Arguably no adjective besides monumental so aptly describes a free exhibition now on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis’ Grand Center Arts District: “Barbara Chase-Riboud Monumentale: The Bronzes.”
The exhibition, which opened Sept 16, runs till Feb 5. It comprises roughly 40 major sculptures dating from 1958 (“Adam and Eve,” the artist’s earliest large-scale bronze) to 2021 (the towering black bronze figure of “Standing Black Woman of Venice”), as well as 20 drawings.
Born in Philadelphia in 1939, Chase-Riboud now operates out of Paris. In addition to exploring sculpture in innovative ways, she has collected laurels for both her poetry and her prose.
A press release from the museum characterizes Chase-Riboud as “global and transhistorical” and cites her influences as “ranging from Italian Baroque architecture to West African bronze making” – in addition, later, to tantric philosophy. The press release likewise emphasizes the artist’s mastery not only of scale but also of surface, noting that Chase-Riboud first worked in highly polished aluminum before transitioning to gold and black bronze.
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Stephanie Weissberg, the Pulitzer’s curator, organized “Barbara Chase-Riboud Monumentale: The Bronzes” and wrote the exhibition’s texts with Heather Alexis Smith, the museum’s curatorial associate.
The press release quotes Cara Starke, the museum’s executive director, as calling Chase-Riboud “one of the first female artists to produce work in bronze at the scale and complexity for which she is known, pushing the material to its very limits. This exhibition will illuminate the many ways in which she has advanced her singular formal and conceptual vision.”
The press release also quotes Weissberg as stating that Chase-Riboud “significantly broadened the definition of sculpture and asked important questions about who and what deserves to be remembered and monumentalized. She has put forth a remarkable body of sculpture, drawings, fictional writing and poetry that together redefine the very meaning of monumentality.”
Topically, too, Chase-Riboud has tended toward a widescreen perspective, with various works and even entire series involving ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, dancer/singer/actress (and St. Louis native) Josephine Baker, and American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X.
Often, the press release alludes to a degree of patience on Chase-Riboud’s part common to monuments from ages past. For example, regarding the previously mentioned “Standing Black Woman of Venice,” displayed in the museum’s entrance courtyard, the artist cast it from a mold made more than half a century ago.
Moreover, Chase-Riboud’s largest body of work – her current series, La Musica – has occupied the artist’s attention since 1990. Another, earlier component of the Pulitzer exhibition, her Cleopatra series – which culminated in seven major sculptures, four on view at the Pulitzer – occupied Chase-Riboud for nearly three decades.
In 1960, Chase Riboud graduated from Yale’s School of Architecture with a master’s degree – the first Black woman to do so. She has subsequently traveled for decades and hobnobbed with luminaries ranging from photographic giant Henri Cartier-Bresson through such visual art titans as Alexander Calder and Salvador Dalí to literary legends like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.
Moreover, among other institutions, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art – all three landmarks in the New York City borough of Manhattan – include works from Chase-Riboud in their permanent collections.
Accompanying the current exhibition will be two publications co-issued by the Pulitzer and Princeton University Press: “Barbara Chase-Riboud Monumentale: The Bronzes,” a fully illustrated catalogue coming in April, and “I Always Knew: A Memoir,” a just-released collection of letters from Chase-Riboud to her mother, “sharing narratives of lives entwined over nearly four decades,” according to the press release.
Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314-754-1850, pulitzerarts.org