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|Best thing I saw or learned
|I am fascinated by Asante goldweights, a thing that I didn’t know existed. In the traditional Asante culture of Ghana, when a man came of age he received a set of these bronze weights, for weighing gold dust (used as currency). They let you verify you’re getting the right amount of gold.
They are beautiful little figures, each representing a different weight, as well as an Asante proverb or aphorism. They remind me of Japanese netsuke, another small men’s accessory that could be purely functional, but how nice that they are beautiful, too.
Chaim Gross was apparently as fascinated by them I am, given the multitude of them he collected and displayed in a mirrored case in his dining room.
Chaim Gross was a sculptor active in New York from the 1920s until his death in 1991. In 1963, well after he was a well-known artist, he and his wife Renee purchased a building on La Guardia Place in Greenwich Village to use as both home and studio. In 2005, after Renee passed away, the Gross Foundation considered what to do with the place, and ultimately decided to restore and open it to the public.
And yet, this place is supremely under the radar. I discovered its existence while compiling my master museum database. But I’ve walked by its building numerous times, and I never once thought it might be a publicly accessible museum, much less such an interesting one. It may be the most stealthy museum in New York City — or the second, after the New York Earth Room.
Without hesitation, you should definitely seek it out. It’s a remarkable tribute to an artist and his family.
The Foundation is only open for tours, taking reservations via its website. It’s the kind of small organization where my tour guide was Sasha Davis, the Executive Director of the Foundation itself. She was fantastic, a wealth of knowledge of, and warmth for, the Grosses, their art, and their world. She was also incredibly nice about delaying the start of our tour for a friend who was running late.
The Ground Floor
The parallels between the Gross Foundation and the Judd Foundation are deep — both studio/museum spaces open for visits. But where Donald Judd was a consummate minimalist, Gross was a masterful maximalist. His home is sensorily overwhelming, literally every square inch of wall and table space covered in art.
That maximalism begins with the foyer. The entryway at the Gross Foundation is filled with photographs of Chaim, his family, their circle of friends. You know, like Marilyn Monroe, Allan Ginsburg, just the usual crew. But I found this one particularly compelling.
It is, Sasha the Executive Director said, a picture of all the living American artists with work in the collection of the Met as of 1983. Taken at the Temple of Dendur. Warhol, Chaim Gross himself, Warhol, and Louise Nevelson are relatively easy to identify. But I’m apparently mortifyingly bad at artist spotting. Jasper Johns has to be in there. Ditto Ryman, Nauman, Marden. Judd, Frankenthaler, Martin. Georgia O’Keeffe would’ve been alive when this photo was taken, and surely the Met owned some of her work by the early 1980s, but she’s not there. So, mysteries abound. So far Googling has not turned up any info about the picture. I feel like there’s an essay here!
Past the entryway, the ground floor consists of a galley showcasing Chaim Gross’s work, as well as his airy, light-filled studio. That space, downstairs from the galley, is replete with his tools and several pieces he was working on when he died. It also a number of uncarved blocks of the now-rare tropical hardwoods Gross favored for sculpting. Sasha related that sometimes when other sculptors come to visit they eye those blocks covetously. The overall studio and gallery create a fascinating time capsule to the man and his art.
A Touching Moment
Sasha explained that Gross felt strongly that sculpture needs to be experienced haptically— that is, by touch — to really understand it. The Foundation has struggled a bit to figure out how to honor that sentiment, and just opened a temporary exhibit on its second floor of select pieces of Gross’s work that visitors can, yes, touch.
It is incredibly weird to put your hands on a piece of art in a museum setting. Transgressive. Like you’re violating a taboo, even when it’s totally sanctioned by the rules. A friend needed to wash her hands before she could do it. I had to make two tries and each time I pulled back before finally taking the tactile plunge. And it’s so interesting. I guess I agree with Gross. You can look at works from all angles and think you know them, but the sense of touch opens your eyes — pardon the metaphor! — to a sculpture’s true nature.
The woods Gross worked with are particularly touchable. Ebony, lignum vitae, others, each have their particular warmth, density, grain, and smoothness. There’s also a piece in alabaster in the tactile exhibit, but that stuff is sensitive to skin oil, you have to wear a glove to touch it. It’s still worth it!
The Living Rooms
The tour then ascends to the third and final public floor, which preserves the Grosses’ living and dining rooms, and the art therein. It’s an astonishing surfeit of things to see. Given Gross’s circle of friends and colleagues, it’s unsurprising that the collection includes pieces by Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Marsden Hartley, and many others. The furniture is an interesting, eclectic mix as well, some midcentury some older. And then there’s the African art, which clearly was a major passion of Gross’s.
The tour touched on a broad swath of the collection; I think Sasha could probably speak to every single piece, though there’s no way we would’ve had time for that. I was impressed by the depth we went into on the African art — and by how clearly it influenced some of Gross’s own sculpture.
You Should Visit the Gross Foundation!
I have to confess that the name Chaim Gross meant little to me when I first added this place to my museum list. One of the reasons I saved it for near the end was I didn’t know just what to expect. (Also, the studio was closed for renovation over the winter.) Upon visiting I realize I’ve certainly seen his work before, but I’ve never found it compelling enough to learn about.
Much like my Noguchi Museum visit, long, long ago on this project, the Gross Foundation changed my thinking about his work, and gave me a far deeper appreciation for what he did and how he did it. He seems like a fascinating guy, with a great family. The only thing the tour doesn’t provide is a sense of Gross’s motivation for his art — what influenced him and why he created what he did remains enigmatic. Sasha Davis says he didn’t really say or write much about that aspect of himself. Even though he taught many artists, he always focused on technique, not so much on inspiration.
The Gross foundation is a tremendously good house museum, all the better for being so unjustly unknown. If you like the art and artists of mid-century New York, or any kind of sculpture, you really have to go. Visiting was a glimpse into a life and a body of work that I wish I’d known about sooner.
Gross’s maximalist art collection and great eye ensure that it is extremely unlikely to get old. This was my first visit to the Gross Foundation, but I’m sure it won’t be my last one.
|526 Laguardia Place, Manhattan (near Bleecker Street)
|General Admission: $15. Advance tour reservations required.
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