Looking at Sculpture Darkly: The Sculpture of Barbara Chase-Riboud

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Looking at Sculpture Darkly:The Sculpture of Barbara Chase-Riboud Wayne Andersen

Barbara Chase-Riboud: Sculptor. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999. Essays by 55 color ills., qs b/w. $39.95.

In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn an exasperated Jim says to Husk, "Now a cow is a cow, and talks like a cow, don't it?" "Yeah." "And French people are people, ain't they?" "Yeah." "Then why don't they talk like people?"

This poignant exchange came to mind when reading Hilton Kramer's 1970 New York Times review of Barbara Chase-Riboud's sculpture series celebrating Malcolm X. Under the title "Black Experience in Modern Art," Kramer faulted Chase-Riboud for "a very French refinement especially evident in the Monuments to Malcolm X," which he described as "sculptures of considerable elegance that unfortunately suggest the ambiance of high fashion rather than the theme of heroic sufferance and social conflict."1 The question in question is now this: "That Barbara Chase-Riboud is a Black, ain't she?" "Yeah." "Then why don't she sculpt like a Black?"

What Jim, sorry, Kramer meant was that the art of black artists calls for (as Kramer said of Romare Bearden's paintings at the Knoedler Gallery) "stronger form and robust expressions than is usually given." For "usually given" read "by white artists" whose paintings and sculpture fixed the standard for defining modernist art. In a subsequent issue of the Times, curator Henri Ghent made the point that Kramer's mind evidently harbored a notion that art by black artists must by nature be unsophisticated and crude in craftsmanship2like Congolese tribal masks: hacked out of wood, fetishistic, portentous, spooky. The New York painter Alvin Smith also responded to Kramer's review, censuring it for lumping two black artists together instead of treating them as individuals, and for espousing the antediluvian notion that artistic expression of the black experience calls for raw, aggressive, hostile forms.3

If Kramer's point of view erred judgmentally on stereotypical grounds as to what art by blacks is supposed to look like, he was as far off beam about Malcolm X, the black minister who advocated the brotherhood of blacks and whites and was assassinated in 1965 by some who disagreed. Malcolm X was eloquently militant, sophisticated, his speeches as sermons finely crafted; at the pulpit of his Harlem church he was not dressed in raffia-fringed sackcloth. As Ghent said in his letter of protest to the Times, "One strongly suspects that the real motive behind Kramer's severe criticism of Chase-Riboud's work stems from the fact that she chose to create tasteful and dignified sculptures in memory of Malcolm X." Ghent went on to say that Chase-Riboud's memory of the civil rights hero was as a beautiful human being who played a towering role in teaching American blacks to take greater pride in their race and in themselves as individuals. One sees this self respecting pride expressed in Chase-Riboud's sculptures as brass polished to either a golden hue or opulent black (as in "Black is beautiful"), combined with silk and wool cordage-not raffia, hemp rope, or jungle vines. As Peter Selz notes in this book, Chase-Riboud's sculpture has as much to do with the sculpture of Bernini as with African masks and Asante (Ashanti) combs.

Selz was the appropriate author to present Chase-Riboud's sculpture. From the time he became curator at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958--coming from Chicago where avant-garde artists (Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, H. C. Westermann) didn't fashion art to look like New York art-he has supported art not aligned with the direct line from Paris to Manhattan. In September 1959, Selz's thematic show at MoMA, The New Images of Man, raised the hackles of such guardians of the modernists' battlefield as William Rubin. Modern art at the time was being critically clarified and fitted to the prevailing museum mode, redefined. Formalist critics were fashioning their paragon from Jackson Pollock's lesson that art did not need subject matter: painting was on the canvas and a sculpture was an object in itself; neither media were referential signs signifying events from elsewhere. …