Sidney was born February 9, 1921 in New York to Morris and Esther Gross. He began painting at age 11 while attending PS 30 and made his first sale, a sketch of Huey Long, to the Patterson Morning Call when he was 13.
While Gross was a student at Evander Child’s HS in the Bronx, artist James Newell began work on his landmark WPA commission “Evolution of Western Civilization,” a series of murals in the school’s library, begun in 1935 and completed in 1938. As art editor for four years of the school’s national prize-winning magazine, The Bridge, Sidney Gross must have been one of the students Newell describes, who “stopped to ask questions and inform each other about the art process and the meaning of each section. They recognized events, criticized the knot in the cowboy’s scarf and the proportion of the mechanic’s hand.”
His dated high school work, black and white drawings reproduced in The Bridge, and a drawing preserved by his last wife (fig #) clearly build off of the climate that produced Social Realism and the influence of James Newell and his work on the WPA funded murals in the school library. The mood of Gross' work, however, is darker, less celebratory of the common man, precursors to his later experiments in surrealistic, futuristic and mechanical imagery. They depict the bleak times, images of the lingering depression, and the clouds of impending war.
Author and activist Grace Paley (1922-2004), a year younger than Sidney, was a student at Evander Childs High School during these years, though she graduated a year before him. She described those years:
"Laurence Stallings's great warning book, The First World War, ... ends with Hitler, Mussolini, Ataturk and Stalin in powerful shooting poses. The rest of the pictures of that terrible war made my friends and me sign the Oxford pledge never to go to war … then it was 1937 and Ernest Hemingway, among other young Americans and Europeans, went to Spain. … Germany and Russia experimented on the body of Spain with all sorts of new equipment they might need in a more serious war. In my high school, Evander Childs, we held many rallies and demonstrations. We wept for Spain and wrote poems."
Under the tutelage of his art teacher, Frances Taylor, he won recognition in a 1939 citywide art contest and garnered his first mention in the New York Times. His mother asked the following year to meet Miss Taylor, while his father “wondered about this woman who helps my son to complete monstrosities.”
Art Students League
At the League he studied under Jon Corbino, Arnold Blanch, Morris Kantor, and George Picken. His early work, already leaning that way, reflected the strong social realism of Corbino and Blanch, but his own sense of the surreal, the strong abstract compositions of George Picken, and the soon-to-come postwar explosion of abstract-expressionism seem to have had more lasting influence on the style, if not the content, of his later work.
In his first semester at the Art Students League, he wrote his Miss Taylor, that he has developed “a waterwash technique … having all the precision and clarity of my oils. They smack of Blake in medium and execution.” (figs #) These are remarkable and often surrealist paintings that, while certainly reminiscent of Blake's Jerusalem and Urizen, are closer to Pieter Breughel the Younger with their dark vision, images of tortured naked humans that suggest the herding of Jews into the concentration camps. (fig #)
Such imagery was a part of his style for most of the decade. For example, he sold a 1945 dark painting (fig# "Boardwalk") of Coney Island snaking half way aournd a turbulant globe with the roller coaster rising like a snake's head while the opposite side seems to suggest the trenches and devastated landscape of Europe to Arnold Schwartz, a Jewish collector in Los Angelos, possibly the American olympian who won a bronze medal in 1932.
While still a student at the Art Students’ League, Gross exhibited at the National Academy, the New York Watercolor Club and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, indications of his talent and mastery. He found these years both fulfilling and challenging.
Working on a mural in 1940, he wrote that he felt “the same way I did when I received my first fire engine.” The mural in question may well be the one proposed in an undated manuscript in the Smithsonian, History of the Jews. A sketch, possibly of Moses (fig #), and large canvas (fig #) deal with that subject (see next section).
In any event, he applied for an Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Scholarship for Mural Study ($1000 a year and up to $3500 for three years), but it went instead to Sidney Simon (1917-1997). Another grant from the Art Institute of Chicago also did not materialize, but Sidney was proud that Corbino chose one of his painting "as the most interesting character study of the term, hanging it in the student concourse.” Artistically, he seemed excited and confident.
In his personal life, he wrote of his adolescent turmoil between his “libido”, “states of indulgences” and a desire for “asceticism … not the fanatic variety, the outgrowth of religious fervor” but “tempered by logic and a sense of humor.” He had an intense interest in Freudian psychoanalysis that continued unabated for years. His paintings and writings demonstrated his intense social sense of justice. He mused about science and metaphysics and the insignificance of Man. In frustration, he ended one letter to Miss Taylor with this statement: “To hell with being considerate, with being practical and economical … the only way anything accomplishes anything is by being egotistic, ruthless and damn selfish.” It would appear, however, that he lived his life in denial of that creed.
In November 1942, now in the Army, he wrote Miss Taylor of a consciousness-altering experience. The result, he said was that “three weeks ago I was approaching in a most lethargic manner the absurdity of suicide. Today, in true strong fashion, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.” Although it was not clear what that experience was, he would later write of a dramatic epiphany on Christmas Day 1942 (see page 23). His third wife, Elaine kept in her collection two paintings (fig #) with clearly Christian iconography and several early abstracts seem to include crucifixes.
It appears, contrary to the resumé in the Smithsonian prepared by his last wife Elaine which lists his discharge as 1945, Gross was actually honorably discharged from the army in 1943 “because of a medical condition” after serving in the Maps and Charts division preparing training materials. The early indications of alternating depressions and states of elation seems to have followed him much of his life.
Mural Plans & Social Realsim
His early Art Students League "Blakean" work, a fascinating painting depicting Mary & Joseph (fig#), as well as several abstractions of the crucifixion (fig#), as well as extensive interest in more mystical religions and experiences mesh with his life-long fascination with Freud, states of mind and the nature of the universe. His body of work, including his writing, draws little on his Jewish heritage, but an undated draft of a “Description & Continuity of a Proposed Mural” reveals his narrative imagination and hints at his scholarship. Two undated oils (figs #) appear related to this proposal. it may have been the draft of the proposal he submitted to the Abbey Prize committee. The scale of his proposed work was large. He proposed “a heroic theme – a personal evaluation of Jewish History from Abraham to Palestine condensed to fit the allotted space.” Following are snatches of that proposal:
"The mural begins with Abraham rising out of the emptiness of idol worship, idols based on the Syrian male Sphinx, Egyptian goddess Sekhmut and the Hittite god Teshub. We move into Egypt with Rameses II, the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The Moses section with the tablets of law, move[s] directly into Solomon, the era of Israel’s greatest power.
"The most desperate hour I’ve combined with the actual fall of the temple, the equally crushing blows dealt it by its external enemies and its own corrupt kings and aristocracy. The synagogue symbol is from a 14th century Spanish Hebrew manuscript. Grand Inquisitor Thomas de Torquenada burned over 2000 heretics and imprisoned and ruined 100,000 others, most of them marranos, the group moving toward the burning. The symbol of the Ghetto follows, barred and bolted by heavy chains. The Cabala section depicts a condensation of symbols: Amulets against the Evil Eye, 17th century paper amulet, the ten Divine Attributes (Spheres), a signature of Solomon Maleho with pennant of Messianic redemption and a sequence of cryptic word symbols.
"The French Revolution extoll[ed] reason above dogma, the rights of man, freedom of conscience. That liberated the Jew from their Ghetto prison.
"The second side begins with an intimation of the Great Synagogues which began to flourish everywhere. At the height of Jewish Intellectual accomplishment, the two great figures of our time, Einstein & Freud. The rest we know too well. At this apex of Civilization, the Nazi horror arrives. I have used a symbol of the furnaces again the benediction symbol and now the prelude to Palestine, the shekel of liberation Theodor Herzl. The soldiers are a symbol of the Haganah along with the Hasidic recruits, a defense army.
"We now move to the tillers of the soil, the development of a farming community.
"In both sides of the industrial section, I have placed symbolic ‘immigrants’. In front of the ever growing development, I have placed Weizman and Ben Gurion.
"The Talmud says about the Torah – ‘It is not the Torah of the Priests, not the Torah of the Levites, nor the Torah of the Israelites, but the Torah of Man. Its gates are open to receive the righteous nation which keeps the truth and those who are good and upright in their hearts."
His montage canvasses in a similar style to the Golum painting, depicting basketball players, workers and jet fighters also are not dated, but are likely from after his army service to, to the early 1950s. (fig#s).
Marriage to Kay
A wonderful group of undated sketches depict a young Sidney at work, probably between 1945 and 1952. They are somewhat clumsy, captioned ink drawings, likely by Kay, paint a happy picture of their marriage, for none depict her, and all capture intimate moments. Kay was a subject of several his paintings, often in “his chair”, smoking or reading. (figs #) In the drawings he is clearly quite young and almost gangly with a full head of hair, quite different than the man in the photos a decade later. What comes through in the group is the picture of a wife supportive of her husband’s determination to make a living at a demanding and often disappointing way to make a living.
Many of the drawings have descriptive, often humorous titles. In sheer number, the most common subject is Sidney at work, sometimes in his favorite easy chair, sketching or working on a large canvass on an easel, sometimes “Sidney working in the studio sitting on the painting chair,” a wooden kitchen chair. Other captions for her drawings include: “Mr. Gross gets engrossed … Sidney & the muse at work … Sidney building his dreams again, … grinding paint … working on Childrens Song.”
There’s a hint of frustration when she titles one diptych “Marvin’s Speedgraphic intrudes on a Sunday breakfast” and when she titles one sketch of his working: “Saturday Nite Fling!” Or when she titles another drawing “Sidney reading to delay a Sat Nite bath.” But her appreciation for his work comes through in so many drawings of the artist “We’re both getting tired, but don’t give up … looking at a night’s work … Now let’s see what I’ve painted.”
Sidney apparently had got a commission to illustrate a book, for Kay refers to it in several titles, in one case “drawing a wheelbarrow detail for Childrens Song,” probably the title.
A "On the River" painting dated 1951 shows Sidney's address, in his handwriting on the shipping instructions as 54 West 74th Street, on the corner of Columbus Avenue. It along with several other of his paintings were shipped to Albert Schwartz in Los Angelos. Their apartment, however, is elsewhere identified as being on the top floor of 55 West 95th St. They looked out on the roof from “our kitchen & privy”. From the roof, not directly accessible from the apartment, they had a view of the city skyline beyond. Their living room, “our most lived in room with a couch cover I actually managed to sew up myself” (actually a double bed doubling as a couch), was also probably their bedroom. His studio, though an archway, was more likely, in the architect's mind, intended as a bedroom. The radio and a double gourd bottle that figure in several of his early paintings (figs #) are clearly depicted. An adjacent large room served as Sidney’s studio. Kay drew a lot of details of the rooms and studio, of “Sidney’s Easy Chair waiting for him” or occupied a Sidney “stop[ping] for a Bailey tune” or taking “time out for coffin nailing” – smoking.
They both smoked; one of Sidney’s portraits shows his wife, hair up in curlers curled in that chair enjoying a cigarette. They apparently drank prodigious amounts of coffee. One drawing depicts them “all jumbled up” in the Jumble Shop in the West Village, a storied Tea House and taproom (and former speakeasy), that Simone de Beauvoir described in America Day by Day as looking “almost European with its red tiled floor and its quiet little tables arrayed along the walls. You can eat and drink there all night.” There’s a drawing of them in a fancy railroad dining car, and drawings of interactions with friends, including a number of drawings of a woman named Marion.
Eventually, Gross rented studio space in the village, but Sidney never gave up the apartment, After Kay died, his third wife Elaine apparently called the apartment building home until 1999, though, at some point, she moved to a smaller unit. She died in 2009, just short of 40 years after Sidney’s death.
Gross received excellent reviews in the New York World Telegram and Art News, whose critic wrote: His paintings “are annealed by a nervous and electric quality that is most interesting … highly sensitive and competent … The landscape 'Abandoned' is remarkable for its haunting suggestion.” His prices ranged from $75-350. Margaret Breuning, the following month, headlined her story: “Gross Rings Bell” and wrote that he “has in the popular phrase ‘got something’.” She seemed pleased that he showed “not a trace of influences” from his teachers at the Art Students League, “but appears decidedly on his own in his imaginative designs and tactful use of luscious pigment.”
The New York Times distinguished art critic Howard Devree wrote of that first show: “Sidney Gross gives evidence of estimable qualities, including imagination and a real sense of paint ‘feel.’ Still in his early twenties, Gross is busily assimilating a mixture of rather diverse styles.” Devree assessed his portraits as “honest and well individualized. There are good movement and rhythm in his forms.” His conclusion was that Sidney Gross “has his own vision, however, and, already, no mean equipment for future development.” His surrealist imagery, often executed in watercolor, incorporated almost organic urban decay anticipating descriptions of science fiction writer Philip K. Dirk and cinematic landscapes of Ridley Scott.
The Art Digest critic and Devree cited Gross’ emotive and expressive “Derelict” and “Ecce Homo,” which in a later review, Devree noted, “is a bitter comment on the chaotic antagonisms of today.” Gross made “The Critic’s Pick” in the Telegram’s 'This Week in Art,' where the critic was Emily Genauer. John D. Morse in Magazine of Art included him in his list of the “Top Ten Critics’ Selections” that included the distinguished company of Henry Moore, Jacob Lawrence, and Robert Motherwell.
The same year The NY Times critic Edward Alden Jewell praised Gross’ “Victory 1945,” which was purchased by the Whitney Museum. That painting was widely reproduced.
Moving past the war as a theme, his “Forms at Dusk” were singled out from a One Man Show in 1946 at Contemporary Arts by Devree who wrote, Sidney Gross “puts forth new claims to consideration as an artist with something to say and with steadily increasing facility in saying it. He is not to pigeonholed as a practitioner of expressionist, surrealist or a practitioner of abstraction, nor yet as a romantic realist, although there is a blend of all of those in his recent canvasses.”
Of The “El to Erewhon,” he said Gross “has something of the mordent quality that Butler would have acclaimed.” He lauded 'Technological Landscape' and 'Manhattan Landscape.' They were “satirical impressions of a cock-eyed world.” He described Interior as “tender and nostalgic.”
The range of Gross in that exhibit was revealed in the review’s next observation, “'The Dance,’ a smaller picture combines color with calligraphic statements and is strident, bizarre and strident." 'Skating Rink' (fig#) appears to have been part of this exhibit. "Gross makes use of color with instinctive, but incidentally decorative effect. If you study many of his works in his varied styles, one thing is clear ... he likes big strong upthrusting design.” While most of his early work showed the influence of the concurrent trends in the art world, all of it revealed his distinctive signature vision.
Magazine of Art devoted a full page to the exhibit. Their critic wrote:
"What first took my eye at last year’s exhibition was the paint itself. It didn’t look as it had come out of a tube. It had subtlety and a richness of texture that suggested 16th century Venice instead of 20th century America. And color … approached El Greco. Later I learned that is similarity was no accident … What is also clear is that Sidney Gross at 25 knows pretty well what he wants to say and has found the right way of saying it. … To have achieved even the beginning of such a union of form and content so easily and so early holds definite promise for the future."
The Tribune’s critic Emily Genauer headlined her story “Gross is Arresting,” also citing 'El to Erewhon.' He received excellent press in publications as far away as Toledo, Ohio.
Gross’ most laudatory review was probably the three-page spread in Pic Magazine which was headlined: “A Guy, a Brush, and a Future / Sidney Gross, 25 Year-Old Veteran, Hailed by US Art Critics as a Painter of Assurance,” exclamation points unnecessary. Gross was “a recently discovered diamond,” a seer who “before the war … painted what the ravages of war could do to humanity." Crumpled up, this article appears in some of post war paintings. (fig#) The author went on, "He foretold the possibility of an atomic force in an early triptych.” Four of his works were reproduced for readers, no small coverage in those days.
Art Digest, however, gave a mixed review of the same show, noting his paintings now sold from $100-400. The next month the same magazine quoted Gross who said of 'Rooftops,' which was to receive much press over the years, “I tried to detach the idea from reality, physically as well as aesthetically. It is from this period, that we date his meticulous muted semi-abstracts of construction. It became a world unto itself resting in infinite space.” The same sentence appears in one of the artist’s small sketchbooks. Most important, Critic Ralph Pearson agreed that he succeeded. And, parenthetically, likely the view from this privy window and rooftop vista.
1946 - ‘To the Left’
Gross soon moved beyond a decidedly grim vision of man’s place in the universe. In 1948, he earned two notable NY Times entries. Critic Aline Louchheim spoke of the “promising Sidney Gross … discovering a new, romantic beauty in the city.” She contrasted him and a few others with the “hundreds who sought to indict the ugliness of the city" (and earned themselves the name of the Ashcan School) "… who deliberately propagandized the squalor of the city and the humdrum effects of its life.” (fig #) Critic Howard DeVree cited his work in an article entitled “Courbet the Vital.”
1947 - ‘Luminous, mottled color’
The same year his work appeared in the annual invitational exhibit at the Carnegie Institute where his work was cited as “especially well represented.” His work was included in the first Hallmark Greeting Card Company contest. Although they did not give his work an award, critic Aline Locheim argued it deserved one in her review. He was also awarded a Tiffany Fellowship.
1949 - Surrealism Abstracted
'Cityscape' in the collection of the Jewish Museum is dated 1949 (fig #) and helps date that style which included Train Wreck and the two undated examples (fig #s). Gross was clearly working on several styles in the first years after the war. What is remarkable is that all his styles, short-lived though they might have been, were critically and artistically powerful.
His bold ink sketches of construction (fig #) and the waterfront (fig #) from a portfolio preserved by his third wife likely date from this year.
1950 - ‘Near-Abstract’
His show “On the River” was illustrated and drew applause from fellow artist-critic Belle Krasne. The same year, his painting “Altar “was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Painting Today, an important cataloged exhibit. His career futures seemed assured.
1951-2 - ‘Urban Abstractions’
His solo show of images from the docks of New York City and Brooklyn produced memorable colorful abstractions of tugboats (fig #), docks and workers. A group of his sketches (fig #) for these paintings are a minor works of art on their own. The forms of his strong dramatic, almost calligraphic, abstract compositions from this period underlie his color (fig#). The Butler Institute of American Art has over small 200 ink & watercolor drawings, wood and linoleum blocks also probably from this period.
His work, even as it metamorphosed into new approaches, continued to rate plaudits from the NY Times. Of his 1953 exhibit, Preston said, ”All is calm, all is dusky in Sidney Gross’ discreet, mysterious and beautifully painted abstracts … as little susceptible of exact interpretations as cloud forms or the face of the moon … the pictures are gratifying to the eye … a slowly moving kaleidoscope of autumnal moods.” The In Brief comment described them as “of unusual refinement.” His luminous colors, labeled by other critics as “emotional”, “feverish”, “banked like fires” are always described as tempered, “subject to the discipline of design.” (fig #)
A group of calligraphic sketches are dated 1952 (fig #). The Butler Museum has a large collection of similar sketches and prints. A group of small unstretched oils date from the same period. (fig#)
Meanwhile, the editors of Contemporary American Painting & Sculpture (1953) listed Gross, noting that his work “was already in the permanent collections of the Whitney … Princeton University and the University of Georgia.” The same year the Corcoran accepted 'Moves in Blue; for the invitational exhibition.
1954 - ‘Uneasy Reaction to our Age’
The same year, the Whitney Museum purchased his painting 'Woven Orbit,' and Sidney won the Hassam, Speicher, Betts and Symons Purchase Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters for a still life. Carlyle Burrows in the Tribune noted “his uneasy reaction to our age “ in his pieces in the Audobon Artists Exhibit.
Outlining the crowded 1956 season, the NY Times reporter included Sidney Gross among seven “Well Known Americans and Cezanne.”
1958 - Amalgamation of Styles
That year, he participated in the Annual Exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. He also won the Grand Prize at Art/USA and $500 for his painting 'Promontory,' rating illustrations in several publications including a mention in Time Magazine. Only seven paintings were honored out of over 1500 shown and many more submitted. His solo exhibit at Rehn Gallery that year included a number of paintings lent by private and museum collections. He began to teach classes at the Art Students League.
1959 - ‘Explodes like Stormy Waves’
1960s - Maturity
"Combining abstract elements with his unique spatial perspective, the artist allowed his forms to float against a solid background, while presenting to the viewer a central formal element of harmoniously placed color, simultaneously separated from and integrated into it.
"Composition #10 is an extraordinary embodiment of this technique … The vertical drip marks provide the illusion of upward movement, cross-cut by a small but emphatic window of blue sky with a wisp of white cloud, which contrasts to the lush greens of the central form. This is supported by the intrusion of black diagonals, which form yet another composition within the subject.
Bennett Schiff of the NY Post, later to become the founding Art Editor of Smithsonian Magazine, raved in a long article in 1961:
"Of the mature seasoned and genuine painter – true artists I am speaking of - who have been working in the nonobjective mode for some considerable years now, one who strikes me consistently as being of major size and substance is Sidney Gross … There is a concentration of what I must call – paying proper respect to the words -- a noble beauty; they are works of heroic force. Gross’ colors are magnificent … They activate sensation and emotion; they stimulate thought and, connection and feeling … These are extravagant words because they are meant to be. Gross is a superb artist … able to give form and shape and visual materiality to the mysterious processes of the soul."
His paintings from this year marked a change in his style. The NY Times critic complained that his new work was “bereft of any poetic or natural suggestions,” but the critic in Arts Magazine said, “The size and Baroque sweep of them make standing near them as physically exciting and unnerving as a carnival ride.”
The caption to his 1962 painting on permanent display at the Art Students League reads “In the 1940s, Gross used jewel tones and stylized forms to portray the docks and industrial scenes of New York City. By the early 1960s, he had forged a unique visual language that combined hard-edge and gestural abstraction, still in bold colors.”
His 1963 one-man exhibit in Provincetown rated significant publicity. Two of his 1959 paintings are included in the permanent collection of the Provincetown Art Museum, an untitled abstract and Engram #4, “a definite and permanent trace left by a stimuluson the protoplasm of a tissue,” according to SF author Ron Hubbard (whatever that means).
His annual exhibit at Rehn Gallery was of “paintings that had gone into public collections before being exhibited in New York” including, the Corcoran, Baltimore Museum of Art, Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and art collections of Columbia, University of Illinois, and Morgan State College. It is likely that his wife was ailing in this period, and that his production of new work was diminished. Although we have recorded a number of paintings as 1960 and 1961, none of the paintings we have seen are dated 1962 or 1963.
Meanwhile, he enjoyed solid press in the Baltimore Sun as a result of a gift of one of his paintings to the Baltimore Museum. He also began teaching at the University of Maryland.
Kay Gross Dies
It was perhaps during this year that he refined his most distinctive contribution to the second generation of Abstract Expressionism, the dramatic juxtaposition of knots of energetic, kinetic color and blacks against strong geometric areas of complimentary color, stated goals in his lecture notes for his classes at the Art Student’s League, where he had become one of its most popular teachers.
1965-66 - Chaos & Order
"Gross added a new dimension by introducing a hard edged quality to splintery and irregular multicolored forms … a chaotically-organized cluster of small, brightly-colored interlocking shapes … In sharp contrast is the more orderly arrangement of the structure at the right that appears to be energetically charged and, like a rocket, soars upwards linking the massive black area in the lower register of the canvas with the pure white space above, unbroken but for the delicate orange and blue diagonal bars … One of the most significant stylistic achievements of Sidney Gross … was his extremely sensitive ability to harmonize the opposing romantic and classical poles of expression that for many centuries have dominated Western thought and the character of Western art."
Wooden called Gross “one of the most accomplished exponents” of Abstract Expressionism. Artist Helen Thomas, then studying at ASL with him, described his use of a quick drying mixture of a medium of oil paint that enabled [the artist] to work swiftly … in Gross’s class I did come to realize that the color of a layer of paint can be different in different surroundings.”
On the personal side the recent widower married the socially prominent Juliana Penn, a marriage that was to be short-lived.
1967 - ‘Intellect Tempered by Emotion’
Jeanne Parks in Arts Magazine headlined her preview: “Expressionist UFOs in Gross, Exhibit Tomorrow” and added, “Intellect tempered by emotion and extended by cosmic realization infuse … Sidney Gross’ recent paintings.” Some writers speculated that Gross sought an artistic expression to parallel the space age, the artist most likely took inspiration from Carl Jung’s book Civilization in Transition. Gross quotes Jung in the catalog for his exhibit:
"UFO is a symbol consisting not only of archetypal forms of thought but of instinctual elements as well … It does not appeal only to man’s conscious technological fantasies, or to his philosophical speculations, but strikes deep down into his ‘animal nature.’ This is what we expect a genuine symbol to do; it must affect and express the whole of man."
Based on his copious notes on ancient and contemporary myths which survive, Sidney Gross consciously strove to find and incorporate ‘genuine’ symbols for his entire career.
Gross left Art Students League and accepted a tenured position as Associate Professor of Art at the University of Baltimore. There, Gross became embroiled, apparently almost immediately, in an impassioned defense of Morton Grossman (b. 1926), the accomplished watercolor and painting teacher who was dismissed, appaarently for political reasons. Gross’ papers in the National Archives contain several, heavily emended drafts of his statement before the faculty committee.
1968 - Notes on a Book
His lecture notes and comments by his students indicate he was working on a book on Color and Aesthetic Concepts based on Wilheim Ostwald’s Color system and the work on color theory by his fellow artist Josef Albers. Sidney's extensive writing, mostly in longhand, on the relationship of physical science and psychology and art suggest that a book on that relationship, too, was in his future.
1969 - ‘The Bardo Tripyches’
In 1969, Sidney married his third wife, Elaine August. Sometime in the 1940s, according to Elaine's own account, she had first met Sidney (she was in early stages of dementia, so she also said they got married then and he died a year later). His new wife was active in Jewish philanthropy, interested in art, and an advocate of social issues. As a member of the New York Collegiate Chorale, she had met Marian Anderson, who was also photographed with Sidney. She was described as a “patron of the Art Students League” where Sidney had long taught. Given the personal pain in Sidney’s last few years, it is possible he turned to an old friend. In any event, Elaine became Sidney’s third wife. The two paintings he gave her as a wedding gift are joyful, almost playful abstractions. She kept them through her long life (fig #s)
If Sidney Gross was moving to a newer synthesis of the several movements in modern art that resonated in his work, it was not to be. He died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months after his marriage on November 17, 1969. Elaine told her stepdaughter and others that he had committed suicide, but the death certificate indicates heart attack, as does a 1985 letter from Sidney’s physician. In any case, he died alone in his Chelsea Hotel studio at the age of 48. He is buried in Mount Ararat Cemetary in Farmingdale, NY. where ironically he reportedly met Elaine years earlier, and where 40 years after his death, Elaine was also buried.
He was survived by wife Elaine and two sisters, Mae (‘Mazie’) Gross and Sylvia Kaplan. He had no children. Elaine helped organize the half a dozen retrospective and memorial exhibits that followed his death, but, in fairly short order moved on, leaving no one to nurture his estate or reputation.
She went on to marry retired NYPD officer Lawrence Richman, took his name, though they lived in New York on 95th street, perhaps in Sidney’s old apartment. She returned to her first love, her singing. Elaine August died in 2009.
In 1985 the Gertrude Stein Gallery appraised the Grosses and later provided a venue for at least one more solo exhibition.
Hiatus to Obscurity
As indicated earlier, his widow helped organize several memorial exhibitions, in Baltimore; New York; Provincetown, RI, Essex, Ct, and The Haque in Amsterdam, but she remarried, picked up a stepdaughter, and her beloved Chorale became her focus. They performed with Paul McCartney, Leonard Bernstein and other well known musical lights. She did, however, document much of her first husband’s career and its successes and donated many of his papers and sketches to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. In time, she donated over 100 of his paintings and many drawings to the Art Students League, which, unfortunately, is not an exhibiting institution, and so, most remain removed from their stretchers, in storage, as do many of his paintings in museum collections.
His principal gallery, the Rehn gallery, had already lost its second generation owner, who died in 1956, moved and changed names several times over the ensuing years, eventually closing in 1981 when Clancy who had purchased the name from Rehn’s widow died. Even had the gallery survived, its reputation was not in its limited stable of abstract expressionist artists, but rather in the important talents of a number of late 19th and early 20th century masters, whose estates were active. Ironically, Frank K. M. Rehn’s adoption and promotion of the young Sidney Gross may have played against his future reputation.
Sidney Gross’ shortened career produced a body of strong and memorable work that still touches chords it did during his lifetime. He, himself mused that it took “20 years for the public to catch up with the artist.” Gross preached humility before the universe. Man tamed the perceived anarchy of the natural world and produced cruel urbanization for many in peace time and outright destruction in war time, a crueler chaos than the world of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
Gross explored the cruelty of man, war, urban decay in the idiom of the 1930s, in his surrealist works of WWII, and, I believe, his later abstractions explore the dynamics of his earlier work in symbolic color and movement.
Of his last works, Mallow complained that in his “panels of expressionist painting and panels of hard-edged forms separated by fields of pure white – there was no resolution, only a simple confrontation.” I agree with his assessment of those works of his last year, the Bardo series. They embody bits of his early style with an intellectual concept and color theory but, to my eye, fail to achieve his vision. I suspect that Gross may have known that, an, if he did, it may have contributed to considerable stress of his last three years.
Had he lived, he might have created a synthesis that really worked, as he had several times in his brief career. He had taken the lessons of the social realists and developed a powerful surrealist twist, taken that and provided a vision of urban decay that offered hope, taken that to create abstractions of urban shapes and structures, and took that to his strong expressionist paintings of the mid 1950s to the early 1960s. His UFO and Probe series began to juxtapose his abstract movement and forms against fields of color, work that some critics, myself counted as one, declared his best.
As we consider the changes globalization has forced on society and the natural world from an early 21st century perspective, maybe there is no resolution, only confrontation.
Former students, two exhibiting artists, one in advertising, and two painting dealers recalled him fondly. All five described Gross as “inspirational” and one described him “as wild and dramatic” in his teaching methods.
In 1980, artist Helen Thomas wrote in the magazine Leonardo about her experience with Gross in 1966 until he left: “Under Sidney Gross … I changed from representational painting to the style of Abstract Expressionism … exhilarating for me.”
Memorial services following his tragic death took place in New York and Baltimore. In both cities his students took special pains, organizing an memorial exhibit at the University of Maryland, while the Art Students League donated a painting in his name to the Butler Institute of American Art.
In one eulogy, a student said, “In my light will always be reflected my teacher. His message to me was always personal – show the I. He was a big example of optimism in a world where too many forget we are not machines. Professor Sidney Gross was the University of Maryland Art Department's most popular teacher.”
Friend and fellow artist Leo Manso mourned the loss of “a force so rare in a mediocre and transient world.
The Man, the Artist
The passage, however, which struck the deepest chord may have been this: “I have found little ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine.”
Gross, as a letter to his high school art teacher suggests, was deeply affected by the war:
"I took a long walk into the fields far from camp. The further I walked, the more remote was New York and all the life I had known before this now. When I no longer could see the camp, I lay down in a yellow field, a sweet smelling ochre, laden with wild life, rife with a million busy lives - filled with a great variety of trees. The land moved out, wild, far as I could see. The sky rolled around it, vast, full of wispy, cottony cloud. There was a warm sharp wind, bending the grasses. At times it seemed to be blowing through me as though I had for a moment become one with the tall, stretching trees.
"I thought of my niece, her dolls, her strange attachment to a tiny piece of blue cloth that she calls her moony. Her private, personal, interpretation of this world lived in the minute – her game is as meaningful as ours, more so. I am playing some else’s game, one that has nothing to do with the exaltation or salvation of the individual.
"The open racial prejudice, the cursing, swearing ignorance, the blind acceptance.
"Out there in the intuitive simplicity of a white shaggy hound; it capers and dances in the air you breathe, the wild joy, you have unknowingly hoped for, the permanent release. The rasp-like wind bends you, then - one with the grasses and wild life – lowers you into the sweet bed of this earth, with athletic ease.
"The crowded subway we must beware of hurtles you through a dark endless avenue, black with blind confirmation. The stations are all the same, full of weariness and the escapist games. Not to ride madly with the crowd going nowhere, but to walk alone, going somewhere! Into the earth, becoming the earth, winged and bodiless. You that lay there, a stranger to the earth, resting upon arms and hindsides aching in the lap of the War God - you have bourne long enough the wraths of this huge farce? Opposite, alone, longing for the warm inside of it all. Panting for the flying field, the skyward, earthward, soulward planes - to highways unknown!"
A small notebook filled mostly with sketches, customers’ names, and art supplies opens with these words about his marriage in 1944 shortly after his discharge:
"This book has in its insides a material corporeal record of two people who have entered into the state of matrimony in the year of our lord 1944 in the midst of war and dread horror which has [unclear]ed the guts of a world before our eyes
His early extensive notes on art history meticulously record the dates of artists, juxtaposed with the dates of historical events, political developments, philosophers, and starting in the Renaissance, composers, poets, science and discoveries.
‘An Idea is Weightless’
“I have always been concerned with the highly disciplined, relational esthetic solutions regardless of how my execution may have changed over the years. This does not mean intellectual as opposed to intuitional. I do not think the creative process is either-or, but both-and.”
“This act of wrenching away an object or concept from its habitual associative context and seeing it in a new content is an essential part of the creative process.”
“Gesture has no precise edges, no exact shapes, no filled forms. You must be able to feel it with your body. You should draw not what the thing looks like, nor even what it is, but what it is doing.”
“Art does not emerge from theory. The natural tendency to play and to explore coupled with the necessity to deal with deep seated psychological problems is the raison d’être of the creative act.”
“We know what art can turn into when it becomes propaganda. It is possible to make sociopolitical statements as an artist, as long as the work can hold its own as a formal entity. It is very difficult, but it has been done.”
“There are estimated to be 100,000,000 different color stimuli … In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”
“Psychologists have a field day with signs & symbols in the plastic arts, but have been strangely mute when confronted by color & music. Color defied most reductionist approaches because it is essentially, I believe, visionary and anagogic. It is a mind-expanding substance and my feeling about it is reverential.”
“The line between fine and commercial art is no longer drawn. Pop art did this.”
“The space that isn’t objective becomes the important space in Oriental art … They are concerned with the silences.”
On Art and Artists
He felt strongly about direction modern art was taking. “Picasso is so direct. If he wants to pull a window shade down, he pulls it down.” When “a critic said Matisse’s paintings look like they were done by a 6 year old and Matisse was … flattered.”
Gross said of his near contemporary Jackson Pollock, whose work was “vilified as random nonsense, schizophrenic”, that Pollock’s work was “very controlled, lyrical and beautiful, almost like old masters.” Gross mused, “A room with a few specks of dust floating in the air is overcrowded - compared to the emptiness which we call a stand and on which my arms are resting … This is the nature of reality in 1968. Who seems closer to the physiological world - Jackson Pollock or Andrew Wyeth?”
He admired others of his contemporaries: “DeKooning does the hide and seek painting. Rauchenberg uses a complex series of elements, and Kelly uses a minimal solution. Both get a solution and that’s the important thing.”
He acknowledged debts to early artists and other traditions. “Bonnard was a great academic draftsman and his naiveté was deliberate … Goya, El Greco, Tintoretto and Gruenewald are all dealing with illusionism,” and “Good art of the West is coming out of Oriental art and the signs and symbols found there.”
“The working artist,” he said, “is never resting, always seeking, and demanding things from himself. He sells pictures, but in his studio, he is always an amateur,“ for the “dissatisfaction we feel with our last picture sends us into the next picture.”
Gross noted the obvious: that for most of human history, artists depended on commissions from patrons, setting subject matter and even some details, and with it the obvious changes in the post war world, and the added burden and opportunity that gave to artists.
In our age, wrote Gross, “The artist no longer “necessarily aim[s] to please the customer,” perhaps because “It takes a layman twenty years to catch up with what a painter is doing.” At least, he noted, “The editor louses up the writer’s manuscript, the maniacal conductor louses up the musician’s masterpiece, but nobody touches the artist’s picture!”
Albright Art Gallery
Selected Invitational Exhibits
Whitney Museum - multiple exhibits beginning in 1945
One Man Shows
Contemporary Arts Gallery, NYC 1959-1939
Sidney Gross was listed in Who Is Who in the East, Who Is Who in America annually from 1957 to 1967, Who Is Who in American Art from 1948 to 1969, and, after his death, in Who Was Who in American Art. Essays about his work appear in Master Paintings from the Butler Museum, Catalog of the Whitney Collection, and in Permanent Collection of the Witchita Art Museum as well as in exhibition catalogs of various museums and his one man shows, and a more recently in a monograph for an exhibit in the 1990s.
Notes on this Monograph
It’s hard to present an artist’s work fairly dependent largely dependent on the public record which remains after his death, in Sidney’s case, far too soon. We hope that those who stumble upon this obscure monograph, who may have known Sidney or can provide additional insight into his work will share your information or pictures. We’d love to start a dialogue, and we will continue to add to this biography on the web, until bite the bullet on a second edition of this work, at which time we will correct the numerous errors and update credits on any of the paintings included.
In the earlier print version of this biography, most illustrations are from over 200 slides taken of Sidney Gross paintings. We owe the recovery of those to Geoffrey Fleming, at this time director of the Southold Historical Society, to whom we also owe thanks for hours of downloading articles and proofing. We have gathered from several sources another 20 or so photographs of paintings, and a good number of original sketches. You can obtain a copy of that full color monograph with over 50 examples of the artist’s work for $10, by contacting us through our website LSDArt.com.
We are indebted to the fact that New York Times has digitally archived this period, and the summaries in Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian, as well as their micro-film records of many documents. More recently we owe thanks to the Pam Koob, curator of the collection at the Art Students League, who directed us to Susan Richman, the stepdaughter of Elaine Gross, and her partner Walter Spiegelman, and to Pat McCormick of the Butler Institute of American Art for encouragement and images of their collection of sketches and monotypes.
We beg indulgence for the condensations of Gross’s words. As Sidney said, “The editor louses up the writer’s manuscript.”
Source: Leonard Davenport Fine Arts