Barbara Chase-Riboud’s recent show proved revelatory. The group of 14 sculptures and nine drawings allowed viewers, especially those who have missed her major museum appearances, to experience the breath of her creativity. A child prodigy who started exhibiting in 1954, she sold Beta to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same year at the age of 15. Now living in Paris, Chase-Riboud has honed an eclectic personal language that is singularly in tune with her world views.
A Modernist with Abstract Expressionist affinities, Chase-Riboud attended the Fletcher Memorial Art School and the Tyler School of Art and Design. She later studied design and architecture at Yale University. Three overarching traits – the gesture of her hand, meticulous craftsmanship, and sensual passion – distinguish her sculptures, including her signature works of polished metal and woven fiber. These and the impact of seminal trips to Egypt, China, and Africa lend a sense of beauty that is marked as much for its regal elegance as it is for its earthly warmth. Chase-Riboud has never been satisfied with an art for art’s sake approach; instead, her work often draws on current issues and past offenses. It assumes a healing or restorative function that transforms a tropical incident into a timeless parable of universal appeal.
The earliest work in the exhibition, Portrait of the Artist on the Via Appia, dates back to 1958, the year she studied at the Academy of Rome and learned the lost-wax technique. Conceived as an abstracted stage, the stepped platform presents the artist surveying figurative fragments related to ancient Roman sculpture. Already, the work reveals an exuberant curiosity, an inherent monumentality, and an interest in the figure, which have stayed with her.
One of the most imposing large-scale sculptures, Tantra I (1994), embodies the artist’s twin ideas of convergence and balance. Referencing Hindu sexual practices, which aim to unite followers with the universe, the totemic work deftly balances anthropomorphic allusions with purely formal concerns of abstract pattern and texture. Luscious golden cascades of knotted silk threads nestle a bronze fan-shaped component. Evoking an alien face or a sprouting leaf, this form is fashioned from thin sheets of loosely pleated bronze whose shallow cavities dramatically catch the light. The lavish treatment of both fiber and metal echoes Baroque drapery folds with a contemporary twist. Equally potent to the sculpture’s sense of animation is its simultaneously ascending and descending motion. Overall, the composition exudes a visceral spirituality. A hard, heavy masculinity, traditionally associated with metal, has exchanged roles with a pliable, light femininity linked to fiber. Soft and sensual, it appears, nonetheless, to support itself mysteriously by the fiber columns alone.
Another highlight is Cleopatra’s Chair (1984) from the “Cleopatra” series. Conjuring the intrigue of Imperial Chinese and Egyptian tomb art, the chair features hundreds of multi-colored, bronze rectangles loosely draped over an oak armature. Linked by gold wire, the bonze mantle gently twists and turns as though responding to some inner, hidden force. In Cleopatra’s Door (1984), and oak post-and-lintel frame supports a bronze tesserae sheath that shimmers and flexes in a grand, sweeping gesture. Once again, an architectural fuses sculptural and figurative pulses. In the more narrative Cleopatra’s Marriage Contract, which initiated the series in 1973, wax seals dangle from handmade sheets of paper bearing automatic scribbling.
Chase-Riboud’s aspiration to reconcile opposites reaches new heights in recent examples from her “Musica” series. Starting in the early ‘70s, she introduced fiber into her metal compositions to overcome the “tyranny of the pedestal.” As elsewhere in her oeuvre, the series typically combines silken cords and a metal armature, which loosely recalls an open-clef in this instance. The palettes of the patina and the dye have been harmonized in such works as La Musica (Red) (1999) and La Musica (Silver) (2000). Further, the way in and out of their frames has grown in complexity, creating rich polyrhythmic orchestrations. These arrangements can be altered with each presentation, enhancing the feeling of free improvisation. By contrast, fiber plays a trompe l’oeil role in L’Architettura (Cord Column) (1999). In this all-bronze, black-on-black composition, vertical fixed bands of cording, which still look soft and not cast, magically appear to sustain more massive, cylindrical components.
Each work in the exhibition reflects a distinct expression of Chase-Riboud’s wonderfully synthetic mind and a polished technique in keeping with the gravity of its thematic content. Also known for her writing and drawings, she has completed several public art projects over the years. The recent Africa Rising (1998) marks an early African graveyard in lower Manhattan, and currently, she is seeking to place The Middle Passage Memorial in Washington, DC. The composition features a bronze chain (composed of 11 million links and upheld by flanking obelisks) referring to slavery, with each link symbolizing a victim. Like the works shown at Gomez, the intended memorial attests to the redemptive power of beauty and its ability to nourish the soul.
– Sarah Tanguy