Chaim Gross (1902-1991)

Chaim Gross (1902-1991), New York, November 11, 1988 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Chaim Gross, the great American sculptor, died thirty years ago on this day.

Here’s  Tree Trunk to Head (1938), a documentary film on him made by filmmaker, cinephile, Lewis Jacobs

“Tree Trunk to Head was an attempt to reveal Chaim Gross, the modern sculptor, at work in his studio carving a head out of the trunk of a tree. The personality of the sculptor , his mannerisms, his characteristic method of work, his tendencies are all intimately disclosed in minute details, as though unobserved – a sort of candid-camera study. Dramatic form and cinematic structure endow the presentation with excitement, humor, and interest.”

Here‘s Allen’s tribute to Chaim (revised from the published version, which was a first draft, published in Deliberate Prose (2000), and first-published in Provincetown Arts, vol.8 (1992) and in the preceding year’s Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters). The piece was written and delivered at a memorial event that took place in New York at the Academy on December 3rd, 1991

“For his seventieth birthday, Chaim Gross told New York Times reporter Israel Shenker, “Art gives me great happiness”. Persistent happiness and its transmutation to art, his abiding bequest. Youngest of ten children with half his family wiped out in a diphtheria epidemic he witnessed at first hand when Cossacks abused his parents, and then, aged twelve, was impressed by the Austro-Hungarian army to pick up the battlefield dead.

Chaim’s early life, cataloged the misfortunes of Eastern Europe, volatile then and today, deported from Hungary to Austria, then Austria to Poland. The son of a timber appraiser, following his father to the timber yards in remote Galicia in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains, he grew up watching the local peasant families whittling figures in wood, so it was natural that he would develop a particular affinity for direct wood carving.

After arrival in America with a wave of brother and sister immigrants, he suffered years of extraordinary poverty, first doing a variety of odd jobs, delivery boy, floor cleaner, dish washer, to support his art, sometimes living entirely from hand-to-mouth, particularly in the 1920s and early ’30s. When an apple and pear went missing from the still-life classes at his home-away-from-home, the Education Alliance, friends assumed that Chaim must have eaten them! More bittersweet, circumstances of the sales from two watercolors and one sculpture, his first sale, in the early ’30’s.  Disheartened he left town with a note, “goodbye boys”, assumed to be a suicide missive. The sale took place in the interim – ninety dollars! – Imagine the surprise when the artist “came back from the dead”

“Don’t wait till the muse wakes you up at night and says do this and that.Make a point of working all the time”, he advised students, “I’m a sculptor not a painter, but I’m one of those sculptors who knows how to draw and how to paint” was his own clear self-appraisal. Chaim’s articulation appreciation of his own processes made him a sympathetic and consummate teacher at the Educational Alliance, and the New School, whose faculty he joined in 1948. His book, The Technique of Wood Sculpture of 1957, remains, over thirty years after its publication, a useful compendium and primer.

In earlier decades, he enjoyed the company of fellow artists, life-long friends, the Soyer brothers (Isaac, Moses, Raphael), Peter Blume, Elias Newman Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, many others, who, all, were contemporaries at the Alliance, Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood  – he was first there as a pupil, then teacher – even Louise Nevelson for several decades – with a fortuitous, fortunate, marriage, Renee, his wife and a remarkable daughter, the painter Mimi Gross

But recognition of his work came slowly.  First one-man show of drawings and sculpture took place at a gallery on West 13th Street, Manfred Schwartz.  Earlier he contributed to group shows at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, one of the first New York galleries to handle contemporary American art, but quit when he came in one day and discovered his sculpture being used as a door-stop!

The Depression ‘thirties represented a breakthrough decade for Chaim’s art but didn’t translate into money. By 1942 he could still count on his fingers the number of sculptures that he had sold. No matter that was appearing in some significant collections, as in 1937, for instance, The Museum of Modern Art acquired his typically graceful and exuberant study in balance, Handlebar Riders, and similarly, 1942, a purchase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lilian Leitzel

Handlebar Riders

Lilian Leitzel

The celebration of the human family was to be one of Chaim’s most prominent themes. At  the 1939 World’s Fair he worked on a fourteen foot high family group for the French Pavilion (as well as the figure of a linesman for the Finland building). He was also “on display” himself, demonstrating his craft. He may not have sold many sculptures at this time but his singularity was assured, though, even in the area of Social Realism, Chaim was thematically somewhat at odds.  For all their apparent context, the figures, the acrobats, posited not so much a commitment to a social program as a commitment to each other, a human quality, the interdependence of the human, his abiding theme.  Similarly, in the ’50’s and after, when the emphasis shifted to the artist’s individual subjective vision, Chaim’s art stood unaffected, he was what he was.

Chaim Gross in front of Birds of Peace

Representative works like the ten-foot Birds of Peace, (commissioned for Hebrew University in the late ’50s and early ’60’s), and The Ten Commandments (for the International Synagogue at Kennedy Airport), show his command of an ambitious scale, but Chaim’s drawings are the very key to his art.  He was an inveterate draughtsman, throughout his life, from his earliest days of exile to his last days here in New York. He filled countless sketchbooks and hundreds of sheets with accomplished pencil, pen, ink, ink and-wash, studies – odd nature forms, human forms primarily, fantasy drawings (a collection of these appeared in a book in 1956), unmediated examinations of his own psyche, dark in the earlier years and increasingly more so as he grew older (having examined many of the books with him, I was amazed at the extension of fantasy in Surrealist nightmare, Bosch-like improvisations that are bound in many many volumes of pen drawings).

A major retrospective of his work, at the Jewish Museum, 1977, showed his versatility, fecundity, and in his remaining 14 years he kept on working. Visitors to his house were always amazed at the richness and the range of his collection of others’ work, an intelligence and energy of travel and socializing that went way beyond the quiet emotional white-haired man that I knew in the last few decades.  A good table prepared by Renee, his wife, chicken-soup, potato-pancakes, surrounded by real images made by (Marc) Chagall, Peter Blume, his favorite,Federico Castellon, the Soyers, Jack Levine, Max Weber, David Burliuck, (his friend), Max Ernst, O. Louis Guglielmi, George Grosz, Horace Pippin, (Louis) Eilshelmius (Roberto) Matta, a vast collection, including small works by Klee, Dufy, DeKooning, Léger,  Modigliani Marin, Picasso, Orozco, (Jules) Pascin, Stuart Davis, as well as a huge collection of West African sculpture, Ashanti gold weights, and Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art. So now he’s sitting drinking tea with old acquaintances Marc Chagall and the Soyer boys in heaven, or whatever shul their shades attend.”

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