Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary

Review by Bettina Hubby


“I make it from below the think, and I want you to receive it below the think”
This is not a ‘date movie.’ Extreme and unapologetic. Disturbing, darkly mangled and charged. Not shy, definitely not conventionally pretty and absolutely not romantic. I am attracted and repulsed by the forcefully penetrating and gutty gaze of her work. There is a special bond (not of bondage) I have to the work, and this is why I’m here writing for you now.
During art school in Charleston, SC, my professors were incredibly encouraging and my parents were concerned. I encased my preferred medium of garbage with burlap into limb-like shapes, tied with twine that was then knotted obsessively, dipped in tar or roofing gunk, then worked back in again with wires that were also fiercely knotted. I thought they were charming. Others noted a frisson of sadomasochism and even a dollop of sexual violence. My parents, Barbara and Ben, freaked out. In the emergency meeting called by my parents, the professors expressed their full support for my work, telling them they trusted my instincts and applauded my singularly explorative spirit—and though they conceded the forms I was making were hard to enjoy aesthetically, they were convinced, and thus convinced my folks: it was art.
So, due to their kind and commanding intervention, I was spared psychiatric inspection. When I look back on that work now, I see shapes that looked like body parts that had been bound and burnt, ritualized and tortured. I would have been concerned if that were my child making those things, but I am so grateful for those teachers who believed in me and helped to assuage Barbara and Ben’s fears. My family now fondly refers to that work of mine as the Tar Baby Phase. Here is a picture of my dad holding one of the smaller ones:

If Nancy Grossman were my child, I would be concerned. As an artist, I am grateful that her work exists and that she was encouraged to follow her unique and startlingly forceful path. Her strength and individuality, especially a female artist who came into her own when women often weren’t allowed is inspiring to me.
This book, Tough Life Diary, explores and exposes Grossman’s trajectory in an indefatigable manner; two thick planks of board open up into mat black lining open onto grotesque fetishy leather face masks ornate with greasy buckles, severe zippers, and other accoutrements of cruelty alongside bulging bodies and a few tar babies of her own. It honors her thoroughly—no aspect of her work feels unremarked upon. But still, the scholars who examine, admire, conjecture and describe, feel separate—as if they have been pushed far enough away by the toughened shell of her resolve to reveal only what she wants to reveal. Her work reveals it all though, and the vivid close-ups the book gives up is a blessing for the bold, like looking at porn filmed under fluorescents. You can taste the rust on the metal protuberances soaked in linseed oil, grease, leathery dust and time.
The work that particularly speaks to me is that work that looks like the innards of a auto-human hybrid. Its as if the hood/gut is gaping open to reveal dank greased finery. Her vocabulary is an invented cacophony of glistening parts that aren’t of a motor, that explode and constrain peculiar black organs emerging from a creamy clean-ish ground. She got her hands dirty, she got dark and explored this deeply. Soap can’t touch this.
Grossman’s diversity made public in this book bring to my mind, amongst others, Jean Dubuffet in dirt-laced pallet, Lee Bontecou in penetrative methods of lacing for restraint, Philip Guston in the stand-alone-ness of the figure to the ground, Frank Stella with subtly crumpled metal entrails, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt whose grimaced busts could be Cinderella-slippered by Grossman’s masks, Eva Hesse via the tissued and unguent-stained lacquering of canvas and paper, and George Grosz whose attack of the pen to paper bursted with similar frenzied explosions like human engines, guts and gonads. It is like a frolic with old friends via her material exploits.
The book does much to help a newbie fan or familiar Grossman club member along in discovering or reinvestigating all the various tributaries of her obsessive curiosity, through the lauded expressive leather masks, related stained and fleshy works, gagged and bound humanistic forms, nimbly pinched tar-glistened organs and the more serene but maniacally worked bodiless collages.
I wonder what she thinks of this book. If I were to channel her via my Tar Baby Phase, I’d say she would like the cover in its sturdiness, though wished it leathered and weathered. Perhaps the white gloss and texture of the pages would repel her. The creams of her stage were so particularly un-white. She most likely appreciates the attention to her full-bodied trajectory of making and thinking. The inclusion of the compact deep and meaningful tribute written by her  talented friend, the dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and a platform to refute misinterpretations of her work, but she probably also wishes, after what may seem to her over-talked, to retreat safely away from the exposure of her own organs: heart, mind and body that are explicitly on view in these pages.
“These works are so revealing they could be painful to me. I am not that open to the world. The world is not that safe to me.”<

Ian Berry, Ed.,  Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary, (Prestel, 2013) 


Images: Cover and interiors from Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary, and Bettina Hubby’s father holding one of her “Tar Babies.”