Walking into the latest exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation is like coming face-to-face with genius.
In this case, it’s the genius of Barbara Chase-Riboud. Her acclaimed sculptures spanning six decades of work are majestic on their own accord — and even more so in this monographic display that brings bronze pieces and drawings together in groupings that have not been shown before.
When visitors realize that Chase-Riboud, 83, is also an accomplished poet and bestselling author of multiple literary novels, the totality of her creative contributions becomes awe-inspiring.
Richard Powell, an art historian at Duke University who is teaching a seminar on Chase-Riboud’s work, traveled to St. Louis for the exhibition’s opening last weekend. He stepped in for Chase-Riboud to give a talk at the museum; she had traveled here for the opening but did not feel well enough to attend the packed public event.
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When Powell met with her privately before the event, he told the audience, he asked the question mystifying to many familiar with the span of her career: “How did you do all of this?”
“I work very hard,” was her response.
The exhibition, “Monumentale: The Bronzes,” brings together 40 major sculptures and 20 drawings that highlight Chase-Riboud’s compelling visual language.
She creates grand, abstract bronze sculptures that look almost airy, floating on silk and wool textiles. The permanence and strength of the metal appears fluid with movement, shaped by folds and ripples. The work is informed by historic and modern cultures and influenced by her travels around the world.
Chase-Riboud was born in Philadelphia and studied sculpture and drawing at Temple University. In 1960, she became the first African American woman to earn an MFA from the Yale University School of Architecture and Design. She moved to Paris, where she still lives.
She became the youngest artist and one of the first women to be collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1979, Chase-Riboud published her first novel, “Sally Hemings,” a richly researched work of historical fiction about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, a controversial subject at the time. It became an international bestseller.
Not to be missed in the Pulitzer exhibition are four works from her “Cleopatra” series, grouped together in the lower east gallery. The sculptures include representations of the Egyptian queen’s cape, door and chair. The massive sculptures are made of individual small plaques of iridescent bronze, hand-woven together. The story of Cleopatra’s grandeur is captured by the brilliance and scale of these monuments representing her intimate belongings.
All of the pieces in the exhibition are described in a detailed guide with corresponding titles and context. “Monumentale” begins with the towering “Standing Black Woman of Venice” (2021) in the entrance courtyard, while the artist’s earliest large-scale bronze, “Adam and Eve” (1958), greets visitors in the entrance gallery. The main gallery holds six monumental pieces from her extensive “Malcolm X” series. The show also includes sculptures from two of her other most notable and longest-running series: “Zanzibar” and “La Musica.”
Powell told the crowd that he was seeing some of her works in person for the first time at this exhibition. Seeing the textures, scale and relationship of the pieces to one another is an entirely different experience from seeing photographs or reproductions.
“St. Louis, you are lucky to have this show,” he told the audience at the museum talk. “Lucky, lucky St. Louis for having access to one of the most important artists of our time.”
What Barbara Chase-Riboud: “Monumentale: The Bronzes” • When Through Feb. 5; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday (closed Monday-Wednesday) • Where Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Boulevard • How much Free • More info 314-754-1850; pulitzerarts.org
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