Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 10, 2009 by permission of The Jewish Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact The Jewish Museum directly through this phone number or Web address:
by Roberta K. Tarbell
CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE IN EUROPE 1904 - 21
Chaim Gross was born in 1904 in the village of Wolowa in the densely wooded Carpathian Mountains of Austrian Galicia. His early childhood was happy, filled with the richness of a family dedicated to centuries of orthodox Jewish culture and to intellectual pursuits. The extraordinary beauty and tranquility of the surrounding forests, mountains, and rivulets made an indelible impression upon Gross. Moreover, since his father was a forester, wood -- central to Gross's sculptural oeuvre -- was the focus of his childhood. According to Gross's brother Naftoli, "during the day the echo of the chopping and crashing of trees in the woods" was always heard. And during the evenings, the family, the Hebrew tutor, neighbors, and friends sat around the log fire and whittled functional and fanciful objects.
In Slobodka Lesnia, where the Gross family moved in 1907, Gross's parents hired a young man to tutor Chaim and his brother Avrom-Leib in the Holy Scriptures. In the evenings their mother read Old Testament stories, and their father taught them from the Talmud. When the family moved to Kolomyja in 1912, Chaim, then eight years old, attended cheyder to study Hebrew literature, as well as regular school, but he preferred to stay at his Uncle Aaron's farm surrounded by its birds and forests.
In 1914 Russian troops occupied Kolomyja and brutally attacked Chaim Gross's parents in full view of the young boy. Gross and his brother fled to Kalush and then wandered through Stryj, Silesia, Vienna, and Budapest during the years of World War I. In spite of a precarious way of life and repeated incarcerations and escapes, it was during these years that the artist developed the habit of sketching constantly.
Many authors, and, indeed, the artist himself, dwell on these misfortunes of Chaim Gross's adolescence. There were terrifying experiences, but the artist also found inspiration in Austria for many of his most important expressions in art -- the circus, Chassidic joy, Jewish traditions and holidays, and his love of wood. The artist wrote: "Summer days meant happy times in the surrounding forests or watching the magic circus that came to town once a year. The colorful circus decorations and performances of the acrobats made so deep an impression that it later greatly influenced my work."
By the end of the war Chaim Gross was determined to be an artist. He spent six months in 1919 and 1920 in Budapest, working in a goldsmith's shop during the day and, in the evenings, drawing from a model at an academy of art established under the short-lived regime of the radical Bela Kun. His teacher at the academy was Utz Bela, who, Gross recalls, was a post-impressionist painter, who later escaped from Budapest and went to Russia. Utz Bela took the class to the Budapest Museum, where Gross remembers seeing paintings by Marc Chagall, EI Greco, and Pieter Breughel.
Chaim and Avrom-Leib Gross returned to Kolomyja in 1920. War re-erupted between Poland and Russia, and Chaim was imprisoned, escaped, and fled to Vienna. He spent a year there studying life-drawing at the Kunstgewerbe Schule, waiting for a passport and for money and steamship tickets from his brother Naftoli Gross, who had gone to New York in 1914. On April 2, 1921, Chaim and Avrom-Leib sailed from Le Havre, France, on the steamship La Bourdonnais, arriving at Ellis Island, New York, on April 14, 1921.
EARLY CAREER: LOWER EAST SIDE, NEW YORK 1921 - 33
Chaim Gross aptly fits Emma Lazarus's description of one of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," one of the "homeless, tempest-tost." Although his early childhood had been idyllic and poetic, his adolescent years were fraught with danger, for he was constantly seeking refuge from life-threatening situations.
Naftoli Gross introduced his brother to his artist-friend "Zagat," who recommended that Gross study at the Educational Alliance, important since 1897 on the Lower East Side in New York as a settlement house as well as an art school (1891 - 1905, and 1917 to date). Gross started to attend classes at the Educational Alliance Art School on East Broadway, where that first year in class he met Elias Newman, Phillip Evergood, Peter Blume, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Saul Baizerman, Concetta Scaravaglione, Isaac and Moses Soyer, and others who remained life-long friends. Moses Soyer took Gross to his home in the Bronx, where the cultivated, gifted, and intellectual family welcomed the war-torn youth." Because of the warm atmosphere that permeated the home, Gross frequently visited the Soyers, who had emigrated from Russia nine years earlier. It provided a nurturing spirit that had been absent in Gross's life since his own family unit had disintegrated in 1914. In his memoir, Self-Revealment, Raphael Soyer wrote, "Young Chaim Gross, a picturesque, penniless foreigner from Galicia's Carpathian hills, came and was welcomed."
For five years after Gross arrived in New York he worked as a delivery man for a grocery store and attended art schools in the late afternoon and evening. His most important mentor was Elie Nadelman with whom he studied for two months at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. A student at that school for four and one-half years, Gross drew and modeled in clay from a posed live model, in the tradition of academies of art since the seventeenth century. Although some of Nadelman's sculptures were carved, Nadelman was not a direct carver and did not carve his finished works himself. Gross did not learn to carve from Nadelman, nor did he carve while at the Beaux-Arts Institute. Gross remembers being impressed with Nadelman's one-man show at the Knoedler Gallery, which took place in January and February 1927. From Nadelman, he learned about abstraction of form, the beauty of the simple curved contour line, a love of folk art, and a belief in the human figure as the most important subject -- all of which are part of Gross's own carved sculptures.
When Gross came to New York, the battle for the acceptance of modern art was almost won. The modernist vocabulary was now acceptable to art students, whereas ten years earlier it had been necessary for artists to discover and embrace the avant-garde on their own. From May 3 to September 15, 1921, the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged the largest exhibition of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art ever held in America. It was symbolic of the increasing acceptance of modern art and occurred at the time Gross began to study art seriously. Gross went to see this exhibition, which opened a month after his arrival in New York, and remembers the Picassos and the Renoirs.
During the summer of 1924 Chaim Gross and Moses Soyer spent time in several of the most dynamic artists' colonies: Provincetown, Massachusetts; Ogunquit, Maine; and Woodstock, New York. Gross studied direct carving with Robert Laurent for two months in 1926, his last venture in the role of a student. This technique of cutting a sculpture in the material of the finished object became Gross's métier; and not only did he begin to work on his own as a direct carver, but he also began to teach the technique to others at the Educational Alliance.
Gross's two earliest direct carvings, Girl with Animals (no. 1) and Mother and Child (no. 2), were cut in wood in Robert Laurent's class at the Art Student's League, probably the first class in direct carving in America. The statuettes are roughly hewn, almost primitive, and their surfaces are patterned with gouges from a small curved chisel. The forms are solid and compact, unpierced by voids. John Flannagan's, Robert Laurent's, and William Zorach's first carvings had also been rough-hewn primitivist works.
Gross was not the first to rediscover direct carving in America; Laurent and Zorach had pioneered the revival of interest in this technique in 1913 and 1917 respectively. Nevertheless, Gross was an important advocate of taille directe, and through his teaching as well as his art was a major force behind its acceptance as the predominant technique in American sculpture during the 1930s and 1940s. Gross expressed it simply: "I am credited with having been instrumental in the awakening of modern sculptors to the potentialities of this half-forgotten medium." Flannagan, Zorach, and de Creeft were mainly stone carvers; Ernst Barlach was one of the few major twentieth-century sculptors who carved wood as consistently as did Gross.
Except for his study with Nadelman and Laurent, Gross's training in art was primarily academic. However, when he began carving, academic modeling was quickly forgotten, and he imparted a naive, primitivist quality to his early carvings because he felt it had more sculptural possibilities. He was inspired by the grain, the color, and the texture of the very hardest woods -- ebony, lignum vitae, mahogany, cocobolo, ipilwood, palo blanco, and walnut. One reason that Gross has carved so extensively in lignum vitae and other hard woods is that he is convinced of their eternal qualities. "At the Museum of Primitive Art on 53rd Street I saw a sculpture of lignum vitae which looked like new," Gross related to me. He wrote in his book on wood sculpture that "out of fifty varieties I have come to prefer lignum vitae which grows in the West Indies and Central America, the hardest wood known, velvet black in tone.... Lignum vitae is my first choice because its extreme density gives me the greatest carving satisfaction I have ever experienced."
Gross's association with the Lower East Side found sporadic expression in his art in the form of a few genre figures in sculpture and a few watercolors; however, he did not exploit the portrayal of the Lower East Side's poverty and pushcarts, and there were no political overtones to his genre figures. Gross's East Side Girl (no. 4) is a sophisticate from the Upper East Side's predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant milieu. The couple portrayed in Jazz (no. 6*) and the ladies with hats in Madame and Child (no. 24) and Easter Sunday, depict an era in New York rather than anything specific to the Lower East Side. In selecting East and West Side figures for subjects, Gross does imply a certain "social consciousness," which might have been engendered by his association with the Soyers.
Between 1931 and 1933 Gross carved several abstract portraits in wood that remain the only non-objective sculptures of his career. In April 1931 Gross exhibited one of these at the Society of Independent Artists, Portrait of a Famous Man, which the newspapers dubbed Eddie Cantor.
Lindbergh and Hauptmann Trial (no. 9) and Hoover and Roosevelt in a Fist Fight (no. 10), two columnar portraits related to contemporary events, which were also exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists, are even less literal transcriptions of nature than the Portrait of a Famous Man, with its bulbous eyes and generally recognizable head form. Gross said that the segments of the Lindbergh half of the two-part sculpture represented "The Eagle" (Lindbergh's plane), Lindbergh, Mrs. Lindbergh, and the baby on top. In the Hauptmann portion there is a ladder, a head, the $50,000 ransom money, the baby upside down, and the tears of the family on top. These abstract portraits are a departure for Gross. His real subject, throughout his career, has been the human figure.
About one-quarter of Gross's carvings are acrobats or dancers. Acrobats are among his earliest sculptures, and his name is rightly linked with this motif which he executed with such skill and genius. He created not only full-length portraits of single figures, such as Lillian Leitzel (no. 23), but also two- (nos. 17 - 21, 26, 29, 47, and 48), three- (nos. 34 and 40), four- (no. 33), and five-figure (no. 43) groups stacked in either columnar, totem-like fashion or breaking out into space.
A friend, coming into Gross's studio during the 1930s, asked, "Why do you do so many acrobats? People will say you have limited vision and ability." Gross answered that the combination of two or more figures offered infinite possibilities for design. "If it is beautiful, why shouldn't I continue?"
Gross's performers are characteristically full-hipped and narrow-waisted with curving contours. Motion is implied, for example, by a unicycle wheel or the arc of a juggler's equipment. Like many other direct carvers in America, especially during the 1930s, he simplified, exaggerated, and distorted human proportions for the sake of design. His figures are consciously constructed from formal elements but still retain a sense of human personality and organic movement.
Many early twentieth-century artists depicted dancers and circus figures in their art -- Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Walt Kuhn, Marc Chagall, and Alexander Calder, among others. Interest in the circus was part of the disillusionment with reality that followed World War I. Gross's humor in art is neither satire nor caricature but rather a depiction in three dimensions of people who amuse others. His ideal, then, is a shared enjoyment.
Gross was one of the sculptors that Edith Halpert invited to show at her new gallery, the Downtown Gallery on Thirteenth Street, although she never gave him a one-man show. She placed on view a few lignum vitae statuettes, and in 1927 Hyman Cohen bought Crouching Figure -- the artist's first sale.
From February 25 to March 11, 1928, Gross was one of five artists who had a group exhibition at the Educational Alliance Art School. It is amazing that just two years after he began to carve, the young artist had twelve carvings to exhibit. Three of them were borrowed from private collections, showing an early interest by collectors in his work. The exhibition included two-, three-, and four-figured acrobats -- early examples of the genre which Gross exploited more than any other carver. He also exhibited watercolors of Provincetown and circus scenes (no. 95), supporting his statement that "I have always drawn circuses."
During the 1920s Gross exhibited in the large unjuried exhibitions in New York -- the Salons of America and the Society of Independent Artists. Alexander (Sandy) Calder came to one of the Independents' exhibitions and, as Gross was standing next to a lignum vitae sculpture, asked him where he found his unusual woods. Gross recommended J. H. Monteath Co., where he has purchased his tropical woods for decades, and Calder took his advice. In the spring of 1926 Calder carved his first wood sculpture, Flat Cat, in relief from an oak rail fence and continued to carve directly in cocobolo, lignum vitae, and other unusual woods for the next four years. Gross also started to carve in 1926, and both artists carved flat cats that year (there is no way of telling which came first); both were also inspired by the circus. Still, there do not appear to be any cross influences in style of carving between the two artists, and after 1930 their materials and methods diverged even more radically.
Gross's first one-man show was held in March 1932 at Manfred Schwartz's Greenwich Village Gallery "144," across the street from the Downtown Gallery. At the request of Renee Nechin, whom Gross married in December 1932, William Zorach wrote the introduction for the exhibition catalogue. Gross had met Zorach the year before at the latter's Ninth-Street studio, when Gross had gone there to meet his friend Ahron Ben-Shmuel, who was helping to polish Zorach's monumental Mother and Child (Spanish rosa marble, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Gross, Ben-Shmuel, and Zorach shared a commitment to the technique of direct carving and the aesthetic philosophy concomitant with it. Zorach wrote of Gross: "He has an inherent and natural feeling for carving directly in his material, which releases the possibilities of individual expression as no amount of modeling can. His direction of art purpose, his sense of sculptural form and his imaginative grasp of life, place him in the first group of younger sculptors."
MIDDLE PERIOD: NEW YORK AND PROVINCETOWN 1933 - 57
From 1932 to 1952 Renee and Chaim Gross's home (and studio) at 63 E. 9th Street was a warm, hospitable meeting place for a wide cross-section of artists. Gross taught every night and worked a full day in his studio, continuing his slow, methodical carving, even on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons when he opened up his studio to colleagues and collectors. The Soyers, Ahron Ben-Shmuel, Raoul Hague, Concetta Scaravaglione, Francis Cris, Federico Castellon, William Zorach, John Flannagan, Reuben Nakian, Maurice Sterne, Arshile Gorky, Ossip Zadkine, and Ibram Lassaw were frequent visitors. Willem de Kooning had a studio across the street, and Marc Chagall came to Gross's studio many times during World War II. Jacques Lipchitz, a neighbor at 42 Washington Square South, visited several times, and Gross gave him tools and a sculpture stand on which to work during the first week Lipchitz was in New York (1941). During these years Gross was also a good friend of Gaston Lachaise and Max Weber. Gross seldom went to other studios, except for those of Jack Friedlander and Moses and Raphael Soyer, his closest friends since 1921. The Soyers' studio on Fourteenth Street was in turn a meeting place for Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Joseph Stella, David Burliuk, and Arshile Gorky. Gross was not part of any unified circle, and he reached beyond both the group of artists centered around the Educational Alliance and those involved with the technique of direct carving.
After 1943, Gross began to spend the summers in Provincetown, where he became better acquainted with many of the Abstract Expressionists. He listened to the discussions of Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Hans Hoffman in New York and Provincetown, but did not accept their aesthetic innovations for himself. Gross continued to carve the human figure in wood and stone, concentrating on his particular expressive interpretation of acrobats and ballerinas.
RECOGNITION AND GOVERNMENT PROJECTS
The hunger and poverty of Gross's adolescence and early career were alleviated during the 1930s by a series of fellowships, commissions, prizes, and government projects. In 1933 Gross was one of twelve artists who won the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship and spent the summer and early fall at the Tiffany estate at Oyster Bay, Long Island. Along with other wood sculptures Gross carved a lignum vitae Pumpkin and a mahogany lamp base in the shape of one of the many exotic plants that were grown at the Tiffany estate. He also painted eighty watercolors en plein air. That same year Gross began to earn a weekly salary of $42.50 from the Public Works of Art Project, for which he carved Basketball Players and High Jump (nos. 13 and 14) for the Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and Helen Tamiris for the James Monroe High School in the Bronx. In 1937 Gross carved two standing figures in ebony for the Works Progress Administration, College Girl and Fencing Boy, which were allocated to Queens College, Flushing, New York. William Zorach, Maurice Sterne, and Paul Manship were the sculptor-jurors for the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department, which in 1935 awarded Gross the commission for The Alaskan Mail Carrier, which won the sculpture prize of $3000 in the 1937 national competition. Gross worked on the model for the sculpture during his summers at the Playhouse in the Hills in Cummington, Massachusetts, and the enlarged version (54" high) was cast in aluminum and installed in the "new Post Office" in Washington, D.C. Gross worked on two additional commissions for the Section of Fine Arts; in 1937 and 1938 he carved a seven-by-twelve-foot limestone relief, Riveters, for the facade of the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C., and a four-by-five-foot mahogany relief, Puddlers, for the Irwin, Pennsylvania, Post Office, installed in 1942.
Gross was also commissioned to do sculptures for the 1939 World's Fair -- Harvest, a monumental plaster group for the courtyard of the France Overseas Building and Linesman, also in plaster, for the Finland Building. In 1940, a six-foot-Iong log of imbuya wood was delivered to the grounds of the Fair, where he went several times each week to carve it in front of hundreds of people and to explain to the viewers what he was doing. Ballerina, the sculpture that emerged from that carving demonstration, is now in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
In addition to these myriad government projects which sustained Gross through the thirties, he began to be recognized in other ways. He received the Silver Medal (second prize) at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1937. In 1941 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Girl on Wheel (no. 25), and, when Gross's Lillian Leitzel (no. 23) was shown at the important "Artists for Victory" exhibition at that museum in 1942, he was awarded the $3000 purchase prize. During the 1940s the Associated American Artists Gallery staged four one-man shows of Gross's pictorial and sculptural works, attesting to the vitality and productivity of the artist.
Gross's first stone sculpture, Two Circus Girls (collection of Raphael Soyer), was carved in 1929 from a piece of sandstone that the carver had found in Union Square in New York. While John Flannagan and William Zorach delighted in carving hard granite boulders that they found while walking along the seashore or in a field, Gross preferred softer stones (marble, sandstone, limestone), sometimes from demolished buildings. Gross did not carve a second block of stone until he executed The Riveters in 1937. By that time he had carved over 100 sculptures in wood, about half of them from lignum vitae. During the 1940s Gross appears to have discovered the beauty of carved stone and to have cut several heads from Belgian black marble, as well as figures and heads from serpentine stone, lithium stone, Mexican onyx, and semi-translucent white alabaster.
Surprisingly, the wood blocks Gross selected were heavier, denser, and more resistant to the chisel than than the kinds of stone he used. He carves very little at the present time, but, when he does, at his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he chooses stone and not wood.
RECENT SCULPTURE 1957 - 77
During the 1920s Chaim Gross began to model in clay as a student in classes taught by Elie Nadelman and others at the Beaux-Arts Institute. In 1929 he modeled portraits of Nahum Yud and his brother Naftoli, both Jewish writers, as well as several small bronze sculptures of acrobats during the 1930s (nos. 19 and 21). Two of Gross's WPA projects, Hurdlers and Runners, were modeled in plaster on an armature. By the early 1950s Gross had arranged to have several bronzes cast from his wood carvings. His early bronze sculptures are like carvings -- solid with a toothed surface as if they had been chiseled. In 1956 he modeled portraits of the art collector Joseph Hirshhorn and his family, and in 1957 began free conceptions in bronze (Baby Balancing, no. 51). When one looks at a sculpture like Flying Trapeze (no. 52), it is obvious that Gross's transition from carver to modeler was amazingly rapid and complete. He began to conceive in terms of volumes of space flowing through a sculpture. Contour lines are still as important as they had been in his carvings, but now they are a counterpoint to the lines that shape the interior spaces which were absent in the carved works. Gross continued to carve wood and stone throughout the 1960s, but the principle works of the last twenty years have been modeled in plaster on armatures for bronze casts. Most sculptors model in clay and have casts made by the lost-wax method. Gross models in plaster, which is difficult because the material dries so quickly, and has bronzes cast in French sand from the original plaster model.
Gross went to Rome in 1957 and worked on six sculptures in his new medium. He returned to Rome for several months in 1959, working in a studio on the Via Margutta, down the street from where Willem de Kooning was working, and again in 1964 to make plaster models for new sculptures.
Gross now began to design in bronze the multi-figured compositions for which he had been so well known in the medium of wood. But, no longer contained by the limitations of the log, he did not stack his performers in totem-like fashion but flung them into space. While continuing to depict performers, he also frequently made sculptures of mothers playing with their children, e.g., Happy Mother (no. 53). The planes of Gross's bronze sculptures are not softly rounded like his carvings but are flat with sharp edges. The sculptures of the 1970s are increasingly abstract, while still retaining recognizable human figures
There are many parallels between Gross's bronze sculptures and Jacques Lipchitz's mature works. They were friends and colleagues and admired each other. They shared a deeply-felt Jewish heritage, and both were horrified by the Holocaust, feelings which found expression in their art. Both created menorahs with an awareness of the organic origin of their form in the tree of life. Both were avid collectors of African tribal art. Both created fantastic or distorted human figures and exploited openness and volume in their bronze sculptures.
Gross was never a cubist sculptor as was Lipchitz, and themes from classical mythology never interested Gross in the way they did the older artist. Some of the drawings of each sculptor are similar in style with bold, dark, curved contour lines and planes washed on with ink or watercolor.
HOMAGES TO CHAGALL AND CALDER
During Gross's sojourn to Europe in 1959, most of which was spent in Rome, he visited Israel, Sicily, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Paris. He became enthusiastic about the pioneering efforts of the Paris school earlier in the century and decided to create a series of sculptures in homage to such heroes of modern art as Picasso, Braque, Renoir, and Degas. He began with Marc Chagall, whom he knew personally. One day when Chagall was in Gross's studio in New York, he asked him if he could model his portrait. He replied that Gross had enough imagination to do it without his having to sit in person. During 1961 and 1962 Gross modeled in plaster and had cast in bronze four versions of his Homage to Chagall (nos. 63 - 66). On Homage to Chagall, #3 (no. 65), Gross made a self-portrait on one side and a portrait of Chagall on the other. He became so absorbed with the Chagall theme that he never went on to others of the Paris school.
There are affinities between Chagall and Gross in their art and their backgrounds. They have in common a Chasidic Jewish heritage, with Chagall's origins in Russia and Gross's in Austria. Chagall and Gross both use circus themes and fantastic dreamlike images of old world Jews in their art.
Late in 1976, when Gross began to conceive a fifth sculpture in his series in homage to Chagall, the death of his friend and colleague Sandy Calder deeply moved him, and he decided to create instead a sculpture in homage to Calder (no. 89). Gross included a stabile-like form, an abstract image of Calder's invention. Instead of appearing out of place in Gross's oeuvre, such abstract imagery seems to follow naturally a style that has become increasingly abstract.
RELATIONSHIP TO JUDAISM
Hebrew iconography was absent in Chaim Gross's art before 1947, the year he carved My Sister Sarah -- in Memoriam (no. 36) in cocobolo wood. From 1950 to 1957 he carved seven variations of the theme of "Lot's Wife" in wood (e.g., no. 41). Naomi and Ruth (no. 49) was carved in stone in 1956 and during the 1960s Gross designed and cast monumental menorahs for such synagogues as Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and for the Menorah Home for the Aged in Brooklyn (1964). He created six nine-and-one-half-foot-high bronze relief panels of the Ten Commandments for the International Synagogue at Kennedy Airport (1970 - 71). During the 1970s Old Testament subjects and Judaica predominate in his art. In the last year alone, Gross has created sculptures of Jacob's Dream (no. 85), Abraham (no. 86), In Memory of Six Million (no. 87), Isaiah (no. 88), and Jonah and the Whale (no. 90). Gross does not consider these sculptures "Jewish Art" because he feels there is no Jewish Art. In response to a question on the subject he said, "Don't call it Jewish Art, because it is subject matter not style."
Gross's interest in Old Testament themes and prophets is a belated development in his career, emerging within the last twenty-five years. During the 1930s, Gross's brother, Naftoli, the well-known Yiddish scholar and poet, asked the artist, "Why is it that you are from a good Jewish family and do not make sculptures of Biblical subjects?" Gross had no answer then but told me last year that World War II and his trips to Israel created in him the feeling, the impulse to make menorahs and Biblical subjects.
Gross came from a Chasidic family which faithfully observed the Jewish holidays and traditions. Orthodox Jews have traditionally prohibited drawing images, but Gross was allowed to draw as a child. He explained to me, "Already in my time there was an enlightenment, and Orthodox Jews today allow drawing." When Gross's family group disintegrated in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, he ceased to observe Jewish customs and holidays.
Gross's brother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece were exterminated by the Nazis; his parents died of natural causes during the 1930s. The horrors of the Holocaust in general, as well as Gross's deeply-felt personal losses, motivated a change in his art. His renewed emotional involvement with Judaism was also reinforced by his first visit to Israel, where he saw Chasidic Jews who recalled to his mind his family and friends from early childhood in Austria. Gross's first visit to Israel was in 1949 and he revisited it in 1951,1957,1959,1968, and 1975.
WATERCOLORS AND DRAWINGS
Chaim Gross is a prolific draftsman. Since 1917, at the age of thirteen, he has sketched almost daily, filling hundreds of sketchbooks and thousands of separate sheets. For thirty-five years, Gross has spent four months each year in Provincetown working primarily on pictorial works, while executing perhaps only a single small carving. During the winter months in New York City, Gross draws upon this storehouse of drawn images to develop his sculptures. He explained to me that pictorial and sculptural work depends upon different kinds of mind/hand co-ordination and mental concentration. Although a few early watercolors are on rice paper, most of the drawings from the first two decades are on paper with a high acid content and thus have yellowed with time. Such paper is all that the artist could then afford, but, for the last four decades, Gross has drawn on the finest heavy hot-pressed rag papers such as Strathmore, Grisbrook, Rives d'Arches, and C. M. Fabriano. He usually draws with a graphite pencil, sometimes with crayon, and frequently adds flesh-toned, sepia, or burnt-sienna washes of color. He also uses black and colored inks laid on either broadly with a brush or finely with a pen. Gross has experimented with water media, mixing ink or crayon with watercolor which repel each other, creating an unusual pattern and texture. To some pencil and ink sculptural studies he adds a full spectrum of watercolor, and, therefore, there is no clear demarcation between his drawings and his paintings.
There is also no clear division between Gross's drawings from life and those for sculpture. He does not make finished drawings for his sculpture, but many drawings in this exhibition are similar in composition and silhouette to sculptures also on view. Acrobat (no. 107), Lillian Leitzel (no. 108), Adolescent Asleep (no. 109), Eternal Mother (no. 110), Victoria (no. 111), and Playful Sisters (no. 116) fall into this category. He has continued to this day to draw from life. "There is something in the model that inspires sculpture," says Gross. When a model is "dead," or, for Gross, "too skinny," there is no inspiration. The sculptor encourages his model to "do what you want to do, move freely, describe spaces with your arms." The life and the motion of the model can be read in the dynamism of the drawings and later of the sculptures.
Although Gross's oeuvre is relatively free from specific "influences," there is an affinity between some of his drawings from life and some of Rodin's drawings. Both exploit flesh-toned washes, a dramatic use of limbs, and a brevity of notation. He readily acknowledges that he loves Rodin's drawings, owns several, and first saw drawings by Rodin during his early years as a student in America.
During his student years Gross searched for a pictorial style. His drawings of Kolomyja, Austria, in 1920 (nos. 91 and 92) are observant, factual transcriptions of the landscape, with a certain flair for composition. The curving lamp posts, trees, and unnatural perspectives in his first extant American drawings, both entitled Boom Avenue, the Bronx (nos. 93 and 94), where he went sketching with Raphael Soyer, indicate that Gross absorbed something from the New York avant-garde during his first months there. These works draw upon cubist and futurist principles, perhaps as interpreted by the American painter John Marin. A large exhibition of Marin's paintings was held at the Daniel Gallery in April and May 1921, and it seems likely that Gross saw the Marin exhibition. Two early (1926) Reclining Nudes (nos. 96 and 97) also show the young artist searching for his own style by observing and emulating the blurred images and brothel inhabitants of Jules Pascin's paintings. His early city-scapes, such as Battery Park (no. 99) and Orchard Street (no. 102), fall within the ambiance of the school of New York realism that persisted for decades after the famous exhibition of "The Eight" in 1908 at the MacBeth Gallery.
Another distinct and large category of Gross's two-dimensional works are his large watercolors of Provincetown. Like most of his oeuvre, the images are neither abstract nor realistic but an amalgamation of expressive distortion of natural elements (figures, landscape, and architecture), imagination, and fantasy. Key motifs found frequently in his large, luminous watercolors of Provincetown are Victorian S-scrolls and brackets (nos. 118 and 119), swarthy fishermen (no. 117), and their fishnets, which entangle both fish and men and furthermore serve to order the composition. Gross's watercolor landscapes of Israel are similar in style, exaggerating native vegetation, architecture, and people. Gross employs the term "watercolor" literally and keeps his paint light and transparent with a full range of saturated hues.
Gross claims that his fantasy drawings are not surrealistic, but they do depict images from his dreams and his subconscious (nos. 137 - 39 and 161 - 63). He said to me: "I loved the surrealists and knew Max Ernst very well during the war." He also explained that the early (1943) fantasy drawings show the horror and bitterness he felt, caused by the slaughter of the Jewish people under the Hitler regime. "My mind was bothering me," he said. He retained a spirit of joy in his sculpture by using the fantasy drawings, with their needles, mesh fences, and other potentially torturous objects, as a safety valve. He depicts both birds of prey and birds of peace; rings of marriage and rings representing unrequited love; and hands both loving and destructive. The fantasy drawings are composed on relatively small sheets with a fine-pointed pen and black ink. To create these drawings Gross sat completely relaxed in an armchair in his own living room and listened to classical music; images from his subconscious mind were released and flowed onto the paper.
In 1971 Gross made the thirty-six pen and ink drawings that accompany the new translation of the Book of Isaiah edited by H. L. Ginsberg. Stylistically, these drawings are close to Gross's fantasy drawings, which are also filled with ambivalent, dreamlike fantastic images drawn with an intricate fine black line. In making these drawings, Gross underwent a deeply emotional experience, feeling the power of the prophet. Gross told a reporter for the newsletter of the Jewish Publication Society: "Isaiah saw the future so clearly. He had to teach people around him, warning against sin, stressing the horror of war. During his time there was constant warfare. We are going through the same stress. When I was working on the book, I kept thinking -- everything is contemporary.... I wanted to do the drawings from Isaiah's point of view -- they try to catch the spirit of his words, in his frame of time."
During the late 1920s Chaim Gross executed eleven linoleum cuts of circus scenes and of Washington Square and other New York sites. He did not continue to make prints at that time but since 1963 has made more than 100 lithographic designs. This two-dimensional expression of his art, along with his tapestries (1974) and stained glass window (1974), is a relatively late development in his career and another indication of the vitality and fertility of his mind and the flux of his art. One of his earliest lithographs, Ballerinas, 1963, is a five-color print similar to his sculpture by the same name, which was modeled and cast in 1960. His two-color print, Homage to Jacques Lipchitz (no. 173), is based on drawings from life of Lipchitz and was created in 1965 for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The center of the print depicts Gross's interpretation of Lipchitz's bronze sculpture of 1927, La Joie de Vivre, installed at the Einstein Medical Center.
In 1968 Gross was commissioned by the Associated American Artists Gallery to do a series of color lithographs representing ten Jewish holidays -- his first suite or portfolio of prints based on watercolors he had drawn in 1967 (nos. 149 - 52). During 1968 Chaim Gross worked for five months in the Paris atelier of Georges Trotignon and Lucien Detruit, on whose handpresses the lithographs were printed on hot-pressed rag paper (Rives d'Arches and Japan Nacre). Because each color requires a separate stone, Gross prepared seventy-five stones, and more than 19,000 impressions had to be pulled for the limited edition of 250 suites. The series represents a combination of Gross's memories of his Chasidic family in Austria and his renewed involvement with Jewish traditions after his first trip to Israel in 1949. Gross has also made a group of lithographs entitled "The Six Days of Creation," which co-ordinates with the large bronze relief panels of the same subject at the Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York (1964 - 66), as well as a series of watercolors entitled "Jewish Customs" (nos. 148, 153 - 54, and 156).
Gross's lithographs have the same wide range of subject matter as his sculpture, watercolors, and drawings -- homages to artists, Jewish themes, performers, delineations of his dreams (fantasy prints), mothers playing with children, and fishermen. He has also made a lithograph to celebrate the Bicentennial, Rebirth and Peace, for the Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia, and posters to mark the twentieth and twenty-first anniversaries of the establishment of Israel as a new nation.
In June 1972, Chaim Gross made a design in watercolor for a tapestry. It was to have been woven at the Atelier Brivet at Aubusson, France, and Gross visited Aubusson in October 1972 to work with the weavers. However, because of mechanical problems with the looms just at that time and because of the intricacy of Gross's design, it proved difficult to weave, and the project was never realized.
In 1974 Gross designed ten tapestries which were woven that year in Aubusson by the Manufacture de Tapisseries d'Aubusson-Pinton (177 - 86). The large, brilliantly colored designs give us some indication of what might have resulted if Gross had devoted himself to the pictorial arts rather than to sculpture. Just as we have noted with his recent sculptures, one can recognize human figures in the tapestries, but they are neither realistic nor merely simplified. He begins with natural forms -- birds, women, children -- and then fantasizes. The shapes become flat biomorphic patterns, cut, reassembled, and reordered with new color orientations. He uses the full spectrum of color in nearly every tapestry, and the titles in large-scale Hebrew or English letters have been integrated into the designs. These exuberant, luminous tapestries are an extraordinary statement, especially for an artist in his eighth decade just beginning to work in a new medium.
Chaim Gross has taught sculpture for fifty-one consecutive years at the Educational Alliance and for thirty at the New School for Social Research, both in New York. He has also taught at the Workman's Circle Camp (1930 - 38), Playhouse in the Hills, Cummington, Massachusetts (summers of 1934 - 36), at the Design Laboratory, New York (1938 - 39), at the Brooklyn Museum (1942 - 49), at the Peoples Art Center, Museum of Modern Art (1943 - 49), and at the Five Towns Music and Art Foundation, Woodmere, New York (1950s). In 1937 Chaim Gross, Moses and Raphael Soyer, and Alexander Dobkin (Director of the Art School of the Educational Alliance from 1956 - 73) founded and were the faculty for the "New Art School," a venture that lasted for several years until the building, at 567 Sixth Avenue, New York City, burned down.
Gross currently teaches about a hundred students all together in three classes each week, one at the Educational Alliance and two at the New School. Gross started teaching direct carving at the Educational Alliance in 1927 and now teaches all sculpture media except for welding (many of his students go on to become welders); he labels one of the Alliance classes "a real Renaissance class where everyone works very hard with a variety of sculptural materials and techniques." His most famous student is Louise Nevelson, who did her first piece of sculpture in Gross's class.
Gross is an excellent teacher and his classes are usually oversubscribed because he is a successful practicing artist, because he understands and can articulate the premises of good design, because his enthusiastic and optimistic view of life is contagious, and because he regards and enjoys every student as an individual. In the beginning, it was necessary for him to teach in order to earn a living, but he has continued to teach for decades after he could have stopped because he loves teaching and is good at it.
Chaim Gross is now in a "transitional phase." He told me on November 23, 1976, "I am going through a change right now. I have left something behind. During the last two years there has been a mental change which is evident in my sculpture. I could not go back and carve wood as I was doing in 1940. Right now, I could not go through another acrobat in a ring or a mother and child." But it is not only a transition in subject but also in his personal philosophy. He modeled Jacob's Dream and Abraham (nos. 85 and 86) not only because of the sculptural possibilities inherent in a grouping of these patriarchs with angels but also for the tradition they represent; he created Isaiah (no. 88) because Isaiah preached peace and hated war, a feeling Gross shares. The prophets and Old Testament heroes represent eternal philosophies and preach goals toward which mankind has always strived, and Gross intends to continue to create prophets on a monumental scale in a style more abstract than earlier in his career.
Gross's styles and media have moved with centrifugal force to encompass ever-widening circles. He is a vital intense artist who has produced an unusually wide range of art. His means and modes did not become set during his middle years; he seems to have sought and conquered more new territory in the last two decades than in the previous four. Chaim Gross's place in twentieth-century American art needs a reevaluation based upon an awareness of the power and quality of his pictorial works as well as of his sculpture. In its full range, his oeuvre has values that will continue to inspire and endure.
*AIl numbers refer to the Catalogue of the Exhibition; numbers in italics refer to illustrated works.
1 Naftoli Gross, "Chaim Gross," undated typescript in the possession of the artist.
2 Chaim Gross, The Technique of Wood Sculpture, New York: Arco Publishing Co., 1965 [originally published by Vista House, 1957], 43 (hereafter cited as Technique).
3 Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus," poem, 1883, inscribed on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty in 1903.
4 Raphael Soyer attended classes at the National Academy of Design. Information on the Soyers was taken from interviews with Raphael Soyer (October 27, 1976) and Chaim Gross (October 28, 1976 and January 22, 1977), and from Cynthia Jaffe McCabe, The Golden Door: Artist Immigrants of America, 1876 - 1976, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1976, 158, 160.
5 Raphael Soyer, Self-Revealment: A Memoir, New York: Maecenas Press, Random House, 1967, 59.
6 Gross, Technique, 41 - 42.
7 Gross, Technique 54. Lignum vitae becomes "velvet black" with time. When it is freshly cut the log has a dark green or brown core surrounded by light outer rings.
8 Published in the New York Sun, March 5, 1931, and in the Buffalo Courier, New York, March 22, 1931. Clippings in a scrapbook in the possession of the artist.
9 "Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors and Sculpture by Louis G. Ferstadt, Chaim Gross, Isadore Klein, Elias Newman and Ella Ostrowsky," New York: Educational Alliance Art School, February 25 - March 11, 1928.
10 "Before 160,000 Eyes," Art Digest, vol. 15, no. 1, October 1, 1940, 14.
11 Interview with Chaim Gross, November 13, 1976.
13 Raphael Soyer wrote: "My brothers and I saw a great deal of Chaim.... We spent long summer days together in City Island, Pelham Bay, and Spuyten-Duyvil, then undeveloped and picturesque.... Chaim was...rich in native intelligence and talented. On these outings we took along our sketch pads and watercolors.... Chaim's watercolors had a semi-wild flavor," (Self-Revealment, 1967, 59).
14 "Chaim Gross," JPS Bookmark, May 1972, 1 - 2.
15 The only known extant impressions from these relief blocks (in the possession of the artist) are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
16 Chaim Gross's Rebirth, a six-by-nineteen foot stained glass window, was installed above the ark, spanning the pulpit of Temple Emanu-El, Englewood, New Jersey. The complex iconography includes symbols of Jewish holidays and customs; the central image is a group of angels who light the Sabbath candles. Gross's lithographs of the same design were created to commemorate the dedication of the window in September 1974.
17 M. P. Colson, "Le Célèbre Sculpteur Américain Chaim Gross a Choisi Aubusson pour Etudier la Transposition Tapissière de Son Oeuvre," Le Populaise du Centre, October 20, 1972.
18 Leonard Hutton-Hutschnecker, "About Aubusson Tapestries,"
Chaim Gross: Aubusson Tapestries, New York: Leonard Hutton Galleries,
November - December 1974.
About the author
Roberta K. Tarbell is an associate professor of art history at Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, where she teaches Renaissance, Baroque, and 19th-20th century art and architecture. She holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. She was a visiting scholar at the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 2008-2009, and she was co-curator of Rodin and American Art, an exhibition and publication co-sponsored by the Cantor Art Center, Stanford University and the Rodin Museum, Paris. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution, where she has been a research associate at the National Collection of Fine Art.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 10, 2009, with permission of The Jewish Museum, which was granted to TFAO on June 16, 2009.
This essay appeared in the catalogue entitled Chaim Gross, Retrospective Exhibition: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Prints, published by The Jewish Museum to accompany its exhibition, which was on view May 26 - October 24, 1977.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation the author; Michael Sittenfeld of The Jewish Museum; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
RL readers may also enjoy:
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Jewish Museum in Resource Library.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.