History-making alumna artist Barbara Chase-Riboud recalls her road to Yale

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I had this sense of justice,” said acclaimed artist, writer, and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud ’60 M.F.A. in a recent talk on campus. “I had this sense of what was right, and what was just, and what was proper: to expect other people to hear me, to expect other people to listen to me, to expect other people to acknowledge me.”

Throughout an artistic career that spans nearly eight decades, Chase-Riboud has both witnessed and made history. She is the youngest artist to ever be collected by the Museum of Modern Art, friends with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and James Baldwin, and author of award-winning novels and collections of poetry. In 1960, she became the first known woman of color to earn her M.F.A. at what was then the Yale School of Architecture and Design, now known as the Yale School of Art.

In this, her first return to New Haven on the occasion of the school’s 150th anniversary year, Chase-Riboud spoke with Yale School of Art Dean Marta Kuzma and Professor of Poetry Claudia Rankine, chronicling her life and practice. She shared her experiences at Yale and abroad and discussed the profound conviction needed to combat institutional power. The event, part of the 50WomenAtYale150 celebration, was co-hosted by Yale’s Department of African-American Studies and the School of Architecture.

Somehow along the way, there were all kinds of indications and all kinds of checkpoints that made this road to this particular institution and changed my life,” Chase-Riboud told the audience gathered Nov. 21.

the audience in Nov. 21
(Photo credit: Ronghui Chen ’21 M.F.A.)

One early indicator came when Chase-Riboud covertly became the youngest artist, and one of the first women artists, to have her work collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of her woodcuts had won an art contest hosted by Seventeen magazine, and part of the prize was an exhibition at ACA Gallery, on 57th Street in New York. “This was a really big deal,” she recalled. William Lieberman, the director of the MoMA’s new department of prints and drawings, walked into the gallery and bought Chase-Riboud’s print off the wall without knowing who the artist was. “He didn’t know who I was, he didn’t know how old I was, he didn’t know what color I was,” she said. “And so I entered into the most prestigious collection in the world when I was a baby!”

Chase-Riboud was later awarded a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome, which would eventually take her to Egypt — an experience that profoundly influenced her work, she said.

At the academy in Rome, she met an architect and designer who encouraged her to apply to Yale for graduate studies in architecture. Soon she was offered a fellowship and by 1958 had arrived in New Haven. One of only two women in the school at the time, Chase-Riboud remembers being referred to as “Ms. Chase” and her fellow student and artist Sheila Hicks as “Ms. Hicks”—“while everybody else was Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

She recalled that at that time there were three or four” women of color in total at the university. One was Joyce Mitchell Cook, a friend of Chase-Riboud’s, who in 1965 would become the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Kuzma, Chase-Riboud, and Rankine on stage
(Photo credit: Ronghui Chen ’21 M.F.A.)

Despite her artistic skill, Chase-Riboud almost didn’t graduate, she told the audience. For her thesis, she created “Fountain,” a sculptural installation commissioned for the Wheaton Plaza shopping center in Rockville, Maryland. However, she completed it without a faculty advisor — a requirement for all theses.

There I was sitting on the steps of the Sterling Library thinking, ‘I’m never going to get out of Yale,’” she said. “One of my classmates comes up and says ‘I hear you’re graduating … because all of the visiting critics and visiting faculty have declared that if Ms. Chase doesn’t graduate that nobody will graduate, because they will not give anybody a grade.’”

With the backing of the school’s visiting critics and faculty, Chase-Riboud was allowed to create another thesis — this one completed under faculty supervision. She had three weeks and finished it: a portfolio of etchings based on Arthur Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell.”

In the following decade, Chase-Riboud established a studio in Paris, became the art director of The New York Times’ Paris edition, and traveled to the People’s Republic of China with her first husband, French photographer Marc Eugène Riboud. She was the first American woman invited to visit China since its political revolution ended in 1949.

In 1979, with the encouragement of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she published her first novel, “Sally Hemings,” about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress. It became an international bestseller and would later be translated into 10 languages.

Chase-Riboud mingles with the audience after the talk.
Chase-Riboud mingles with the audience after the talk. (Photo credit: Ronghui Chen ’21 M.F.A.)

Chase-Riboud is perhaps best known in the visual arts for her ongoing series of “Malcolm X Steles.” Heavily influenced by the ancient Egyptian funerary practices she had studied, these abstracted monuments subvert material expectations by placing the densest materials on top, and the lighter materials, like rayon and cotton, below.

It was a way of expressing Malcolm as a concept without any narrative gesture,” Chase-Riboud explained.

When Rankine asked why this was an elegiac series, rather than a political gesture, Chase-Riboud responded, “It was not a question of politics. The politics came through [the fact that] I was a woman, and a black woman at that, which was much more political than what I was actually doing.”