Nancy Grossman's Bust

by Avi Varma

Artist, curator and educator Avi Varma reflects on the work of Nancy Grossman, whose leather head sculptures were at the forefront of a powerful shift in twentieth century art, from modernist to post-modernist concerns.


Judith Butler, philosopher, professor and leading thinker in feminist and queer theories, posits a deep value to “being outside oneself.” The projection of one’s identity beyond oneself and into otherness persists throughout art history, from the reveries of Persian poetry and Indian classical music to the paintings of Caravaggio and, today, the ecstatic video installations of Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin.  Butler’s theories have been central to contemporary efforts to redefine subjectivity and the relation of the self to others, yet they rose directly out of the historical, social, and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For Nancy Grossman, whose Bust (1968) is on display as part of Kathryn Andrews’s selection of works from the Nasher Collection, these movements, and the turmoil surrounding them, fed an art that also raises persistent, unsettling questions about the nature of the self. 

Following her studies at the Pratt Institute, Nancy Grossman began her professional life as an artist working primarily with collage and abstract landscapes.  A shift in the type of work that engaged Grossman occurred in 1965 when her mentor, the sculptor David Smith, as a challenge to the younger artist’s mastery of material, gave her a trove of unused leather horse harnesses from his farm.  Though the incorporation of leather would prove a decisive move for Grossman, Smith tragically never saw them.  He died in a car accident on the way to see the first of Grossman’s new series of assemblages, titled For David Smith.  Grossman’s practice from 1965 to 1967 was inspired in part by the loss of her mentor, and further enabled by the freedom afforded her by receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965.  In conversation with the work of contemporaries such as Lee Bontecou, Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain, Grossman’s assemblages incorporated painterly, abstract expressionistic elements, the cut-up repurposed leather forms used as if they were lines in a painting by Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline.   

Yet, by the end of 1967, the money had run out and so had the inspiration as Grossman was forced to seek out employment as an illustrator of children’s books in order to support herself.  The sudden cessation of art-making was traumatic for Grossman, and she described herself as bound, “stuck with my legs chained to the table night and day.” She goes on, “When I finally came back to my studio I couldn’t relate to my work at all.  Energy itself was terrifying to me.  I had so quieted down from my imprisonment that I was in despair.” The first drawing she made upon returning to the studio was of a head, in bondage, clad in leather.  It is a tribute to Grossman’s sense of adventure and trust in the artistic process that she pursued this sudden figurative, provocative turn in her work in spite of the fact that it would be a direct challenge to the cultural mainstream emerging from abstract expressionism into the full embrace of minimalism.  

Even at her first solo show at Krasner Gallery in 1964, one sees in Grossman’s work a hybridity and blurring of boundaries: landscapes are equal parts subjective and objective; her collages slice through time and remix elements of her life; and her bodies are sites upon which social, psychological, political, and emotional forces all intersect.  Though her process is modernist and intuitive, working through material to answer aesthetic questions, the outward form of her work, starting with the leather heads, is decidedly post-modern.  The heads symbolically bridge the individual and social body and likewise blend the organic and the machinic.  Their political force is immediately felt; their passionate engagement with social life, and their inward turn toward the subjective and contingent conditions of identity, must have struck a powerful feminist chord in the cool, male-dominated art world of New York in the late 1960s.  

It often took Grossman a year to complete a single bust.  After carefully carving them in wood—often reclaimed wood from found objects such as telephone poles—Grossman would cover the visible portions of the heads in gleaming white enamel before adorning their surface with leather.  She painstakingly took apart and repurposed used leather, in the process yielding odd, striking shapes that she would use like lines in a drawing.  Zippers, chains, belt buckles, harness strings, horns, fierce silver teeth all made their way into the busts.  A new language took form, evocative of bondage and fetishism, yet more intuitively expressive of an erupting psychic energy.  For example, when she first decided to make these images of bound heads into sculpture, Grossman used the symbol of the upraised fist of the Black Power movement as the form for the heads.  The leather and metal clad heads also have connections with African tribal art, such as Songye and Congolese Nkisi Nkondi figures.  Though they read as male, Nancy Grossman describes the busts as self-portraits.  It is hard not to see the work as embodying a moment in which many firm categories of social identity such as gender, race, and sexuality begin to become undone and fluid – exactly the condition Butler would theorize two decades later.  

Needless to say, the busts were a sensation.  First exhibited in 1969 at Cordier & Eckstrom gallery (from which the Nashers purchased Bust), again at the 1973 Whitney Biennial and ultimately in Grossman’s numerous retrospectives, Nancy Grossman’s leather heads were at the forefront of a powerful shift in twentieth century art, from modernist to post-modernist concerns.  Strikingly, it is at this, its most progressive moment, that classical elements begin to appear in Grossman’s work.  Her dialogue with violence brings her into historical conversation with Goya and Caravaggio.  Numerous commentators have compared Grossman’s bound figures to Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave.  The choice to use the bust, a form going back to antiquity, places Grossman’s singular voice within sculpture’s long narrative of what is human and what is deserving of commemoration.

Nancy Grossman, Bust, 1968, Leather over wood and white enamel, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection