The faces are dark and disturbing, cold and chiseled. Mouths and eyes are tightly stitched shut, as if to keep the world out.
Nancy Grossman’s notorious “head” sculptures, made of wood covered in black leather, were jaw-dropping when they first appeared in the late 1960s. They were bold and extremely original in an era when figurative art was all but ignored.
Almost a half-century later, Grossman’s potent heads can give you goose bumps.
“She called them ‘her friends.’ They were her company in the studio,” said Tang Teaching Museum curator Ian Berry during a recent tour of “Tough Life Diary,” a 50-year Grossman retrospective that he came up with. “She calls them all ‘her self-portrait.’ ”
‘Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary’
WHERE: Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Through May 20
HOW MUCH: Suggested donation: $5, adults; $3, children; $2, seniors. Free for Skidmore students and children under 12.
Grossman has been cryptic about her heads, which is good for the viewer, as it leaves them completely and fabulously open to personal interpretation.
Nation-splitting protests against the Vietnam War, psychological conflicts and depression, Greek and Roman art, sadomasochism, military armor, machismo and misogyny. Even Freddy Kreuger or other human monsters, fictional and real, spring to mind.
In a film produced by Vickie Riley that you can watch on the Tang website, Grossman says she felt “muzzled” or “locked in” when she made them. “The life in my body had finally come to reside in my head.” She has also said that they represent “my male self.”
As for the process, that’s still a secret.
The “skins” of the heads came from old leather jackets that she dyed and cut into small pieces, then somehow stretched and stitched ever-so-smoothly onto the hand-carved noggins. Each head is different, embellished with zippers, tacks, belts, spikes or devil-like horns. And at the Tang, there are 18 of them, about a third of the heads believed to exist.
While the earliest faces are “blind,” all have nose openings.
“So they can breathe,” Grossman has said.
“It kind of lets out some of the tension of these works,” Berry observed.
By 1990, when Grossman made the last of the heads, the stitching is less detailed due to arthritis in her hands, and the eyes are opened, glassy and intense.
“I must have been feeling better,” she told Berry.
Deserving of spotlight
While the heads are a highlight, every inch of “Tough Life Diary” is an intriguing chronological study of her sculpture, collage, paintings and drawings.
“This is an unusual show for her; she doesn’t show in museums,” Berry said.
“She’s done well but is not famous.”
Berry interviewed Grossman in her studio, and the Tang is working on a book.
“There’s very little record of her work,” Berry said.
In the first section of the show, from 1965, we see “Brown and Black,” a large wall sculpture that effortlessly integrates found metal and leather objects.
While there are elements of Abstract Expressionism, the work was extremely original and made before pop art peaked in the late 1960s.
“Nancy is kind of bridging those two things,” said Berry. “I think this is some of the best work that you can pick from the ’60s.”
In the 1960s, Grossman was also fighting stereotypes of women and women as artists, but she didn’t give up and was able to survive as a full-time artist.
“She is fierce. She’s got a lot of energy,” said Berry.
Grossman’s uphill struggle began when she was a girl. She was born in 1940 in Brooklyn to Jewish and Italian parents who moved the family to Oneonta when she was 5 years old.
Her family managed a leather glove factory, and the work was hard. As a female, she cared for siblings and earned 65 cents a hour at a sewing machine.
“It wasn’t comfortable,” she says in the Tang video.
“I really thought differently.”
Grossman got her chance to leave Oneonta when she won a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York City. Three years after graduation, when she was 25, she won a Guggenheim for her painting.
At the Tang, we see a full-scale, leather-covered sculpture of a male torso that she made when she was about 30 years old. The form is heavy, intricate in its stitching and detail, and more Donatello than abstract in its raw male warrior imagery.
As with the heads, the craftsmanship is astounding.
“Leather is an incredibly hard thing to sew,” said Berry.
For the Tang show, the sculpture traveled to Saratoga Springs from the Israel Museum in the Middle East, where it has been since 1971.
“We’re the first museum to bring it back,” Berry said.
When Grossman was making the sculpture, the women’s movement was in full bloom, and she was living with Arlene Raven, a feminist art historian and author and a major figure in the Feminist Art Movement. (Raven, who was Grossman’s longtime partner, died in 2006).
The feminists who gathered in their Chinatown home were puzzled by her images of muscular male bodies, said Berry, “but she bravely makes what she wanted to make.”
Many of Grossman’s drawings from the 1970s depict male figures. “She did a tremendous amount of figure drawing,” Berry said.
But it was her very-personal “diary collages” made from mundane notes to herself — “wash car,” “call Elaine,” “taxes” — that caused Berry to meet Grossman and research her work.
One of those collages appeared at the Tang in “Twice Drawn,” a 2006 exhibit that featured contemporary artists from the last half century.
In February, Grossman traveled to the Tang from her Brooklyn home for one of the museum’s stimulating and well attended Dunkerley Dialogues, in which artists, professors, writers and other creative types engage in informal rap sessions.
Award-winning contemporary choreographer Elizabeth Streb, “the Evel Knievel of dance,” got things rolling with a comment on how she admired “the physicality” of Grossman’s work.
“I was bursting to get it out. . . . I was truly compelled. I had no choice,” Grossman told Streb.
A small but not fragile woman, the 71-year-old Grossman wore a black fez hat and metal-studded purple gloves. She smiled warmly and often and gave a shout-out to some of her Oneonta kin who were in the audience.
To the young art students, she graciously offered advice and encouragement. “It’s about accidents and surprises. Trust yourself,” she said.
Grossman didn’t talk about her struggles as a female artist in the 1960s and 1970s, although she has certainly earned that right.
As an artist, your power lies elsewhere, she insisted.
“It’s not between your legs, it’s between your ears.”