Like Victor Frankenstein manipulating his monster from the scavenged remains of tossed-away corpses, artist Nancy Grossman started her career by building “machine-animal hybrids” from a tumult of salvaged metal, wood, and leather. Recently out of school with her Pratt Institute BFA, from 1964 to 1967 Grossman plunged from her previous experiments in collage and paintings into these vast assemblages of controlled chaos.
Nancy Grossman: The Edge of Always, Constructions from the 1960s, which opened last month at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea, brings together nearly 40 of these works and a number of her drawings. Many have been rarely seen, except perhaps in photographs, but in-person the dynamic between the canvas and the material, where one always seems ready to rip away from the other, is startling with its dextrous aggression.
Even though it’s been half a century since their creation, the assemblages remain commanding. Grossman has created plenty of evocative art since, with her widely known leather-wrapped heads in their bondage of zippers and chains, and the mixed media Combustion Scapes inspired by the Kilauea Volcano.The five-decade survey in 2012 at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum presented an artistic history prowling from one work of beauty and violence to the next. However, here is the artist in her 20s, instilling an unnerving confidence in towering works that tightrope between grotesqueness and grace.
The label texts reveal frustratingly little about the cascades of materials where disassembled shoes and biker jackets, bits of wood, metal car parts, pieces of bicycles, and unidentifiable scraps emerge, offering just the words “mixed media.” The titles are similarly vague, ranging from “Black Landscape” and “East of the Sun” which wouldn’t be out-of-place on some geometric abstraction, to “Scarab” and “Mummy” that suggest animal forms. Her 1965 “For David Smith” warps harnesses and saddles as a tribute to the sculptor who gave the materials to Grossman just before his death in a car wreck, and it’s easy to think of something in his sudden passing in the maelstrom of the piece.
Yet to look at each component of the greater puzzle makes as much sense as deciphering a painting down to its individual brushstrokes, the whole of the works showing a deftness with color in the muted palette of brown and black, a broiling energy barely limited by the frame. There is some repetitiveness, where you can see Grossman trying out ideas over and over again, that weakens the overall experience slightly. However, it’s altogether a compelling exhibition, and fascinating in showing the roots of an artist at the beginning of what would be a powerful career.
Nancy Grossman: The Edge of Always, Constructions from the 1960s continues at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (100 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 3.