Sculpting Joy: Experiencing the artist and his art at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation

Diana L. Linden

Diana L. Linden Art

In the entranceway to the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, located in a town house in historic Greenwich Village, two sculptures by Chaim Gross welcome visitors to the place where he worked and lived. Together, they announce the hallmarks of his art.

The first-floor gallery at the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation in New York features an array of sculptures by Chaim Gross (1904– 1991). From left, in the foreground: Victoria (1951), Twins (1943), Roosevelt and Hoover in a Fistfight (1932), and Naomi and Ruth (1956). Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The first is Family of Five Acrobats (1955), a bronze sculpture with a black patina that stands twelve feet tall. “Art gives me great joy,” Gross once said, and circus performers—a frequent motif in his work—convey that emotion and more; the forms of limber bodies balanced atop one another suggest the importance of both family and human interdependence.  The second work, just inside the building doorway and affixed to the right doorpost, is a black metal mezuzah of Gross’s own design—a reminder to his family of their covenant with God, and a sym­bol to others that here stands a Jewish house­ hold.1 Modern art and Jewish culture are two intertwined strands of Gross’s life and work.

Gross was a prolific artist, and museums around the world exhibit his figurative sculp­tures in wood, stone, and metal within the greater contexts of both American and mod­ernist art. In the United States, he is particu­larly celebrated for reviving the art of direct carving—an unconventional sculpting meth­od whereby artists create as they work a piece of wood or stone, instead of building a model in clay or wax. But the Gross Founda­tion offers a singular view of the artist and the man. It includes not only a gallery of his sculptures, but also the tool­choked workshop in which he carved them. It also houses Gross’s collection of traditional African art, one of the most important of its kind in the United States, and especially notable for its groups of wooden sculpture from West Africa and  gurative Ashanti gold weights.2 Gross also built an extraordinary collection of mid­-twentieth­-century American modern­ist paintings, which documents his own personal nar­rative of the art of his time, one that differs from those presented in textbooks and blockbuster exhibitions.  The family’s dining room and living room, both open to public viewing, are filled floor to ceiling with artwork. Describing the unique character of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, executive director Susan Fisher, says, “It’s not an institution”—a word that often implies a cold or colorless place, devoid of an individual’s touch. “Here, it’s all personal. It’s a home.”

Chaim Gross with Happy Mother (1931) in a photograph by Arnold Newman (1918–2006), c. 1944. Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation Archive. © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images.

Chaim Gross was born in 1904 in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, in an area of the Austro­ Hungarian Empire that is now part of Ukraine. His Hasidic family faithfully observed Jewish rituals, traditions, and holidays, emphasizing piety and cheer in equal measure.3 Gross was raised with an awareness of the properties of wood; his father, Moses, was a lumber merchant who taught him to whittle as a young boy. At the outset of World War I, when Gross was ten years old, the Russian army overran his village. As he recounted decades later, “They robbed, they raped, they killed, and they did anything they wanted for three, four days.”4 In one attack, Cossacks beat both his parents until they were unconscious. Fol­lowing the war, along with one of his brothers, he fled to Budapest, which—at that moment—was less anti­-Semitic than his birthplace. There, Gross briefly studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, but after a new regime took over the Hungar­ian government, he followed the path taken by hundreds of thousands of European Jews, and migrated to the United States in 1921. He landed on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a place crowded with tene­ments, sweatshops, and people. After a time, Gross enrolled in the legendary Educational Alliance, where he took art classes taught in Yiddish. He would later go on to teach at the Educa­tional Alliance for more than sixty years, and counted Louise Nevelson among his students.5

Despite his involvement with Yiddishkayt—the world of Jewish culture and politics—when he first arrived in New York City as a teenager, Gross strove to be identied as an American, rather than as a Jew—a sensibility common to many early twentieth­ century Jewish immigrant­artists.6 He chose not to create Jewish­-themed work during the first twenty­-five years of his professional career. Later, in middle age, Gross came back to Judaism, yet saw himself more as a spiritual person than a devout Jew, re­-embracing religious rituals from his childhood. Renee and Chaim’s daugh­ter, the artist Mimi Gross, fondly remembers lively Friday night Shabbat dinners, with her mother lighting candles and the house filled with artists and other guests and patrons who had all become friends. A longtime friend, realist painter Moses Soyer, lived in the neighbor­hood and was often in attendance.7

The studio, built in 1963, features sculptures dating from c. 1930 to 1990, in addition to Gross’s tools and materials. Sotheby’s photograph.

As Fisher notes, just prior to World War I several American sculptors began to directly carve their works, but Gross would become perhaps the country’s most influential master of the slow, exacting technique.8 Though the method was standard in the Middle Ages, the reintroduction of this technique in Gross’s time was seen as a more modern approach to form and process than academic modeling of sculp­ture.9 Gross was introduced to the basics of direct carving by artist Robert Laurent, with whom he studied briefly at the Art Students League during the 1920s. Gross preferred to carve hardwoods such as ebony, mahogany, cocobolo, and lignum vitae. He worked with a mallet and chisels, some of which he customized, rather than small knives, and worked with the wood’s grain to release the expressive potential of the material. Gross carved his sculptures to best take advantage of the wood’s verticality, giving the works a totemic quality.  There is a strong sense of  fidelity to nature and to his materials in his process; he almost always worked with one piece of wood, and rarely glued multiple pieces together to form a bigger block.

Gross’s Deborah (1945), in the firstfloor gallery. Sotheby’s photograph.

The first floor of the foundation features a gallery of Gross’s sculptures, including carved portraits of himself and Renee, and one of his few abstract com­positions, a rumination on a sensational crime en­ titled e Lindbergh and Hauptmann Trial (1934). A short staircase leads down to Gross’s sky­lit workshop, a space crammed with wood benches, well­worn tools mounted on a wall or spilled out on Gross’s work­ table, and many of his drawings and sculptures.10 Since sculpture is a tactile medium, visitors are in­vited to touch the artworks in order to better ap­preciate his art and work process.  The statue Gross was working on at the time of his death remains tightly gripped in his workbench vise.

As evidenced by many sculp­tures on view, including an ebony statue titled Young Tumbler (1958), acrobats and other circus perform­ers were favorite Gross subjects. Mimi recalls many trips to the circus with her father, whose zest for the extravaganza was born watching the itinerant entertainers who traversed the Eastern Europe of his youth. He recalled in 1965 that “summer days meant happy times…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.”11

Aerialist by Gross, 1935. Sabicu wood; height 16 ½, length 58 ¼, depth 7 ½ inches. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

One of the most popular public works of art in New York, located in Bleecker Playground, is the Gross bronze The Family (1979), an arrangement of  floating parent and child  figures, shaded by a linden tree. Fam­ily is a theme Gross explored throughout his career, as seen in several works on view at the foundation, includ­ ing Bird’s Nest (1957), a depiction of a swan feeding her edglings. Another example is his buoyant early wooden sculpture Happy Mother (1931), a large hori­zontal piece showing a reclining, smiling woman nestling with her chubby child in an intimate, loving union. The golden-­brown patina of the Circassian walnut gleams, highlighting the wood’s grain and the artist’s chisel marks.

One sculpture completely shatters the joyous image of mother and child—a tribute to his sister and her child slaughtered in the Ho­locaust. When he  first heard of the Nazi atrocities in 1943, Gross began to fill notebooks with fantas­tical, often extremely violent drawings. In his unconscious, Gross later recalled, he wanted to cut the Nazis into pieces.12 Gross’s In Memoriam: My Sister Sarah, Victim of Nazi Atrocities (1947), now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D. C., (a 1974 bronze cast is at the foundation), powerfully expresses his grief. Gross, who had begun to collect African art in the early 1930s, turned to the attenuated statuary of the Dogon people of West Africa for stylistic direction when creating this memorial to his sister, and through her, to all Jews slain in the death camps.13 Gross’s parents had nine sons (several of whom predeceased Chaim) but only one daughter, Sarah, “whom the Nazis killed in 1943 in Kolyma.”14 The Nazis murdered Sarah’s young daughter by repeatedly flinging her body against a wall; then they killed Sarah, along with her husband and son.15 The statue presents a seated woman, her elegantly elongated body curveing inward in a slight concave bend as she leans forward, her head solemnly dipped downward. She tenderly presses the child who sits in her lap close to her body, providing both protection and comfort but also exuding a sense of mournfulness.

Examples from Gross’s collections of African and PreColumbian art are displayed in the living room. Sotheby’s photograph.

Another portion of Gross’s
collection of historic African sculpture. On top of the cabinet are four Kota reliquary figures; at the right is a circle of Dan passport masks behind a large Dogon female figure.
Sotheby’s photograph.

After World War II ended and the full extent of Nazi crimes against humanity were laid bare, a competition was held in New York City to design a public memorial to the six million murdered European Jews. It was to be prominently situated in Riverside Park, between 83rd and 84th Streets along the Hudson River.16 Gross’s submission was first modeled in clay and then re­created in poured plaster. The maquette is on view in his workshop and features figures grouped together and buttressed from behind by a semicircular wall. At center, on top of a giant menorah, is a figure representing freedom. To the right, a somewhat despondent European family- as interpreted by art historian Matthew Baigell- counterbalances a vibrant American family group. Ultimately, a Holocaust monument was never realized due to a lack of funds and insufficient political commitment to the project.17

The living room remains essentially as the Grosses left it. The paintings visible here include works by Raphael Soyer, O. Louis Guglielmi, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Marsden Hartley, and Mimi Gross. Chaim Gross’s Black Figure (1935) is seen in the foreground. Sotheby’s photograph.

Renee and Chaim filled their third-­floor living and dining rooms with an outstanding array of modern American art, including canvases that often came from family friends such as Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, and Arshile Gorky, many works bearing personal inscriptions to Gross. Milton Avery, Nicolai Cikovsky, and the brothers Raphael and Moses Soyer all presented the sculptor with portraits of him at work. Gross was an early and enthusiastic collector of African art, and his collection, numbering well over two thousand pieces, is displayed in vitrines along three walls, essentially as the family originally installed it. The dominant narrative of mid-century American art insists on a complete fissure between figurative artists like Gross and abstract artists such as de Kooning. Gross’s collection proves this stringent dichotomy inaccurate. De Kooning was a longtime friend who gave the sculptor Untitled (Rome, 1959), an ink on paper rendered in his broad, assertive brushwork. The sculptor and the painter both worked in Rome in 1959, and regularly socialized. Gross and painter Arshile Gorky might also seem an unlikely pairing, yet the two friends exhibited together in 1936.18 Both men had migrated to the United States from war-­torn areas and had witnessed violence and both were modernists who worked for the WPA. Gross had a discerning eye and purchased four canvases by Marsden Hartley before the painter’s work was seen as significant. And decades before mainstream critics and curators turned their attention to African-­American art, Gross acquired works by Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, and Benny Andrews.

Chaim Gross, Marilyn Monroe, Augusta Newman, Carl Sandburg, and Renee Gross at the Newmans’ home in a photograph by Arnold Newman, December 1961. Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation Archives © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images.

The remarkable breadth of Gross’s aquaintances is testified to by an array of photographs in the hallway just inside the foundation door. The friends and admirers range from Richard Avedon and Barbra Streisand to Helen Keller and Golda Meir. One snapshot shows the Grosses with Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg at Arnold Newman’s home. On Gross’s death in 1991, the Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, another friend and frequent guest, wrote a touching tribute to the sculptor, noting his place of esteem in both the modernist and Jewish communities, and wishing Gross the same happiness he strove to communicate through his art during his long life. “So he’s now sitting drinking tea,” concluded the poet, “with old acquaintances Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and the Soyer Boys in heaven or whatever Shul their shades attend.”

The paintings in this view of the living room include works by Milton Avery, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, José Clemente Orozco, and Louise Nevelson, as well as a portrait of Mimi Gross by Red Grooms (1964). Sotheby’s photograph.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation is located at 526 LaGuardia Place in New York City. Information for visitors can be found at rcgrossfoundation.org.

DIANA L. LINDEN is the author of the award-winning book Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Wayne State University Press, 2015).

1 According to Mimi Gross, her father received a commission to create a set of mezuzahs for sale and he executed twelve. Later, after her husband’s death, Renee had a few more made. The exact number of existing mezuzahs is not currently known.2 Susan Greenberg Fisher, “A Sculptor’s Progress,” in Tree Trunk to Head: Chaim Gross and Direct Carving in America (Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, New York, 2014), p. 8. 3 Museum of Jewish Civilization, Visions of Israel: The Art and Illustrations of Chaim Gross (University of Hartford, West Hartford, Conn., 2013), p. 2. 4 Chaim Gross Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, microfilm roll 3197, frame 1198. 5 See Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900- 1945: A Tribute to the Educational Alliance Art School, ed. Norman L. Kleeblatt and Susan Chevlowe (Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1991) for information on the Educational Alliance. 6 Author’s interview with Mimi Gross, June 16, 2016. 7 Ibid. 8 Fisher, “A Sculptor’s Progress,” p. 5. 9 Ibid., p. 8. 10 The Artist’s Studio, ed. Giles Waterfield (Paul Holberton, London, 2009), pp. 1-6. 11 Quoted in entry for Three Acrobats on a Unicyle at americanart.si.edu. 12 Matthew Baigell, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, England, 2007), pp. 100-101. 13 Milly Heyd, Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N. J., 1999), pp. 53-54. 14 Correspondence between Renee Gross and James Demetrion, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, March 9, 1993, in the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation archives. 15 Josef Vincent Lombardo, Chaim Gross, Sculptor (Dalton House, New York, 1949), p. 109. 16 Rochelle G. Saidel, Never Too Late to Remember: The Politics Behind New York City’s Holocaust Museum (Holmes & Meier Publishers, New York, 1996), pp. 43-54. 17 Mark Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007), pp. 114-115.18 Joseph Jacobs, “Microcosm of Modernism,” Art & Antiques, March 2008, p. 128.