women from the early 1990s. (At top, “Kathryn of Orange” 1995.) They’re astonishing technically, the effect is something akin to hyper-realist sculpture, but these pieces don’t speak much beyond that. Casdin-Silver also presents four recent photographs – a nearly nude self-portrait (at left, “80+1,” 2007), a photo of an art historian friend seated naked and curled in on herself (at bottom, “Sarah,” 2006), and photos of her college-age granddaughter. The photos feel, well, flat.

“I had a yen to do something different. And then when my granddaughter offered to pose for me I decided to go this route,” she said. “I would not have asked her to pose nude. But when she offered I couldn’t resist. This image ["Rebecca," 2007] is what I want women to be: strong, solid, vivacious, she could handle anything.”

(Best awkward interview moment: What does a man say when an 82-year-old lady asks how beautiful are her photos of her naked college-age granddaughter?)

The new images were shot in her Fort Point studio. “Unfortunately that area is going condo. So after being there since 1985, I’m going to have to move next year. I may just quit," Casdin-Silver said. "But I can’t quit. My work keeps me going.”

Harriet Casadin-Silver, Gallery Naga, 67 Newbury St., Boston, March 2 to 24, 2007.


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