Barbara Chase-Riboud, La Musica Josephine Red/Black, 2021, bronze, cord, 74 3⁄4 × 59 × 51 1⁄8".

Barbara Chase-Riboud, La Musica Josephine Red/Black, 2021, bronze, cord, 74 3⁄4 × 59 × 51 1⁄8".

Barbara Chase-Riboud

“I reject labels,” Barbara Chase-Riboud has said. “Creative artists don’t deserve them.” Heavy and light, solid and pliable, masculine and feminine, strong and delicate, light and dark, static and dynamic: The work of the eighty-three-year-old American artist and writer, who has lived in Paris since 1960, summons a host of competing, often conflicting associations. Walking through “Barbara Chase-Riboud: Infinite Folds,” the artist’s first institutional exhibition in the United Kingdom, I began to think a vital part of her project is to create art that unsettles categories and assumptions—formal, material, intellectual, existential—by orchestrating their cohabitation.

For the large-scale sculptures here that dated from the 1950s to 2021, the artist used lost-wax casting to create compact bronze geometries made of thin planes that have been folded, bunched, and overlaid. From these dense forms, long skeins and coiled strands of wool or silk hung heavy, like a skirt or a curtain or hair, tassels or tentacles or, simply, graphic lines in motion—like substances subject to gravity. The supple fibers hid the sculptures’ armature and made them seem to float above the ground rather than to rest on it, liberating the forms from what Chase-Riboud refers to as “the tyranny of the base.” Unfinished, black, gold, or (in one rare but extraordinary case) crimson in color, the metal alloy was sometimes dull, other times highly polished, shining. Its corresponding textile components were likewise varied: woolen and rough, or silken and shimmering. Neither entirely abstract nor figurative, the works bore names that evoke physical bodies—for instance, Bathers, ca. 1972, a large floor-based aluminum piece made of sixteen rippling rectangular slabs across which thick lengths of gray-green silk bundle, twist, and braid; or Time Womb (with cord), 1967, in which a wall-mounted triangle of serrated aluminum contains a roiling mass of the same gray-green silk—seductive, tactile innards that spill from the downward-facing point of the metal shape to rest in a heap on the ground.

Sculptor, draftsperson, poet, novelist, Chase-Riboud was the first Black woman to receive an MFA from Yale University School of Architecture and Design (now Yale School of Art). When the multidisciplinary maker speaks of rejecting labels, she also means those of identity. “It is the underlying status of the artist to be an outsider and to stand outside the realm of society, better to describe it and dissect it, even a society that rejects you anyway,” Chase-Riboud has said. The artist has made numerous series that pay homage to such outsiders across history and cultures. Her “Malcolm X” sculptures, 1969–2017, evoke funerary stelae, while Cleopatra’s Bed, 1997, and Cleopatra’s Wedding Dress, 2003, are dazzling, sumptuous works made from hundreds of individual bronze plaques threaded together with bronze wire, in the manner of Han dynasty armor. “The Monument Drawings,” 1996–97, likewise memorialize, with fantastical monuments in charcoal and ink on paper, those she feels have been culturally miscast or unacknowledged, from the Marquis de Sade to the Queen of Sheba, from seventeenth-century mathematician Cardinal Ricci to Nelson Mandela.

Chase-Riboud’s endeavor to preserve “the Invisibles,” those who have been contre l’histoire, fuels her passion and vehemence about the value of art, which “should help make life worth living and not only for the artist.” Her visual vocabulary is syncretic and singular, informed by experiences of travel, work, and life across Africa, West and Southeast Asia, and Western and Eastern Europe. It is as familiar as it is elusive, recalling the art of Germaine Richier or Louise Nevelson, Benin bronzes or Egyptian memorials to the dead. “Sculpture must not sit still,” proclaimed a manifesto that accompanied La Musica Josephine Red/Black, 2021, a sinuous sculpture of black bronze and red silk, named for Josephine Baker. “We pledge to splinter templates lest they ration lust to cinders,” it continued. Monuments are a form of hopeful and energetic striving, pointing toward the future as much as to the past.