There could not have been a more fitting time than this past year to dive into the rich and versatile oeuvre of Lithuanian-born American artist Aleksandra Kasuba. Month after month locked in our cubicles called home, starved of human contact, we really needed Kasuba’s soft, organic, soothing environments of the 1970s. “Shaping the Future: Environments by Aleksandra Kasuba,” curated by Elona Lubyte˙, is the first extensive retrospective of the artist’s work. Featuring a collection of works that Kasuba donated to the Lithuanian National Museum of Art in Vilnius, the exhibition invites viewers to physically experience one of the artist’s signature pieces, a reconstruction of a full-scale installation that was first presented in the group show “Contemplation Environments” at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1970.
Born in 1923 to an educated aristocratic family, Kasuba enrolled in art school in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1941, studying sculpture and textiles, among other subjects. In 1944, she fled the country with her sculptor husband, winding up in a displaced-persons camp in Germany before making her way in 1947 to New York, where she found work in the fields of craft and design. Her experiences during these years left a strong imprint on her future hybrid artistic development, over the course of which she would freely combine applied arts with experiments in abstraction, Minimalism, and contemporary materials. Her earliest abstract black-marble reliefs, such as First Black Stone Mosaic, 1963, evolved into several large-scale works for New York’s public spaces, including mosaics for Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx (1973) and 7 World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan (1986) as well as a brick relief farther uptown at 560 Lexington Avenue (1981); the surface rhythms and patterns of these pieces recall woven tapestries.
Kasuba, who died in 2019, made a significant leap with her investigations into materials and scale when she began employing stretch fabric to create a new kind of work: neither sculpture nor architecture but environments. Deeply influenced by Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 exhibition “Architecture Without Architects,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a presentation of the architecture of Indigenous people, Kasuba sought to bring humans, nature, and technology into harmony. She eschewed ninety-degree angles in her structures, associating them with a Western civilization that had lost its primary connection to the environment, and opted instead to immerse visitors in contemplative spaces made of tensile membranes. A signal example was the installation Live-In Environment, which she built in her family brownstone at 43 West Ninetieth Street between 1971 and 1972. A membrane formed seven separate pockets, each offering a distinct multisensorial experience mixing surfaces, materials, light, color, sound, and even aromas, all contributed by artists she invited. Having closely collaborated with E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), Kasuba embraced contemporary technologies not to critique their dehumanizing character but above all, to help her audience build more sensitive embodied relationships with one another and the environment.
The National Gallery of Art exhibition has presented a thrilling collection of her experiments with synthetic fabric hardened with resin; the results, displayed in the show as tiny sculptures on high gray pedestals, resemble computer-generated abstract forms. Here, too, are models of her unbuilt architectural projects, the most significant of which is Global Village, 1971. This bubble-shaped building was designed to accommodate people of different social status—singles and families, seniors and students—and to stimulate interaction and self-government. Among her final large-scale realized projects are Rock Hill House, 2001–2005, and Shell Dwellings, 2003–2005, that she built in the New Mexico desert. Featuring organic shapes and reflective aluminum-tiled roofs, these structures seem to have emerged from a futuristic dream. It is not surprising that they inspired the young Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulyte˙, whose hypnotic new video installation CIRCULAR TIME. For Aleksandra Kasuba, 2021, is installed next to Kasuba’s retrospective in the same gallery hall. The elder artist’s transgressive practice pulsates in the imagination of a new generation.