Human figures seem to lurk in almost all of Françoise Grossen‘s folded, knotted, and coiled rope sculptures. They are resolutely abstract, the elaborate assembly of their drooping and dangling materials inviting close inspection, but seen from a distance their proportions, silhouettes, and the weight with which many of them hang a little morbidly from the ceiling makes it very tempting to anthropomorphize them. Grossen clearly realizes this; works on view in the Swiss-born, New York-based artist’s current survey at Blum & Poe — unbelievably, her first ever in the US — call to mind seductive, extravagant, and grisly scenes.
The most arresting works in the show, five pieces from her Metamorphosis series (1987–90), feature coils, meshes, and wraps of colorfully dyed ropes coated in dark-gray and black paint. Grossen used plaster, plastic, and paper to give the works unexpected dimensions that evoke ribs, hides, skins, and spines, and the resulting atmosphere is somewhere between meatpacking plant and mass hanging. The ropes’ bold hues peek out from the dark paint as if to evoke exposed flesh while the suspended sculptures, some topped with knots of rope that look like heads and broken or cut necks, are ominously suggestive of carcasses. The effect isn’t gruesome so much as solemn, and getting right up against the sculptures to appreciate their concealed colors and fused materials feels a little like paying respects to some noble beast or slain hero.
The mood is much lighter in the rest of the exhibition, which includes pieces created between 1967 and 1991 — and left me incredibly curious to know what type of work Grossen is making nowadays. The largest piece in the show, “Five Rivers” (1974), commands its own room, where its symmetric and elaborately knotted coils of manila ropes dyed purple, orange, pink, green, and turquoise cascade down in fraying strands for an effect that is so dazzling it may fleetingly evoke the brightly sequined costumes and synchronized movements of a chorus line. In addition to the razzle-dazzle of its choreography of colorful ropes, “Five Rivers” helps situate Grossen amid the generation of post-minimalist artists who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early ’70s with textile works that rebelled against the rigid geometries, cold materials, and repetitive sequences of abstract minimalism — the likes of Sheila Hicks, Eva Hesse, and Claire Zeisler. In fact the exhibition’s earliest piece, “Swan” from 1967 — which was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s famous 1969 show Wall Hangings — now looks like a close relative of minimalism, calling to mind the climbing forms of Donald Judd’s Stack sculptures and zig-zagging lines of Fred Sandback’s architectural thread interventions, among others.
The exhibition’s more playful, sexy, and downright funny pieces are all in the room opposite “Five Rivers,” and include abstract sculptures so phallic and vaginal calling them abstract almost seems delusional. Most glaringly, “Sisyphe” (1974), seen from the right angle — the angle from which every visitor to the gallery will see it on its pedestal upon entering the room — resembles the intertwined legs of two lovers (or the suggestively spread and expectant legs of one). The adjacent hanging works “Aglaia (pink touch)” and “Thalia (all natural)” (both 1991) manage to be hermaphroditic in their suggestiveness, with their cascading loops and knots of thickly coiled linen and manila rope. Like the works from the Metamorphosis series, the proportions of the three hanging pieces in this room are distinctly human — they range from 80 to 85 inches in height. But in contrast to those much darker, slightly earlier works, the three works hanging alongside “Sisyphe” feel light and flirtatious, their net-like exteriors partially concealing inner structures and colors.
However, all the visual associations conjured when looking at Grossen’s works from a distance dissolve as you move closer and get tied up in the textures and materials of each piece, following ropes and threads, tracing lines of color as they disappear and reemerge from thick coils. Somehow, even though the newest pieces on view here are 24 years old, the work is gripping and as rich as if had been made last month. This may be Grossen’s first US survey, but I hope the second is not far behind.