ST. LOUIS — Sober and imposing, bronze has a way of making human achievement feel both unimpeachable and paralyzed in time. Before a bronze, we are apt to feel puny, breakable, shedding lashes and skin cells as our temples gray. To cast in bronze is to reconcile matter with mythos, to conjure the illusion of solidity within earthly experience.
But such is not always the case. Barbara Chase-Riboud: Monumentale: The Bronzes, on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation through February 5, foregrounds six decades of the American artist’s daring approach to our oldest alloy. Less monolithic than lithe and sinuous, Chase-Riboud’s large-scale sculptures balance lightness with depth, soft with hard. Wool, cotton, and silk fibers twist into metal, prompting the eye to reassess material differences within her undulating surfaces. The aggressive kineticism of Futurism, one of Chase-Riboud’s many influences, is tempered by a keen appreciation of the erotic and lyrical — the burnished arc of a woman’s hips, the warmth of a hand braiding cord into rope.
Near the museum’s entrance, Chase-Riboud’s early charcoal drawings are juxtaposed with sculptures from the 1960s, revealing an interest in curvilinear shapes that linger between representation and abstraction. The long limbs of a pregnant woman in one drawing mirror those in her bronze sculpture “Nostradamus” (1966), the body of which was cast with various animal bones collected from a taxidermist. “Time Womb Jacqueline” (1970) is one of her few aluminum works, shimmering like a giant broach at the visitor’s service desk.
Dominating the main gallery space are selections from three of Chase-Riboud’s most enduring sculpture series — Zanzibar, Malcolm X, and La Musica — each reflecting her growing mastery of lost-wax casting, a process by which thin sheets of bronze can be manipulated to create layered, visually fluid surfaces. It is here also that the artist’s sociopolitical and ideological concerns first subtly manifest. While not representational in any immediate sense, each work materially and structurally gestures to the clout and complexity of the historic figures for whom they are named.
Against the white geometry of the minimalist space, three ebony-hued Malcolm X totems tower over viewers, at least 10 feet tall apiece; two golden members of the series gleam at the center of the gallery. In each sculpture, rippling bronze floats above curtains of looped silk, among other fibers. If we approach these monuments figuratively, the heaviest section is the torso and head, honoring the Civil Rights revolutionary’s intellectual might. “Mao’s Organ” (2007), from the La Musica series, mingles the imposing shape of the Chinese leader’s bust with the boxy lines of the classical instrument; crimson silk cords explode from the gold-patinated bronze, at once visceral and stately.
“Malcolm X #16” (2016), the sole bronze in the series with a red patina — one of three red bronzes across the artist’s career — is tucked inside the Cube Gallery toward the back of the main floor. Like several of its comrades, its steel support is hidden behind hanging silk tresses, making the burgundy metallic relief above appear as supple as leather — less rigid than resilient. Across the room, “Nursery #3” (2007) seems to magically suspend a slender rope mid-air toward the ceiling, its black center cast in bronze, its base composed of tendrils in black woolen rope.
Downstairs, three selections from Chase-Riboud’s delicate White Drawings series (2020–21), composed of silk on Arches paper, hang in stark contrast to the tour-de-force in the Lower East Gallery: her Cleopatra series in homage to the Egyptian queen. Glowing within the dimly lit space, each of the sculptures is meticulously constructed out of thousands of small bronze plaques hand-stitched together with wire to create a refulgent quilt of gold. Informed by the automatic writing techniques of authors like Gertrude Stein, the four drawings on handmade paper that form “Cleopatra’s Marriage Contract” (2000) imaginatively render the terms of the union in lines of horizontal and vertical script, alternating between phonetic and pictographic letters.
The final gallery, containing additional works from the La Musica series, exalts the feminine form and brilliance of 20th-century Black female icons, such as performer Josephine Baker (like Chase-Riboud, an expatriate to France) and opera singer Marian Anderson. All human-scale and larger, the majority of these bronzes resemble stringless harps, a bundle of silk dangling from their crowns or wrapped carefully around the instrument’s shoulders. “Something in it of silver and fabulous,” Chase-Riboud wrote in “On Hearing Marian Anderson,” one of several poems upon which her sculptures were inspired. “Silken scarves flung out throughout Bach’s equations/Caught in the draft of genius.” In tension with the abstraction that characterizes most of her visual work, Chase-Riboud’s verse relies on imagery both literally and figuratively aligned with her subjects. The octogenarian artist could no doubt be described as “caught in the draft of genius” herself — agilely shifting between creative modes across her monumental career.
Barbara Chase-Riboud: Monumentale: The Bronzes continues at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri) through February 5. The exhibition was curated by Stephanie Weissberg.
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