- Barbara Chase Riboud's Sculpture
This essay was originally published in Barbara Chase-Riboud: Sculptor, edited by Peter Selz and Anthony F. Janson (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).
In 1954, when Barbara Chase was fifteen years old, The Museum of Modern Art acquired her woodcut Reba for its permanent collection. Since then, the artist has produced an amazing body of work in many different mediums and genres. The unique presence of her sculpture defies classification within the realm of modernist art. Although honored by many exhibitions and commissions in the United States and Europe, this highly individualistic artist was never part of the putative mainstream. At a time when cool distance in Minimal sculpture and bland adulation of popular culture or conceptual dematerialization seemed to occupy the attention of the art world, Chase-Riboud produced maximal sculpture that is passionately involved with the manual process of sculpting. The ultimate purpose of her art is the creation of objects with inherent mystery and sensuous beauty. It is informed by ancient culture, by the art of Africa—especially Egypt—and imperial China, as well as by modernist sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, and Germaine Richier.
Encouraged by her artistically inclined parents and growing up in a home with lots of books, Barbara Chase began taking art classes at the Fletcher Memorial Art School and the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was seven. Later, she enrolled at the Tyler School of Art and Design at Temple University, where she received strict academic training in painting (anatomy, perspective, glazing, etc.), the various graphic mediums, and the techniques of sculpture such as carving in wood and marble, modeling clay and plaster, and welding in metal, which was a concession to the contemporary age. Upon graduation in 1957, she won a Mademoiselle magazine contest and was recommended by Leo Leonni, the notable visual designer and art director, for a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome. There she worked, saw Rome, and met older artists like Ben Shahn and Cy Twombly, as well as personalities like Ralph Ellison, Gian-Carlo Menotti, and Jerome Robbins, and also Ezra Pound, who "looked exactly like an illustration of God in his white suit, white beard, white hair, white eyebrows, white shoes, white socks, white shirt, white tie, sitting on a white wicker throne—a broken, demented old [End Page 861] fascist genius."1 Exposure to these creative writers, artists, and composers brought the young artist in close personal touch with contemporary culture.
The great and indelible impression of the Baroque city, of the sensual architecture by Borromini and Bernini, and especially, the latter's fountains and marble sculptures, found their echo in Chase-Riboud's work only after subsequent sojourns in Rome. It became most evident in her late majestic bronze Africa Rising (1998) [Sculpture 1, 11, 12]. The antiquities of Rome and a trip to Greece certainly were of importance to the young artist, and even more so was an unplanned journey. "As a dare at a Christmas Eve party," she told Eleanor Munro, "I left on the spot with friends on a trip to Egypt." She was left stranded but somehow managed to take control of her situation, remained in Egypt for three months, and recalled:
I grew up that year. It was the first time I realized there was such a thing as non- European art. For someone exposed only to the Greco Roman tradition, it was a revelation. I suddenly saw how insular the Western world was vis-à-vis the nonwhite, non-Christian world. The blast of Egyptian culture was irresistible. The sheer magnificence of it. The elegance and perfection, the timeliness, the depth. After that, Greek and Roman art looked like pastry to me. Though I didn't know it at the time, my own transformation was part of the historical transformation of the blacks that began in the '60's.(qtd.in Munro 372)
It was during that year in Rome that the young artist began her lifelong method of direct-wax casting, a technique she first learned at a Roman bronze foundry. She produced a number of...