Recipient of the 2022 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award
With their architectural aura, their weaving between fluid and solid, supple and clenched, Barbara Chase-Riboud’s sculptural works stage convergences that unsettle while inducing awe. Her intimate juxtaposition of unlike substances triggers creative friction, sparking an alchemy that feels strategic as it fractures narrow categories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s “Monumentale: The Bronzes,” a majestic retrospective showcasing the trans-disciplinary artist’s vast output and expressive breadth. I am grateful to Suzette Spencer for introducing me to Chase-Riboud; and as a scholar of medieval Japanese culture, I was surprised to find echoes of Asian aesthetics in her sculptures. This discovery has shaped my sense of how they rouse or temper motion—and how they carve routes toward transformative escape.
Despite Chase-Riboud insisting on a separation between her writing and sculpture, I’m often stunned by the calligraphic qualities that characterize her treatments of fiber and metal. The filigreed surfaces and vertical grooves can evince the ebb and flow of brushwork, with their calibrated channeling of shadow and light along the fabric miming modulations of line weight. The stunning expansion of Chase-Riboud’s practice can look predestined in hindsight, but I prefer to view that itinerary as a cursive path, characterized by an iterative process of exploration and execution fueled as much by artistic curiosity as by the lure of liberation.
Earlier works imposed a reverence, arresting the beholder with the potency of hewn stillness. Zanzibar Gold #2 (1977), for instance, emits exoticism; the surface hosts a glistening labyrinth of metallic folds on top, while on the bottom, fine fabric curtaining the base tempts our gaze. We’re drawn to a profusion of braids and variously styled strands but are also held at bay, unable to move a centimeter past the outermost membrane. These elaborate skirts solicit attention but also make a show of their inaccessibility as they seethe with elegance. Such guarded deportment dissolves in later decades, however, eventually giving way to sculptures that feel less forbidding or encumbered.
An anthropomorphism has often been present in Chase-Riboud’s work: in the assemblages of silk evoking people lounging at a shimmering silver lake in Bathers (1973); the Giacometti-esque figurines dwarfed by the base of Middle Passage Scale Model (1994); or those in Africa Rising Scale Model 2 (1997). Works like Anne d’H (2008) keep the columnar thrust while reworking the use of fiber by winding the cords in a spiral as they travel up from the base, allowing them slack as they climb. It’s as though the strictures of decorum slowly come undone by the time we reach the crown. This more serpentine treatment of the cording injects hints of candid personality unseen in other pieces named for famous figures. Moreover, Anne d’H bridges the structural and metaphorical traits of earlier and later sculptures, heralding a commitment to exploring fresh forms.
The “La Musica” series bears this out. Rather than being braided into elaborate yet ultimately demure masses of knotted silk or synthetic fiber, the thick cords in these works seem to sway, unabashed, of their own accord. They appear tousled, animated by a brazen looseness nearly unthinkable in preceding decades, when different mores toward the density and delicacy of textile elements prevailed.
This symbolic branching out from the columnar foundation assumes literal shape as the series progresses. Whereas La Musica (1997) retains a cautious tie to right angles, the stiffness melts in later permutations whose curvatures venture novel redistributions of weight. There’s a gradual onset to this skewing, as dynamism comes to infuse both the torsion of the metal and the path of silk across it. The fiber no longer hides the base; instead, it inhabits space with a full autonomy as it slopes, reclines, or travels about the bronze. La Musica Red #2 (2003) makes a show of the pendulous properties of silk with its overripe braids dripping from a canted T-frame like ruddy organelles. The transition from La Musica Marian Anderson (2003) to La Musica Red #4 (2003) reveals a growing dynamism as silk weaves through corridors of bronze. Forgoing the blocky heft of former pieces, these sculptures carry a sinewy cursive force. In their departure from an architectural grid, they recall the contours of a harp—an ample harmonic curve extending laterally across the top before hinging shoulder to soundbox and the nodules of fabric drowsing near the base. Silk tendrils decant from the frame’s apex in a gorgeous spillage toward the floor. Between the vivid hues, lavish sweep of the metal, and weighted silk draped from brawny bronze limbs, these members of the “La Musica” series erupt like agile glyphs from the remnants of a long-dead tongue.
As a sculptor and writer, Chase-Riboud has noted that there is no need to fuse the two mediums. Nevertheless, works like La Musica Red #4 straddle the gap between the literary and plastic arts, hearkening back to poiesis in its purest form. This transformative bringing-forth is aligned with Chase-Riboud’s “lik[ing] to point out that there was poetry and statuary before there was written history.” The “La Musica” sculptures read like a protean language excavated from the rift between classical architecture and automatic writing. Compared to earlier works, the “La Musica” sculptures keep the themes of fluid folding and intimate friction between metal and fiber elements. At the same time though, a kind of primal energy arises, which enthralls to a heightened degree. As Chase-Riboud explores this rawer aesthetic, statues morph from monuments into lean, resonant vessels through which the presence of music goes unuttered but is still felt. Open forms embrace more air. Whatever heaviness inheres in the bountiful silk knots is upended by swipes of bronze. This lends the forms a visceral quality that shuns architectural strictures to summon dance—with jazz as its engine.
Josephine Baker makes an apt muse, with her ludic mix of altruism and whirling limbs. Chase-Riboud siphons that exuberance into La Musica Josephine Black/Red (2021, on view in the “Infinite Folds” retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery North). As I’ve written elsewhere, “Josephine introduces an extra beat—or more—to basic vectors, distending uniform segments into fuller lines of action. Wary of enclosure, sculpture that nears dance detaches from these framing habits, molting out of scaffolds to sketch calligraphic routes and lay the gesture’s vibrancy bare.” Sculptures like Josephine and the other “La Musica” works attune us to what poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey discusses as duende, a performative spirit that animates art and seduces an audience into its domain. In the context of flamenco, especially, the term refers to a heady magnetism only the most masterful dancers display—the energy unleashed in instant passion ignites consummate skill. Something like this emanates from Josephine. Chase-Riboud’s unquestionable craft gets activated by a more extemporaneous energy. To emit a sense of motion in sculpture (or painting) is difficult. We discern it in the hulking strut of Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) and in the origami jitter of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912). Elsewhere within Chase-Riboud’s oeuvre, Africa Rising (1998) imparts a feeling of movement in its forward push: the figure gusts toward the horizon like an unchained goddess chasing sunrise.
By the 21st century, things change. There’s a restive swerve at work that reads like an allegory. It’s hard to survey the landscape of Chase-Riboud’s work across genres and mediums without noticing this shift in trajectory. In Africa Rising, it rustles in coruscating pleats of resplendent armor that envelop a deified female form. And it whispers in Tantra #4 (2007), present in the sultry swirls of polished bronze mimicking how silk cords coil. Expanding this tendency, works like Josephine break ground, shining as evidence of an expressive freedom born of mastery of one’s techniques and materials. Moreover, the piece strikes me as embodying the earned privilege of having nothing to prove.
Chase-Riboud has argued that statuary is memory, and she has at times used her work to advance a visualization of history that affirms the centrality of an Africanist presence continually demeaned or facing erasure. Earlier works sometimes had to leverage monumentality to insist on the humanity and dignity of figures like Malcolm X, Sarah Baartman, or the multitudes of enslaved Africans memorialized in Middle Passage. While Chase-Riboud’s technical facility and clarity of vision were undeniable, what still begged questioning was how entrenched racism, sexism, and an ardent amnesia inextricable from the American mythos tainted the social terrain in which such works were to be confronted. Hence, beyond any notion of individual proclivity, recourse to a monumental inclination could symbolically assist in the broader project of making visible, and undeniably beautiful, the formidable value of figures barred from view or full personhood. Consequently, these pieces feel freed from a necessity detected in past works to orchestrate, uplift, or effect redress by mythologizing the marginalized. A former aim might have been to manifest unflappable composure. This tack could help dispel demonization and eulogize icons like Baartman or Malcolm by erecting mythic figurations. But now we can take the duller patina used for La Musica Red or Archaeological as signaling that sculpture needn’t gleam as much to proclaim the worth of Black subjects to the world.
Thus, considered across the longue durée of Chase-Riboud’s esteemed career, the “La Musica” series and its successors emerge with a wayward bearing. No fixed frontal viewpoint prevails, and the balance and rhythm of each piece shifts with the vantage point. An impression of syncopation flares forward by virtue of adding extra beats to the standard column or horizontal beam. Such a burst of movement rends the space in multiple dimensions at once. The pleats and creases so central to Chase-Riboud’s practice are lengthened and broadened so that they undulate, amplifying contours lashed to steeper speeds. Instead of magnitude, however, velocity is emphasized. Tempos mount; metal twists and pivots; silk and bronze accelerate their interplay. Rather than incise smaller corrugations to rattle the play of light across a planar surface, the recent works indulge protracted, sinuous gestures to careen with a physicality at once sleek and unruly. Although still steeped in abstraction, anthropomorphic facets harbor an animalistic tenor, as seen in the taut gold cords pulleyed against ebony diagonals in La Musica Black (2003). La Musica Green, Gold, and Red tweak this theme. Their silk components laze about the unhidden base or bolt through the armature, conjuring a choreography by turns languorous and cunning. Far from the stately stiffness of Maillol’s women, these statues evoke gymnasts or looming cobras, aslant between defiance and finesse.
The long and fruitful migration from, say, Malcolm X #3 to La Musica Josephine Black/Red maps a voyage toward freer execution. Surveying this journey lets us bask in the magnitude of past achievements, but also invites us to savor the tapered silhouettes and sweeping shards revealed once suffocating protocols have been jettisoned and the play of negative space embraced. Tracing this trajectory reveals metallic elements coming to signify not as enclosure but as musculature, fabric elements congealing not as barrier but as viscera. A volatility that we’ve not witnessed before surges here. Many of the older works stand as miniature fortifications—imposing, finely crafted, more or less contained within invisible grids—even as their boisterous polished surfaces and profuse textile components connoted noise and motion. But as Chase-Riboud’s sculptural practice continues to evolve and rhythm overtakes rectitude, she reroutes her preferred materials, forging fresh pathways as she coaxes bronze to warp like bonsai limbs.
With this context in mind, La Musica Josephine Black/Red strikes me as a stunning enactment of the passage toward an unfettered sculptural practice. While the symbiotic relationship between fiber and metal remains, such recent works appear more lithe, more intense, unlaced. They seem open-ended because of the air and light slicing through the frame, in lieu of hefty silhouettes. Columnar inclinations endure, but now torsion takes precedence, driving not just the silk but also the metal with greater zeal. If earlier works assumed the stance of fortresses, then these sculptures slough enclosures with a leap that ruptures their surround. Josephine Black/Red jolts the atmosphere, calling less for reverence from viewers than for a charged kinesthetic rapport in shared space.
Having tried the floor and the wall as mounts, often camouflaging her sculptures’ attachment, Chase-Riboud re-engages the ground but wrenches it from placid to volcanic. The floor becomes a springboard, not an anchor—a provisional node of contact where the bronze and cords alight only to vault then veer. Dyed like blood and coal, the works convey a molten contrast of hue and material, jutting out of the earth to swivel from static foundations. In describing her turn to thick textile skirts to conceal her sculptures’ supporting apparatus, Chase-Riboud has said, “I wanted freedom from the tyranny of the base.” Much mileage was logged developing methods of hiding that base. But works like Josephine Black/Red can now seek liberation in other ways. Rather than face a shielded plinth, we encounter a bared base unveiled to stoke propulsion. Josephine Black/Red saunters past gravitas, while the sculptures in its wake pursue a bolder spiral severed from strict slabs or pillars.
Where earlier works might have labored to secure a link between immensity and eminence, that penchant now recedes to make room for smaller-format flourishes like Pushkin’s Horse (1994) and the audacious splay of La Musica Josephine Black/Red. Ultimately, we’re bestowed with visions of what can materialize when an artist of great integrity unearths and activates an idiom untainted by the demands of respectability. Having carved past all that debris, Chase-Riboud’s work charts a wondrous route toward liberation, one whose worth eclipses any edifice forged from silk and gold.
“Monumentale: The Bronzes” remains on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation through February 5, 2023. “Infinite Folds,” Chase-Riboud’s first solo presentation in the U.K., is on view at Serpentine Gallery North in London through April 10, 2023.