Reflections from Curator George Gurney
The first time
Before sculpture became my primary interest, I included Chaim Gross in a course I was teaching on American art. After one class in which I discussed the sculptor's work, a considerate student informed me that the "c" in Chaim should not be pronounced. Years later, when I met the artist, I chose to address him as "Mr. Gross."
In 1978 I was working on an exhibition of the sculptural decorations for the buildings in the Federal Triangle area in Washington, D.C. I arranged to visit Chaim Gross in New York City to tape an interview and find out whether he had any related works that could be included in my show. In general, I wanted to know what he recalled about his association with the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, a New Deal project of the 1930s. Specifically I needed information about his winning entry in the competition for the Alaskan Snowshoe Mail Carrier for the Post Office Department building and his commission for Industry (often referred to as the Riveters) for the Federal Trade Commission building. These two commissions had come at a very important time in his early career, bringing the sculptor national recognition.
Late in the afternoon on a very cold winter day I made my way to Chaim Gross's studio on LaGuardia Place in New York City, not knowing what to expect and also fearing that he might catch my very bad cold. I felt a sense of urgency because of the possibility that I might not have another chance to talk with him. The artist was then seventy-five, just a year older than my father, who was not in great shape. Chaim Gross was one of the few living artists who could enlighten me about the personalities, as well as the difficulties, involved with commissions for the Section of Painting and Sculpture.
As soon as he opened the door and gave me a strong handshake, my fears about his health evaporated. Explaining that he now did most of his work in another building, he suggested that we go into his old studio. He led me through the dimly lit upper section past a forest of wood sculptures. Descending some stairs, we sat down in the lower end of the high-ceilinged studio, which had a large wall of windows. We were surrounded by his sculptures of every type, size, and material. Many were freestanding or on pedestals or were crowded together on top of numerous cabinets and shelves. I was engulfed by the largest and best collection of works by Chaim Gross, a veritable mini-museum unmatched anywhere else. I had visited the studios of a number of sculptors but had never seen anything like this.
Mr. Gross suggested that we begin our discussion, as he had a group coming to visit him in an hour. I first asked if he had any sketches or models for the Mail Carrier or the Riveters. He promptly stood up, went over to some flat file drawers, rummaged around, and came back with his first three preliminary pencil drawings* for the Riveters relief (in these drawings the subject was welders). Without pausing, he then retrieved from a high shelf his small original plaster model for the Mail Carrier. When I asked to borrow these works for my exhibition, he replied without hesitation, "Of course." He then told me that he had given the intermediate plaster model for the Riveters ** to a friend, Oscar Rosen, whereupon he went to his address book and gave me Rosen's telephone number. I was ecstatic. All of these works were ultimately included in my exhibition, and in time several were given to this museum.
When Mr. Gross finally sat down, the interview officially began, although my tape recorder had been running for twenty minutes to catch any interesting side remarks he might make. I was amazed at how much he recalled of the events forty-five years earlier that related to these objects. His responses confirmed and gave depth to the information I had found in archival sources. His answers were to the point, and I soon realized that if he said he didn't know something, it wasn't because he could not remember. Eventually I asked some questions about his training. Knowing that he had studied carving for two months with Robert Laurent at the Art Students League, I asked how this came about. He replied, "I heard about it and I went there and I did my first wood [carving]." Whereupon, to my amazement, he walked over to a shelf and showed me the two reliefs he had made in Laurent's class.
My hour was soon over, but I didn't have a sense of being rushed. Mr. Gross had been attentive, patient, and cordial. He seemed to know where everything was because it had a history and a meaning for him. As I was leaving, he told me to call if I had any other questions. In fact, he called me first to say that he had discovered a wash drawing for the Mail Carrier and wondered if I would like to borrow that, too. Going out the door, I ran into the group of people going upstairs to see his African art collection. I wondered if that was all they wanted to see, and if they knew what other treasures were standing silently in his studio. I didn't forget, and over the next ten years I returned a number of times and was graciously welcomed by both Chaim and his wife, Renee.
A "Celebration" of form and movement
Renee Gross walked through the Smithsonian American Art Museum's installation of artworks by her late husband, Chaim Gross, as if she were meeting old friends. She had, after all, been present at each of their births.
The centerpiece of the installation is a bird's-eye maple relief carving, Acrobatic Performers, which was a recent gift of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation. It was completed in 1932, the same year the Grosses were married.
Renee and her daughter, Mimi Gross, made a special trip from their home in New York City to attend a public lecture about Acrobatic Performers by curator George Gurney. They talked afterward with museum visitors about the sculpture and other works in the installation, a number of which are on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
"Chaim carved this piece on three planks of wood joined together," said Mrs. Gross. "He sketched the acrobats directly on the wood in chalk before he started carving. He always used hand tools. This is an unusual piece in that he rarely did cutouts in his wood relief sculptures."
Gurney says that Gross enjoyed acrobatic subjects because he was interested in depicting form and movement. "Interlocking figures gave him the freedom to work out poses that were difficult or sometimes even impossible for real people to do."