Barbara Chase-Riboud has the impossible wrapped around her finger. Chase-Riboud danced with James Baldwin, sold bestselling books with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Toni Morrison, and received commissions from Pierre Cardin. Yet when she reads her 2022 memoir, I Always Knew, the artist feels distance from the cover girl conjured up in the letters to her mother. Perhaps it is this cognitive dissonance from her accomplishments that enables the Philadelphia-born and Paris-based artist to continually rack them up. Beyond the new memoir, some of the octogenarian’s recent exploits include being awarded France’s Legion of Honor and hosting two overlapping career retrospectives, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis and London’s Serpentine Galleries.
“Some people are suspicious of how much I’ve done,” Chase-Riboud says with a smile. “But I wasn’t one of these people keeping a diary, constructing moments. I was trying to find out what was going to happen tomorrow. I thought all of this self-introspection was really useless because, in the end, people have to move, take chances, run, forget… People have to have courage. This bravery is what I inherited from my mother. The thing about adventure is you only see it in retrospect. I didn't think I was living glamorously. I was following my star.”
Now at its peak, the Chase-Riboud comet is gracing New York's Museum of Modern Art with “The Encounter: Barbara Chase-Riboud/Alberto Giacometti,” a landmark eclipse of titans that puts a Manhattan-size ghost to rest. The specter in question is David Rockefeller’s unfulfilled 1958 commission of Giacometti to make a sculpture for the plaza of his skyscraping New York headquarters, the Chase Manhattan Bank.
As Giacometti strove to imagine what could live amongst the metal and glass steles of a fledgling Wall Street, he found himself creating a man—an existential figure for this new world. He generated thousands of iterations for the project, some of which went on to mature into his best known bodies of work, including Femmes de Venise, a series of plaster cast figures that debuted at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Traveling to the U.S. for the first time, this collection of invaluable works crossed the ocean at Chase-Riboud and MoMA Director Glenn Lowry’s behest to realize the late artist’s dream of inserting man back into Manhattan. “For us, this is Giacometti's project,” says Chase-Riboud. “This is taking the plasters, which are so beautiful, and putting them in the landscape of New York, especially now, when the city itself is existentialist.”
Monumentality is ultimately both the material reality and theme of “The Encounter.” It is a hits-only checklist with fewer than 30 entries. All of the works could hold the space on their own, even with the competition of picturesque Midtown visible through the floor-to-ceiling panes of the gallery. Chase-Riboud’s contributions span her entire wax casting career. These range from recent proposals for public works and signature rope-skirted bronze steles to early figurative pieces like The Couple from 1963 (a year after Chase-Riboud met Giacometti as a friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson). At the time, she didn’t feel like she had much to say to her hero, Giacometti, as she was just “la petite Américaine.” But with the past behind them and New York as their present, one can see how much there was to be shared between these two legends. In her memoir, Chase-Riboud writes of her first meeting with Giacometti in almost shamanistic terms. She paints a picture of a curly-haired man mummified in plaster, billowing with curlicues of cigarette smoke, an already restless apparition. Hear Chase-Riboud repeating her own adage: “I write what I can't sculpt, and I sculpt what I can't write.”
“The Encounter: Barbara Chase-Riboud/Alberto Giacometti” is on view through October 9, 2023 at MoMA in New York.