Monuments of the Mind

The poetry of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s large-scale sculptures

  • Dec 23, 2023
  • A film by Rava Films

    All artwork © Barbara Chase-Riboud

Over the course of seven decades, the artist, poet and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud has established artistic and literary practices recognized equally for their inventiveness and technical achievement. On the occasion of her exhibition “The Three Josephines” at Hauser & Wirth Wooster Street in New York, Ursula sat down with the artist to talk about her monumental sculptures and the historic figures who inspire her work.

About her parallel creative practices, Chase-Riboud says, “I think I really was supposed to be a poet … I was a poet who got caught up in the manufacture of objects.” Originally from Philadelphia, she traveled to Europe in 1957 after winning a John Hay Whitney Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Early in her studies, she was introduced to a local foundry and developed a variation on the lost-wax method of casting bronze using stacked of sheets of pliable wax. Her experimentation with bending and folding the sheets to create casts of rippled metal would later become a signature feature of her sculptural works.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, 2023. Photo: Emir Eralp. Courtesy the artist

In 1969, she began her first series of monumental sculptures, Malcolm X, in honor of the assassinated civil rights activist and minister. Flowing metal and cascades of fabric lend a poetic sensibility to these abstracted, large-scale memorials, which are among many works she has made in recognition of historical figures, both celebrated and lesser known. Her Monument Drawings from the late 1990s include imagined memorials to marginalized literary voices of the past who “have been eliminated from history for one reason or another … I’m making these monuments because they deserve them.”

Her eighteen-foot-tall bronze Africa Rising (1998) was commissioned for the Ted Weiss Federal Building in New York following the discovery of an 18th-century African American burial ground under the building site. Chase-Riboud dedicated the work to Sarah Baartman (1789–1815), the South African woman who was exploited and presented as a racist freak-show attraction, known as “The Hottentot Venus,” in 19th century Europe; Chase-Riboud also memorialized Baartman in a poem. “I was trained with a literary mind,” she says. “The gesture of writing is like the gesture of drawing. You’re doing these drawings, but in your head, you are building a monument.”

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Africa Rising, 1998 (detail). Courtesy the artist

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Malcolm X #18, 2016. Courtesy the artist

“I sculpt what I can’t write, and I write what I can’t sculpt.”

Her latest monuments, currently on view in “The Three Josephines,” consist of three large-scale sculptures that pay collective tribute to the American-born, French singer, dancer and activist Josephine Baker (1906–1975). “Josephine was the epitome of movement, of jazz; the reason I wanted to do Josephine was because it’s a leap into space… a depiction of movement,” says Chase-Riboud, adding: “I sculpt what I can’t write, and I write what I can’t sculpt.”

Barbara Chase-RIboud, Josephine Red/Red, 2022/23. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Over the course of a seven-decade career, Barbara Chase-Riboud has created a revolutionary body of work known for its inventiveness, technical prowess and fearless engagement with transcultural histories. Born in Philadelphia in 1939, Chase-Riboud lives and works in Paris and Rome. Parallel to her art practice, she is a critically acclaimed poet and writer of historical fiction.