Louisa Chase: Fantasy Worlds

March 12 - June 12, 2022

From her early sculptures through her later and better-known work in paint, Louisa Chase (1951–2016) strove to create her own fantasy worlds in visual form. After training in printmaking while earning her B.A. at Syracuse University, Chase mainly practiced sculpture during her M.F.A. at the Yale School of Art. In spring 1975, an exhibition at Artists Space, a then-emergent alternative gallery in New York City, launched Chase’s career as she was graduating from Yale and as the Vietnam War was ending. Shortly thereafter, Chase began to make paintings that were highly popular at the time. Her post-Minimalist, geometrically abstract compositions aligned with a common public interest in reexamining individual freedom within a democratic social and political framework. Chase continually explored the balance between order and disorder, rationality and irrationality, individual expression and universal systems.

This exhibition showcases Chase’s work in multiple media, including sculpture, drawing, painting, and print, from across her 40-year-long career. It includes objects that have never been exhibited before, namely two early works in private collections and several preliminary drawings that were recently found in the artist’s studio in East Hampton, where she moved in the 1990s and worked until her premature death in 2016. The works of art on display trace the development of motifs that recur across Chase’s oeuvre, including abstracted representational forms, such as human figures, natural elements, and manmade objects, rendered in geometric shapes. According to Chase, these motifs symbolized her own changeable internal feelings and their relationship to the external world.

While the floor pieces from the show at Artists Space appear to have been lost or destroyed, the sculpture in this exhibition, dated to around 1975, exemplifies Chase’s early interest in games and toys and the world of play (Figure 1). This piece and the early drawings and prints on display are composed of mathematical shapes, namely spirals, rectangles, and spheres. The dynamic arrangements of these elements convey movement and introduce a sense of disorder. Color also plays a key role in disrupting any suggestion of orderliness by introducing patterns and then breaking them. In an untitled lithograph, for example, many of the balls depicted are split in half with a line, but some appear solid, speckled, or otherwise patterned (Figure 2). In addition, the coloration of those that are divided by a line varies—red and yellow, red and black, red and red, black and white, red and white. In playing with shapes and patterns, Chase introduces unpredictability and instability to predictable and stable systems, thereby suggesting that individual expression can interrupt more fixed external structures.

The geometric shapes in Chase’s early compositions evoke natural forms, including snails, sticks, and stones, that resurface in her figural compositions of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Throughout this period, Chase developed a system of symbols in which human and natural forms captured and communicated emotional experiences and states. As Chase stated in 1979, “Painting for me is a constant search to hold a feeling tangible.” Incising images of sticks and stones in the thick, textured surfaces of her oil paintings, Chase carried these early motifs into her later practice. She also, however, devised a set of figural motifs, such as the hug and hands, as well as natural motifs, such as the cavern. Several works in this exhibition show Chase’s development of the form of the cavern in various media and on multiple supports. The reiterative nature of these works, including a finished painting of 1983 in which the cavern appears in three variations within a single composition, disrupts the naturalism of the scenes depicted and alludes to their symbolic dimension (Figure 3). The unnatural colors contribute to the abstractedness of the images.

In the late 1980s, Chase turned more fully to the integration of the real and the abstract, the natural and the geometric, or “scribbling” and “playing with blocks,” as she herself put it in a journal entry from 1990. Integrating chaos and structure through the incorporation of gestural scribbles and mathematical shapes, Chase further pursued symbolic visual means of integrating the irrational and rational dimensions of personal sight, sensation, and human experience. At first, Chase portrayed boats in abstracted forms composed of rectangular blocks of solid primary colors juxtaposed against a background of seemingly spontaneous black drips and dribbles. Soon, however, she began depicting independent rectangular forms that do not appear to resemble boats or other recognizable objects. The order of the purely geometric colored shapes contrasts even more strongly with the frenetic scribbles that appear beneath them. As the geometrically abstracted figure in a painting from 1990 titled Headstand suggests, however, all of Chase’s images still drew from real-life forms (Figure 4).

In the early 2000s, Chase further explored scribbling and its connections with writing and language. Her late paintings, such as Buddha (2011), challenge viewers to distinguish and decipher both the combination of illegible and legible marks and the representational geometric forms that compose the images (Figure 5). In this way, Chase continued to integrate impulsive gestures and analytical diagrams. The Buddha figure, specifically, evokes meditation and, by extension, the simultaneous freedom and control of one’s internal state, as well as its mediation with the external world. Again, color, namely the bright yellow and orange, abstract the figure and its surroundings, suggesting an alternate world for self-reflection and self-discovery.

Despite the evolution and diversity of media, styles, and motifs over the course of her career, Chase maintained an apparent desire to explore the relationship between the internal and the external. Her symbolic imagery evoked fantasy worlds—worlds that presented an alternative to the reality of lived experience. On the one hand, Chase’s works of art offer spaces to which viewers can retreat and escape from the real world. On the other hand, however, they reveal and grapple with the difficulties of human experience, particularly the continual negotiations that we as individuals must undertake as we navigate the ever-changing political and social environments in which we live.

— Elissa Watters, Curator

BMAC extends special thanks to the many friends and acquaintances of Louisa Chase who generously shared their memories and knowledge of Chase, her work, and her career. In particular, this exhibition would not have been possible without the assistance of Virva Hinnemo and George Negroponte. We would also like to thank the lenders, including Ted Holland at Hirschl & Adler Modern, Joe Santore, Steve Bethel, and Louisa Chase’s brother Ben Chase for their invaluable support.


May 14, Saturday, 5 p.m. — Celebration of Spring Exhibits
May 19, Thursday, 7 p.m. — Curator Talk: Fantasy Worlds


Virtual tour
Installation shots
Art Loves Company blog post: Constant Flexibility, drive, and risk-taking
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