Barbara Chase-Riboud’s new memoir, I Always Knew, begins in 1957—the year she traveled to Rome for an Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy. Her recollections come from letters she wrote to her mother, which the artist read decades after sending them. The book publishes three hundred letters sent over nearly thirty-five years—and the first fifty pages revolve around her time in Italy during her fellowship.
Chase-Riboud had won a John Hay Whitney fellowship for a year at AAR. She arrived in Rome in mid-October. “The Academy itself is unbelievable,” she wrote, going on to describe the iron gate, the marble steps, the windows of the façade, the poplar trees in the Cortile with “a romantic-looking fountain in the middle,” referring to the Academy’s famed Paul Manship fountain. After spending the previous few weeks in gray-skied Paris, “In Rome everything is golden.”
She recalls meeting Fellows such as the sculptors Jack Zajac (1958) and John Rhoden (1954), the writer Ralph Ellison (1957), the landscape architect Robert T. Buchanan (1959), and the architect Erik A. Svenson (1958), whom she dated. Of her cohorts she wrote, “These people are no hacks. Most of us are serious professionals who are good and who have already made a mark in the art world.” She also befriended the Italian collage artist Mimmo Rotella, from whom she borrowed jazz records, and met the graphic designer Jane Davis Doggett, who encouraged her to apply for an MFA at Yale University (which she completed).
Chase-Riboud showed new etchings at an Academy exhibition in November, sent out new wax sculptures to a foundry, and created illustrations published in Rotosei. She was photographed by Ettore Naldoni for Ebony—she gives a small smile standing in front of the Ponte Sant’Angelo on the April 1958 cover. Quizzically, she spent time looking for a studio in Florence and an apartment in Rome (the latter of which she acquired in December).
“This is really one 2-month period in my life I’ll never forget. It seems I’ve crammed 5 years of living into it and although time seems to be going quickly, I’m amazed that it’s only December and not April.” She traveled to Egypt in January before moving through Istanbul, Athens, and Delphi, returning to Rome in mid-March. She didn’t have a camera and took it all in al fresco.
By spring 1958 she was creating work for the Spoleto festival, which the Italian press covered widely. She also joined the gallery L’Obelisco, consigning ten drawings and a cast sculpture. In May she told her mother she had produced “seven small bronzes, 2 completed direct plasters, one huge about 4 feet, 4 more on the way, and two more waxes. Plus tons of drawings….” To earn extra lira, she signed a contract with MGM in June to appear in Ben-Hur as a costumed extra and was cast in other Cinecittà Studios productions.
Chase-Riboud’s time in Rome shaped her personally and artistically. 1958 was the pivotal year when she created her individual style of casting bronzes, a riff on the traditional lost-wax method, a technique that would serve her well as her fame as an artist grew and grew. At 83, she is still making new work. The Serpentine Gallery in London recently held an exhibition, Barbara Chase-Riboud: Infinite Folds, that included both recent and early work by Chase-Riboud.