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 Nancy Grossman  (1940 - )

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: collage, genre, figure, sculptor-carved heads

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Nancy Grossman
An example of work by Nancy Grossman
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Nancy Grossman is known for her disturbing sculptures and drawings of leather-bound heads and figures. Born in New York City, she was the eldest in a family of five children. When she was six, her Italian mother and Jewish father, along with two aunts, bought a farm in Oneonta, New York, and the three families, including sixteen children, resettled there.

Unhappy, and always in "hot water", in her rural high school, Grossman decided she wanted to be an artist. She began studies at the Pratt Institute in 1958. When her family fell on hard times and had to move to Arizona, she defied her fathers command to return home, instead getting a scholarship and a job so that she could remain at Pratt. Grossman has said she remembers feeling terrible about standing up for herself against her fathers will. Her childhood memories appear to be rather stormy. A rebellious and non-conforming child, she recalls that she was punished a lot, and she claims to have internalized the hostility of adults into anger against herself.

Her earliest drawings, exhibited in 1964 at the Oscar Krasner Gallery in New York, seemed to be explorations of the failure of communication between men and women, and already revealed a disturbing, visceral quality. In 1966-1967, after receiving a John Simon Guggenheim grant, she began to show collages of found objects. The tubes and lacings of these collages have a ruptured, violated quality, like torn-open viscera. Untitled (1967) resembles a group of organic tubes ripped open.

Upon the conclusion of her Guggenheim grant, she decided to focus on creating book illustrations in order to save enough money to take another year off and devote herself to her art. At the end of this period, when she finally returned to her studio, Grossman found herself unable to carry on with her collages. Instead, she picked up the repeatograph pen she had been using for the book illustrations and began to draw whatever came to her.

The first thing she did "was the drawing of a head, belted up, closed up, and I felt as if I had done something dirty and secret." Although she had not done figurative work for many years, she now felt a compulsion to make more of these drawings and also sculptures of similar subjects. Since she had been working with leather in some of her collages, it seemed natural that the coverings in these new works should be leather. Grossman showed these pieces to no one hiding them like a guilty secret for a year and a half. She was appalled at the images that were beginning to emerge, but her integrity as an artist compelled her to go on with these honest statements.

Sometimes, as in Horn (1974), her heads will have a large phallic looking horn sprouting out from above their blindly bound eyes. Sometimes, there is a closed zipper over the mouth, and sometimes-gritted teeth show through, as in Kazakh (1971), and Figure Sculpture (1971). On some of the heads for example, the Unfinished Andro Series (1969-1971) there are laces over the mouth shutting it tightly, and the head is completely bound in leather, with only the nose poking through. In Portrait of AE, a 1973 drawing of a nude figure with a bound head, there is a pistol with a telephoto sight tied close to its eye.

These strange figures are both terrifying and pitiable. While they sometimes suggest sadomasochistic aggressiveness, at the same time the figures appear to be prisoners: bound in leather, tied and blindfolded by straps, from which they are writhing vainly to escape, as in Male Figure Study (1969) and Figure Sculpture (1971). The leather coverings seem to be kind of a second skin, which is needed to protect the vulnerable psyche of her subjects.

Grossmans amazing technique and powerful draftsmanship immediately brought her to the attention of the art world when these works were shown at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery, New York, in 1969, 1971, and 1973. She received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1974.

Grossman denies that her figures are explicitly male in their symbolism. When asked, she has said: "Whenever I wanted to say something specific, personal to the effect that I am a woman I would use a womans image if the work were figurative. It seemed natural. But if I wanted to say something in general, I would use a man. Its as if a man were our society."

It seems that her figures are general depictions of the human condition rather than statements about men versus women. Grossmans leather- bound and blinded figures move spectators deeply and irrationally. They arouse complex fears of aggression and of being bound in the same way ourselves. At the same time, we fear having the same impulses that we read into the figures.

(Information for the biography above is based on writings from the book, "American Women Artists" by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.)

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (Artworks Wanted):
Born in New York City to parents who worked in the garment industry, Nancy Grossman grew up on a working farm in Oneonta, New York. These early experiences shaped her artistic vision and influenced her choice of materials, which frequently include fabric and leather. After high school, Grossman matriculated at the Pratt Institute, where she studied with Richard Linder, and in 1962, she received her BFA and an Ida C. Haskell Award for Foreign Travel. This grant was just the first of numerous such honors; in 1965, just three years after finishing college, Grossman received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Grossman became famous in the 1960s for her sculptures of heads that she carefully carved from the hard wood of discarded telephone poles, overlaid with leather, and then adorned with zippers, glass eyes, enamel noses, spikes, and straps. While their size, shape, and facial features suggest masculinity, Grossman refers to them as self-portraits, implying the instability of gender identity and, just as importantly, demonstrating how all artwork offers something of the artist. The heads threaten to overshadow the rest of Grossman's art, largely due to sensationalistic interpretations that tend to see the sculptures exclusively in a sadomasochistic frame. However, these works exquisitely contain central aspects of Grossman's art: an embrace of gender ambiguity, an interest in formal contradiction and conflict, an audacious use of leather, and a rich sensuality. Grossman's sculptures appeal as much to the olfactory and tactile senses as to the visual; they taunt the viewer with their invitation to touch.

Despite Grossman's notoriety and visibility in the 1960s—she had had five solo exhibitions by age thirty in 1970—most audiences failed to grasp the scope of her work until a retrospective organized by the Hillwood Art Museum revealed her mastery of diverse media and genres. Since she began making art in the 1950s, Grossman has steadily explored collage, sculpture, and assemblage. Much of her work concerns the physicality of the body, but works on paper like Tough Life Diary (1973) consist of collaged words and fragments, scraps taken from her journals and placed into compositions that blend the chaotic elements of chance with the labor-intensive, organizing hand of the artist. In 1999, Grossman was forced to leave her studio on Chinatown's Eldridge Street that she had occupied for thirty-five years, and she relocated to her current home of Brooklyn. Her work also struck out in new directions with a group of sculptural assemblages that seem to echo the archaeology and violence involved in the upheaval of her move.

Throughout her impressive career, Grossman has received a steady flow of accolades, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1984), a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (1991), a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant (1996-97), and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2001). She is represented in numerous museum collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Born in New York City in 1940, Nancy Grossman spent her earliest years in an upstate New York farmhouse in Oneonta, surrounded by an extended family of eight adults and sixteen children. (1)  Her parents had roots in the garment business; at the age of sixteen, Grossman worked as a "dart and gusset girl" in their dress factory. Soon after, she escaped the farm and returned to New York to study art. Her acquired skills in patterning, sewing, and piecing became the medium for her message.

Consequently, from the start, she was exposed to many complex human interactions. As the artist has discussed many times elsewhere, many of these interactions were hurtful.  She was chastised often for her nonconformity.  At eighteen, Grossman decided to become an artist and entered Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  A scholarship enabled her to remain there, and later she received a grant to study in Europe.  While in Venice, she chanced upon a museum that boasted a collection of Samurai armor. The imaginative body coverings on exhibit intrigued Grossman.  From these, perhaps, came the inspiration for her leather-covered head series of sculptures begun in the late sixties in the Viet Nam era. These heads were first images drawn on paper. She was appalled at the images that were beginning to emerge and hid them for over a year.

One might say that integrity has been the cornerstone in Grossman's career, as she has moved from painting to collage, between assemblage and relief sculpture, and finally, by 1968, to the heads. (2)

Her first important exhibition was at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in 1969, and consisted mainly of the rancorous-looking carved heads wrapped in black leather. They are fully carved to exacting detail and then meticulously covered in the stitched and metal-studded leather covering.  They are frequently adorned with horns, chains, zippers, spikes or other objects that have loaded psychological and sexual meanings in our society. To see one of her life-size heads, bound in black leather, zippered-up, with protruding features and gnarled teeth, all exquisitely carved and crafted…is to feel an inner sense of being that goes far beyond the mundane world of external events.

Grossman is engaged in the pursuit of her own inner-directed motif, her own concept of the human condition that pulls us back to the sobriety of another emotional reality. (3)

Grossman taught sculpture at the Boston Fine Arts School in 1985, and drawing at Cooper Union, New York City in 1989.  She has received many honors including the Guggenheim Foundations fellowship (1965) and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award (1985), and a National Endowment for the Arts sculpture award (1991).

A serious metacarpal impairment was diagnosed in 1995 that caused a crippling effect and prevented her from working for almost a year.  A car accident in 1998 caused even further setbacks in her ability to work.  These physical limitations have made it nearly impossible for her to carve the wooden forms that form the basis for the heads, and have caused her to work more with collage and assemblage. This recent direction is more in a Neo-Dada spirit and is where she began her career in the early 1960s. (4)

Sources include:

1. Thomas Styron, comments on Nancy Grossman, Loud Whispers, June 2001.

2. Robert Morgan, "Nancy Grossman: Opus Volcanus," Sculpture Magazine July/ August 1998 Vol.17 No. 6.  Morgan stated in this article that although the gallery was diffident about handling the work at the beginning -perhaps because it was transported to the owner in two large shopping bags - he eventually agreed to show it.

3. Ibid.

4. Morgan.

Staff, Columbus Museum

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