The Monumental Work and Life of Barbara Chase-Riboud – The New York Times

As two new retrospectives consider the staggering scope of the artist’s career, she reflects on seven decades of creativity.
The artist Barbara Chase-Riboud photographed in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Credit…Abel Llavall-Ubach
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The American artist and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud sold her first work, a woodcut titled “Reba,” in 1955, to the Museum of Modern Art; she made it when she was 15 years old. It was an auspicious start to a truly epic life, and career. From Philadelphia — where she was born and as a child took art classes at the Philadelphia Art Museum — she traveled to New York and then, after winning a Whitney fellowship to study at the American Academy, to Rome, where she still casts the large-scale bronze sculptures for which she is best known. In the late 1950s, she briefly returned to the States to study design and architecture — under Josef Albers, Alvin Eisenman, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn and Vincent Scully — at the Yale School of Art, becoming the first known woman of color to earn her M.F.A. from the university. And in the following decades, which Chase-Riboud, now 83, has spent mostly in Paris — where she lives in an Art Deco apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement — she has established herself as one of the most prolific and boundary-breaking artists of her generation, making work defined by both its technical prowess and its searing meditations on American history.
As a tall Black woman artist with an unwavering artistic identity, Chase-Riboud stood out among her peers at the turn of the 1960s, who were mostly white and male. “There were three Black women in the grad school at Yale in ’57. One in philosophy, one in law and then there was me,” she recalled recently. “But I just ignored it,” she continued. “I had other things to do. I had already gotten a Whitney. I got engaged at the time [to the French photographer Marc Riboud]. And of course, I had already been at the academy in Rome, which was the same situation: It was all male.” She focused instead on her sculpture and drawing practices, imbibing the work of major influences across different disciplines — including the sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti, the painters Wifredo Lam and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, and the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger — and carving out a style that is uniquely hers. In 1957, the American artist Ben Shahn, a hero of Chase-Riboud’s, bought her first bronze sculpture, a work comprising a realist human form presented atop a complex abstract base. And though she would soon develop a more hybrid technique, incorporating ropes, textiles and other organic materials, bronze became a through line in her work. “Bronze is timeless,” she said. “It’s imbued with history, it’s the material of artisans of the Kingdom of Benin and the Baroque.”
In 1969, Chase-Riboud began making her formative work “Malcolm X,” a series of 20 sculptural odes to the civil rights activist, who had been assassinated four years before. The stately mixed-media steles — most over six feet tall, like Malcolm X himself — were also informed by Chase-Riboud’s study of ancient Egyptian funerary practices. (Earlier in the decade, she had toured Africa, exhibiting work at the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, and in 1969 attending the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, where she met Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.) Though the sculptures, which she continued making through 2018, evolved in composition over the years, Chase-Riboud created each using the same technique, manipulating thin sheets of wax into towering geometric forms, then casting them in bronze and draping them with skeins of spun silk and wool. “The power of these objects comes from this kind of juxtaposition of the two materials and how they react, one to the other,” she said in a 2013 interview. “One makes art in order to create beauty; there’s no other reason. Any other reason is really self-indulgent, as far as I’m concerned.” But the Malcolm steles are also poetic memorials — among the many that Chase-Riboud would make to misunderstood or little-known figures from history.
In 1974, Chase-Riboud released a book of poetry, “From Memphis & Peking,” edited by Toni Morrison. Five years later, she became a novelist — almost by accident, as she likes to say. “I begged every single author I knew to write about Sally Hemings,” she said, referring to the enslaved woman who became a mistress of Thomas Jefferson. “I asked Toni Morrison, who said, ‘You’ve been talking about this woman for years. Why don’t you write about her yourself?’” And so, with additional encouragement from her acquaintance Jacqueline Onassis, Chase-Riboud began transforming a long poem she had been composing into a historical novel about Hemings. Writing, once her procrastination activity of choice, became a full-fledged second act: In 1979, “Sally Hemings” won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best novel by an American woman. And in 1988, Chase-Riboud’s second poetry collection, “Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra,” won her the Carl Sandburg prize for best American poet.
“Sally Hemings” cemented her literary career. “That book has never left me alone,” said Chase-Riboud. “It’s been an integral part of my life. The scandal, controversy, ins and outs, movies, articles.” At the time of the book’s publication, mainstream historians rejected Chase-Riboud’s portrayal of Hemings’s relationship with Jefferson, and in 1979, CBS dropped a planned TV mini-series adapted from the novel. “Then I had to write a second book to prove that I could do it, that the first wasn’t really an accident,” said Chase-Riboud, who has since written historical novels about figures including Joseph Cinque, the enslaved African man who led a revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad in 1839, and Sarah Baartman, the South African woman known in 19th-century Europe as the Hottentot Venus. “So now I’m up to book six,” she said. Ever the trailblazer, she has since seen her interpretation of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship vindicated, and sales of her books have now surpassed three million copies worldwide.
In 1995, Chase-Riboud received a commission to produce one of several sculptures for the interior of the Ted Weiss Federal Office Building in Lower Manhattan after it was revealed that the building stands on an 18th-century African American burial ground. She translated the weight of this discovery into a majestic 18-foot-tall bronze sculpture, the base molded into the shapes of a boat and an African headrest (an item buried with the dead in parts of the continent) and topped with a triumphant winged female figure. Chase-Riboud titled the work “Africa Rising” (1998) after her poem of the same name.
During the rest of the decade, she exhibited works in more than 20 American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in 1999 put on a show of her “Monument Drawings.” Created over just a few months in 1996 and 1997, the 23 works pull from Chase-Riboud’s studies in design and architecture: Each depicts a hypothetical homage to a historical figure. Intimately related to “Rising,” though differently conceived, is “The Foley Square Monument New York” (1996), named after the location of the Manhattan burial site; “Middle Passage Monument, Washington” (1997) is intended as a memorial to murdered enslaved people. Other honorees include the pioneering Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Realized in a mix of etching, drypoint, charcoal, charcoal pencil, and pen and ink on paper, the drawings — recalling the work of Piranesi and showing otherworldly landscapes and architectures — serve as both tributes to the past and invocations of a more just future.
This fall, through February 2023, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis is staging Chase-Riboud’s first retrospective in more than 40 years. “Monumentale: The Bronzes” includes both new and old works, encompassing 25 sculptures, 20 works on paper and a selection of Chase-Riboud’s poetry. The most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date, the show demonstrates the astounding range of her career as an artist working across disciplines and continents; it is itself a monument, to the artist and to what she represents: the deserved unearthing and honoring of the historically invisible and disappeared. (A second retrospective exhibition, “Infinite Folds,” will open at the Serpentine Galleries in London on October 11.) Speaking over Zoom from her home in Paris, Chase-Riboud answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire last month. It was evening in France, and she sat ramrod straight as she spoke passionately about subjects ranging from her sculpture and her forthcoming memoir to her love of pasta.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what is your work schedule?
I need a lot of sleep — at least 10 hours — and I’m a night person. So don’t call me before 11 a.m. I’ve done my best work at 3 a.m. ever since I was in college.
How many hours of creative work do you do in a day?
I don’t do anything but creative work.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
My current studio, in Rome, is both the worst and the best. It’s in the middle of a hot, toxic foundry and I’m surrounded by shouting Italian workmen. I just smile and put on headphones. I love that there’s all this activity around me: People are working, pouring bronze. And as far as craftsmen are concerned, these are exemplary, the best. When I was working on “Africa Rising,” which is 18 feet tall, they fell in love with the project, but they called it “La Bestia,” the beast. I was “La Maestro,” but we were all doing it together. The foundry is on a block of 15th-century buildings that looks onto one of the most beautiful piazzas in the city. I’ve been there for 24 years.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?
I never really start a piece; I work in waves or series and the series may last for decades, coming back to me again and again. There is sometimes a huge gap in my practice while I’m doing something else. “Malcolm” was grown and nurtured subconsciously over five decades. I didn’t think about it all the time, but when you go back to work on things, ideas surge up. The technique for “Malcolm” evolved, too; it became more edgy and more violent than in the beginning. I kept my nose to the grindstone, as they say.
How do you know when you’re done?
The sculpture tells me, and since I cast my work in red wax that is easily manipulated, I can argue back and add little details like a crease or a fingerprint.
How many assistants do you have?
None. I have the foundry workers if I need assistance. They are a whole gang. Otherwise, I work alone.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I never play music — either it’s the music from the foundry or silence. I like silence. I don’t understand people who listen to music while they work. Either you listen to music, or you work in silence.
What do you listen to when you do listen to music?
Piano music. It reaches deeper inside me, although I also love classical opera. I have an affinity for jazz movement as a dancer, but I’m not an expert and I don’t listen to difficult jazz. I’d rather listen to Puccini.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
In 1956 at the American Academy in Rome.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
Pasta. It’s life changing, it’s addicting, it’s delicious. It’s the comfort food of all comfort foods.
Are you bingeing any shows right now?
I don’t usually binge American television. But I did watch Regé-Jean Page — who I hope will be the next James Bond — in Netflix’s “Bridgerton.” Somebody recommended it to me and it’s terrific and so funny. The cast, which is usually all white in these kinds of period shows, is mixed — as if regency England and the colonies had all mixed together. Black duchesses, Black princes, white ladies, all falling in love with whomever.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
A fake version of a life-size non-finito Michelangelo marble statue. At the time my husband and I bought it, in the 1990s, it was still possible to find real antiques in Rome. We had several real Roman busts and Etruscan statues. But we found this fake Michelangelo, and it really stood out among the other fakes, so we bought it and sat it in the bookcase — and because things get stolen in Rome a lot, the case had to be bolted to the floor.
How often do you talk to other artists?
Not much. I talk more to other writers. Most artists can’t even hold a conversation, come on!
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
The murder of Ahmaud Arbery. As soon as I heard the news, I wrote a poem about it, “Racing Through Georgia” (2020). It didn’t comfort me, it didn’t do anything besides exist as a statement.
What do you usually wear when you work?
A French workman’s navy blue jacket from the brand Chadoutaud.
Do you exercise?
No. I’m still living in a dancer’s body from fifty years ago. Besides, I stand leaning over a table managing heavy sheets of petroleum wax for 10 to 12 hours a day. That’s enough physical exercise.
What do you do to relax at the end of the day?
Nothing. I’m a very high-strung person, period.
What are you reading?
The first reviews of my memoir, “I Always Knew,” which will come out on Oct. 6, and they’re pretty damn good. If I became a writer by accident, this is the epitome of accidental writing. The book is made up of letters to my mom that I sent from Europe over a period of 50 years. I didn’t even know I was writing. I was just sending love, gossip, recording what I was feeling, doing and seeing. I didn’t save any of her cards, but if you read my letters, you can imagine what she said. It’s a very funny one-sided conversation.
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
My Renaissance portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici from the atelier of the 16th-century Italian Mannerist master Jacopo Pontormo, who is one of my favorite painters. It’s hanging in my living room. Alessandro de’ Medici was the first biracial leader in the modern Western world and the duke of Florence in the early 15th century. He was also said to be the illegitimate son of pope Clement VII, which helped. And on top of everything, he looks like my grandson. Oh, the layers, the layers are amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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