Sculpture and Drawing
by Janet A. Flint
On September 13, 1974 the Smithsonian American Art Museum (then known as the National Collection of Fine Arts) proudly exhibited Chaim Gross: Sculpture and Drawings. A similarly titled exhibition catalogue was published with an essay written by the show's curator, Janet A. Flint. It is now out of print, but the complete text is offered below.
Chaim Gross arrived in the United States in 1921 at the age of only seventeen, but he was mature far beyond his years and had long since determined on his goal to become an artist. Behind him were years of homelessness, struggle, and deprivation. The outbreak of World War I had turned his native Galicia into a constantly turbulent battleground for the Austrian and Russian armies. Brutal attacks by Russian Cossacks on the Jewish population which in one instance nearly resulted in the deaths of his parents forced Chaim's family to join the countless refugees who fled their homes. Separated from his parents for long periods, pressed into labor by the Austrian army, young Chaim had learned to survive on his own.
In spite of hardships and enforced wanderings, an early interest in drawing had continued to grow, but circumstances, even after the end of the war, offered little opportunity for formal study. Finally, with the aid of his brother, the poet Naftoli, who had left for America in 1914, Chaim and another brother were able to reach New York City. Once there, Chaim soon enrolled in evening classes at the Educational Alliance Art School while working during the day as a delivery boy for a grocery store. It was at the school that another student, Leo Jackinson perceived that Gross's drawings revealed a strong grasp of three-dimensional structure and persuaded him to try sculpture. "It was an invaluable suggestion," said Gross, "for I soon realized that sculpture was the form of creative work that truly appealed to me."*
Between 1922 and 1926, Gross studied sculpture and painting at the Beaux- Arts Institute of Design, again taking late afternoon and evening classes and working during the day. His final studies --two months with Robert Laurent at the Art Students League were in 1927, for Gross had decided that it was time, as he said, "to break away and start carving by myself, since my ideas went beyond the traditional training and I felt it was time for me to try them. So I settled in an attic studio on 14th Street in New York." The next years would not be easy, but he was strong, vigorous, and blessed with humor and a joyous, resilient outlook.
During those difficult years, Gross continued to refine and perfect his carving techniques. These were skills that were not stressed in traditional academic courses, for it was a period when much sculpture was done in clay as models for craftsmen to carve in marble. Gross belongs to a small, important group of American sculptors, such as Robert Laurent, John B. Flannagan, Heinz Warneke, Jose de Creeft, and William Zorach, who broke with tradition in the early decades of the century and turned to working personally and directly with natural materials, such as stone and wood. Although he has worked in stone with distinction, it is wood that has held the greatest appeal for Gross, a love that he says reaches back to his early childhood when his father was a lumber merchant in the extensive forests of the Carpathian Mountains. As a student, he found in the lumberyards of New York unusual woods from all over the world that had not been used previously for sculpture, but which for Gross offered exciting possibilities in their range of color and rich grains. The hard density of these woods such as lignum vitae, ebony, and snakewood provoked a strong physical response in Gross.
"There is satisfaction and pleasure in the sense of touch that establishes an intimate affinity with the wood. . . . I never use power driven tools . . . the use of my hands and the customary hand tools maintain the close contact with the wood that I enjoy . . . the action of the tools in contact with the wood's texture . . . adds another exquisite pleasure to carving."His respect for the physical properties of wood is essential in his work and is perhaps most apparent in his skillful use of the natural conformations of grain to enrich the movement of form within a work.
Movement is an important factor in Gross's sculpture. Fascinated by the circus since childhood, he has consistently used acrobats, tumblers, and trapeze performers as subjects for his studies of the body, especially of women, in rhythmic action. Not because, Gross has said, "I am interested in acrobats per se, but I use these subjects because I find in them many possibilities of variations in forms and movements." Although simplifications and distortions emphasize balance and dramatize major movements, the immediately sensed rhythm of the body remains a vital part of his work; there is a continuous and expressive interplay between an association with natural bodily movement and the abstract play of lines and curves.
Gross's remarkable achievements in wood are now recognized as seminal in the renaissance of wood sculpture in twentieth-century America. At the depth of the Depression, however, recognition came slowly. In 1932, Gross was given his first one-man exhibition at Manfred Schwarz's The 144 Gallery in Greenwich Village, and later in 1933 the establishment of the Public Works of Art Project eased somewhat the precarious situation for Chaim and his bride of one year, Renee Nechin. His first real success did not come until 1936, when his Alaskan Mail Carrier won a national competition for the Post Office Department building in Washington, D.C. In 1938 and 1939 came two other federal commissions and the acquisition of Handlebar Riders by the Museum of Modern Art. Since then, his sculpture has won an ever increasing circle of admirers and many awards, and his works now are in many private collections and in most major museums.
For the sculptor, drawing has always been of great importance, not only for studying the human form but for conceptualizing quickly works that often take shape and reach full realization very slowly. Gross often begins a piece of sculpture with numerous drawings in pencil, pen and ink, and wash that reveal his sure knowledge of the figure and a sense of vibrant action. But his concern with drawing goes much deeper and plays a very important part in his total artistic life. He has been throughout his career an inveterate draughtsman, filling countless sketchbooks and hundreds of sheets with studies from nature, genre scenes, life studies of the nude, or remembered and imagined images. The latter includes a very special group of works that Gross has called "fantasy drawings." Independent of his sculpture, these drawings emerge, without predetermined design, from the artist's imagination, revealing inner thoughts, emotions, and dreams. The earliest of the drawings, which date from the painful years of World War II, are often somber, sometimes violent in tone, while those from the fifties return to a more familiar lyricism.
Much of Gross's sculpture since the late 1950s has been done in plaster and cast in bronze. (Earlier bronzes were cast from his wood sculptures.) Although his subject matter has remained basically the same---acrobats, ballerinas, and playing mothers and children---working in plaster over an armature has permitted him a freedom and openness of form not possible in stone and wood. Motion, which often spiraled in his wood sculptures, now stretches out into space with the lilting movement or energetic angularities. In other works, space is encircled and animated figures move lightly through the air as they climb or swing through rings, form playing against form. The surface of the bronzes, on which highlights dance over rich textures, contributes to animation and movement.
Cast bronze has also permitted works of monumental size. Since 1959 Gross has completed a number of large, important commissions, among them six plaques, Six Days of Creation for Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City; a ten foot bronze, Birds of Peace, for the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and a large figure group, Happy Children, for Orlando, Florida.
Whatever his choice of medium---wood or stone or bronze, pencil or watercolor---the art of Chaim Gross has always been charged with a compelling sense of life. We respond with pleasure to his delight in the physical exuberance of acrobats or the loving play between mother and child. His language is form, movement, and color, but it speaks eloquently for life, joy, and the wamth of human sentiment.
---Janet A. Flint
* Quotations are from Chaim Gross, The Technique of Wood Sculpture, 1957.