A legend in her own right, Barbara Chase-Riboud, 84, has long found inspiration in other, larger-than-life personas, many of whom often become more myth than individual. Take her “Cleopatra” works, a series of monumental bronze sculptures originating over the 1970s and ’80s that imagine the Egyptian queen through fictionalized decadent gold objects from her home, including Cleopatra’s Cape, 1973, and Cleopatra’s Door, 1984. For her titular series in “The Three Josephines,” which just opened at Hauser & Wirth Wooster Street in New York, the Philadelphia-born, Paris-based artist mined the legacy of Josephine Baker. “She was the epitome of movement, of jazz,” the Légion d’honneur awardee said in a recent video, characterizing her muse as a “leap into space.”
The show inaugurates Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous new single-room storefront on Wooster Street, aligning the Zurich-founded gallery with the hallowed ranks of behemoths like Mary Boone and Castelli Gallery that laid the foundation for SoHo’s booming contemporary art scene in the 1980s. On view are a trio of “Josephine” sculptures Chase-Riboud made in 2021 and 2022 that tower more than six feet tall, each composed of what looks to be a cross between a crumpled, industrial beam, and a sinuous, twisting arm. The bronze appendage on all three culminates in something like a fist, holding a knotted bunch of silk cords with loose tendrils that brush the floor.
Also included are a series of a dozen works on paper, with the oldest dating to 1973, while the remainder on view span from 2020 to this year. These are marked by silk thread physically woven into the paper to create various patterns, rather like concrete poetry. Indeed, Chase-Rimbaud boasts a robust poetry practice, with her first volume of poetry in 1974 edited by Toni Morrison. (She later went on to win the Carl Sandburg prize for best American poet in 1988.) Likewise, the silk-and-paper pieces have a close relationship to poetry. “The different graphic formations pierced directly onto paper … [are] reminiscent of handwriting or hieroglyphics,” says Hauser & Wirth director Sylvia Bandi. “The artist approaches these works similarly to her automatic writings and poems, akin to a visual, surrealist train of thought.”
As Bandi points out, this is “also reflected in the titles of the works.” For instance, a work that appears to depict the hour-glass silhouette of a vase is enigmatically, yet as much romantically, dubbed My last word to you is folded lengthwise and knotted.
“Barbara Chase-Riboud: The Three Josephines” is on view at Hauser & Wirth at 134 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10012 through December 23, 2023.
Rachel Summer Small is Family Style’s Culture Editor and a writer and critic based in New York.