Michael Rosenfeld Gallery recently published Malcolm X: Complete, a book that memorializes Barbara Chase-Riboud’s creation of a series of “steles” sculptures dedicated to the murdered civil rights leader over the course of 48 years. There is a great deal of subtext to several stories Malcolm X hints at throughout the volume — stories that a person not thoroughly familiar with Chase-Riboud’s history and practice will likely want to investigate after this publication has stimulated her appetite. The narratives are imparted through the transcript of a conversation that took place in Rome last year between the artist and the curator Carlos Basualdo, an essay “Dialogue: Another Country” by Françoise Nora-Cachin, an annotated timeline tracing key developments in the artist’s life from birth through to this year, and, per course, several color plates of the steles and the artist in a variety of contexts. The entire book is fascinating — particularly in what it reveals about Chase-Riboud’s approaches and overall methodology to constructing the series — but along the way, it also reveals bits and pieces of her life story.
For example, I had no idea that Chase-Riboud was (as she attests) the first American woman invited to visit China. She says that she was able to travel to Mongolia “by myself in first class on a Chinese train where they got off at each station in order to make lunch for me!” She mentions meeting many famous male artists while living in Paris in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Alberto Giacometti, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Clader and Salvador Dalí, and later, when living with her second husband in Rome, had Cy Twombly as a next-door neighbor. Undoubtedly, her account of living and working at that time as a very visible black American woman artist in European cultural capitals, working in both poetry and the plastic arts and finding audiences for her work would make an engrossing memoir.
But more than the play-by-play of her history, the conversation with Basualdo is wonderful for the insights it relates regarding how Chase-Riboud has worked with the steles. She tends to describe her interaction with them in passive terms, claiming in essence that the work flows through her, in ways that leave her unaware of what is happening. In trying to understand the large gaps of time between the first of the Malcolm X series (she made four in 1969 and then abandoned them until 2003) Basualdo asks her: “What happens every time you go back to the Malcolms?” She replies, “I don’t know what happens! Every time I go back they come out the way they come out.” Yet, at same time she makes quite definitive decisions that are intended to solve problems, such as the design of the textile components, which she refers to as “skirts.” All done by hand, Chase-Riboud claims that they came out of a problem with representing legs. Then again, she imbues the skirts with agency: “They do this [convey a sense of movement] not because of something I do but because of what they are in themselves.
This kind of balance struck between her hand as maker and the material’s own influence is alluded to in two epigraphs at the front of the book. In 2006, she described the meeting of opposites in the work as culminating in obliteration:
The silk material is motion, as well as softness and flexibility. It is never still. It is always changing … . The polished bronze is light, always reflecting the noble material and sublime materiality. The two things interacting as they do in the Malcolm X’s destroy the substance of the object or body.
But later, in 2014, she came to see the interaction in terms that are less stark:
Suddenly there was a combustion of interaction between the cast, polished or black bronze and the soft, implied motion of the skirt, which took on the characteristics of the bronze, solidifying into a column of graphic line and mass that seemed to support the metal, while the bronze melted into a soft mass of interacting light in motion. The materials had come to some kind of unplanned peace treaty on their own …
Her sculptural work rides this continuum of mutual incompatibility and forged alliances that, as a viewer, I’m convinced will never relent.
The large (13.25-inch by 9.5-inches) book is covered by a large, edge-to-edge printed image that’s a close-up of one of the steles, a black-and-white photograph that makes the dark bronze foreboding, and the braids of cloth interspersed among the folds and creases of metal seem like an ancient, alien totem made in the image of some implacable god. Chase-Riboud’s steles are among the most atavistic, visually surprising works I have ever seen, and this books brings them into useful conversation with a woman whose own life has been as remarkable as her work.