In Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary (Prestel, 2012), performer Elizabeth Streb relays an anecdote about artist Nancy Grossman startling her by wearing a monkey fur jacket. It’s one of those images that has an unsettling, visceral nature to it, like striding through life in a skin ripped from another person, the carnal texture of some sliced up simian. And it seems like the perfect scene for a snapshot impression of Grossman’s five decades creating art with an aggressively tactile and often unnerving nature.
Streb is one of many people who contributed to the retrospective catalogue that was released in tandem with the Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary exhibition held last year at the the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, including writing from Nayland Blake, David J. Getsy, Robert D. Morgan, Carrie Moyer, and the museum’s associate director and curator Ian Berry. There’s also an extensive archive of interviews, essays, and other writing, just about everything you’d ever want to know about the artist. As Berry states in his introduction, Grossman’s art is an “exploration of the nature of violence and power,” reminding us that when Grossman’s sculptures of heads muffled in leather first appeared in the 1960s, critic Holland Cotter wrote that they “blew conventional images of femininity to smithereens.”
Yet there’s more than just those heads here, although those remain the most captivating and complicated of Grossman’s art, and as Grossman herself stated, “my energy is in those things.” The retrospective travels back to her first solo show at Krasner Gallery in 1964, and her early work of gradually experimenting with more and more materials in collages, paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Some of her early influence didn’t come from her time at Pratt studying for an MFA — it stemmed instead from her work in the garment industry with her parents. Grossman’s greatest skill is in her creation of both chaos and control with materials, whether it’s something like her “Cygnet” sculpture from 1966 of crumpled steel, chrome, and pigment without a piece of leather in sight, or her 1971 “Untitled” sculpture of a man’s form with severed legs struggling against a meticulously made, mummifying suit of zipped leather.
It’s the physically evocative latter that stays with you. Yet after seeing the full breadth of her work, I’d say that Grossman, who is something of an underappreciated artist herself, has made some even more underappreciated collage work, partly necessitated by a hand injury that made making sculptures too painful. Yes, the drawings and paintings of the bound forms can seem more like studies for sculptures, but the collages where she mixes in pieces of her life with found ephemera can be just as personal and psychologically charged, perhaps transferring some of her restrained frustration from her hand.
Overall, the book is an engaging compendium of her long career, although I sort of wish the oddly cardboard-like cover was made of something more inducing to touch, like maybe rippled metal or even a Necronomicon-like face of leather. That kind of visceral containment would be ideal for the art within.
Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary is available from Prestel, Amazon, and other online booksellers.