Nancy Grossman is known for her disturbing sculptures and drawings of leather-bound heads and figures. Born in New York City, she was the eldest in a family of five children. When she was six, her Italian mother and Jewish father, along with two aunts, bought a farm in Oneonta, New York, and the three families, including sixteen children, resettled there.
Unhappy, and always in "hot water", in her rural high school, Grossman decided she wanted to be an artist. She began studies at the Pratt Institute in 1958. When her family fell on hard times and had to move to Arizona, she defied her fathers command to return home, instead getting a scholarship and a job so that she could remain at Pratt. Grossman has said she remembers feeling terrible about standing up for herself against her fathers will. Her childhood memories appear to be rather stormy. A rebellious and non-conforming child, she recalls that she was punished a lot, and she claims to have internalized the hostility of adults into anger against herself.
Her earliest drawings, exhibited in 1964 at the Oscar Krasner Gallery in New York, seemed to be explorations of the failure of communication between men and women, and already revealed a disturbing, visceral quality. In 1966-1967, after receiving a John Simon Guggenheim grant, she began to show collages of found objects. The tubes and lacings of these collages have a ruptured, violated quality, like torn-open viscera. Untitled (1967) resembles a group of organic tubes ripped open.
Upon the conclusion of her Guggenheim grant, she decided to focus on creating book illustrations in order to save enough money to take another year off and devote herself to her art. At the end of this period, when she finally returned to her studio, Grossman found herself unable to carry on with her collages. Instead, she picked up the repeatograph pen she had been using for the book illustrations and began to draw whatever came to her.
The first thing she did "was the drawing of a head, belted up, closed up, and I felt as if I had done something dirty and secret." Although she had not done figurative work for many years, she now felt a compulsion to make more of these drawings and also sculptures of similar subjects. Since she had been working with leather in some of her collages, it seemed natural that the coverings in these new works should be leather. Grossman showed these pieces to no one hiding them like a guilty secret for a year and a half. She was appalled at the images that were beginning to emerge, but her integrity as an artist compelled her to go on with these honest statements.
Sometimes, as in Horn (1974), her heads will have a large phallic looking horn sprouting out from above their blindly bound eyes. Sometimes, there is a closed zipper over the mouth, and sometimes-gritted teeth show through, as in Kazakh (1971), and Figure Sculpture (1971). On some of the heads for example, the Unfinished Andro Series (1969-1971) there are laces over the mouth shutting it tightly, and the head is completely bound in leather, with only the nose poking through. In Portrait of AE, a 1973 drawing of a nude figure with a bound head, there is a pistol with a telephoto sight tied close to its eye.
These strange figures are both terrifying and pitiable. While they sometimes suggest sadomasochistic aggressiveness, at the same time the figures appear to be prisoners: bound in leather, tied and blindfolded by straps, from which they are writhing vainly to escape, as in Male Figure Study (1969) and Figure Sculpture (1971). The leather coverings seem to be kind of a second skin, which is needed to protect the vulnerable psyche of her subjects.
Grossmans amazing technique and powerful draftsmanship immediately brought her to the attention of the art world when these works were shown at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery, New York, in 1969, 1971, and 1973. She received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1974.
Grossman denies that her figures are explicitly male in their symbolism. When asked, she has said: "Whenever I wanted to say something specific, personal to the effect that I am a woman I would use a womans image if the work were figurative. It seemed natural. But if I wanted to say something in general, I would use a man. Its as if a man were our society."
It seems that her figures are general depictions of the human condition rather than statements about men versus women. Grossmans leather- bound and blinded figures move spectators deeply and irrationally. They arouse complex fears of aggression and of being bound in the same way ourselves. At the same time, we fear having the same impulses that we read into the figures.
(Information for the biography above is based on writings from the book, "American Women Artists" by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.)