Is there a better time than summer in the city to hunt for new, treasure-filled places to visit? This year, the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation’s House and Studio flew to the top of my list. If you have never been there, you are in for a treat. If you have been there, but not recently, you will want to return for another look.
When it opened to the public in 1994, visitors to the 1830s townhouse at 526 LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village mostly had access to the ground floor studio. It’s a wonderland unto itself, bursting at the seams with scores of Chaim Gross’s carved wood sculptures, his tools, worktables, vertical files, and an unfinished figure still held in a vise. A memorial exhibition of Gross’s work was mounted in 1994 on the second floor as well. Since 2009, however, the temporary exhibition gallery, library, and archives have been upgraded and now the family quarters on the third floor that are chockablock with paintings and sculptures by almost 300 artists that either hang salon-style or rest on windowsills and tabletops can be visited, too.
There is not a better place in Manhattan to immerse yourself in American art of the 1930s as well as sculptors whose works are often kept in storage, out of view, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum. Plus there’s the additional benefit of display cases and stairwell walls featuring hundreds of examples of African art. And you can’t beat the price of admission: it’s free. You just need to make an appointment.
Chaim Gross’s biography resembles the story of many artists whom art historians identify as prominent American sculptors of the first third of the 20th century. Like Gaston Lachaise, Elie Nadelman, William Zorach, Robert Laurent, and several others, Gross spent his childhood in Europe before coming to New York as a teenager. He was born in March, 1904, in an Austro-Hungarian village that became Ukraine. One of ten kids, he first studied art in Budapest on a scholarship and then went to art school in Vienna.
During the years 1921–27, when he attended the Educational Alliance Art School on the Lower East Side, Gross became friends with a fascinating mix of painters, including the brothers Moses and Raphael Soyer, Peter Blume, and Ben Shahn, and the future Abstract Expressionists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. Nadelman was his teacher at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design; Laurent, at the Art Students League.
In 1932, Gross held his first solo show. At a gallery on West 13th Street, he exhibited 31 sculptures. Later that year, he married his wife Renee; they were together until he predeceased her in 1991. During the 1930s, Gross taught; was a member of the New York division of the Public Works of Art Project (a WPA project); and, with Zorach, founded the Sculptors Guild and became its first president.
Gross continued to teach, mount solo shows, win awards and competitions, and even published a book, The Technique of Wood Sculpture. Yet, he was never financially secure. He and his family—he had a son and a daughter, the artist Mimi Gross—lived on West 105th Street while Gross maintained a studio at 63 East Ninth Street, from which he was evicted after 30 years. Then he had a place on 12th Street, just east of Broadway. Next, he lived at 48 Horatio Street, where Mimi Gross remembers the rent climbing from $80 to $400. After that, he moved to 41 Grand. Finally, after years of stretching a dollar, the sculptor and his wife were able to settle down in 1963 at 526 LaGuardia Place. Tenants occupied one floor.
When you visit the house and studio near Washington Square and see the number of his sculptures that Chaim Gross kept around and the many works he owned by his friends, you may have a hard time picturing him lugging them place to place. But that’s what he did. And this thought adds a certain poignancy to your being there, as does knowing that Gross himself installed the spectacular skylight in his studio.
A number of years ago, I became a fan of Gross’s carved wood sculptures when I discovered Tumblers, an enchanting 42-inch-high work from 1942 at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of many verticals featuring multiple figures that the artist executed, it belongs to a category of sculpture that’s barely remembered today (Jacques Lipchitz also was a master of this genre). Then, about a year ago,
the Metropolitan Museum put East Side Girl, an almost 3-foot-high work carved from lignum vitae in 1928, on display. With her fashionable cloche hat, open jacket, and chic shoes, she could not be more charming. Again and again, in the studio, the temporary exhibition space, and the living quarters, you are going to find wood sculptures by Gross that are best described with adjectives you don’t often find in art writing today. It’s refreshing.
As for the many paintings by his friends that are stacked salon-style, they almost all elicit a rousing wow. I particularly admired a vase of flowers on a creased purple cloth, set off by a red ground, by Marsden Hartley, a forceful portrait of Gross sculpting whirls of wood from 1944 by Milton Avery, an echt-Cubist still life by Stuart Davis, and two women expressionistically rendered by Louise Nevelson, who was one of Gross’s students. There are also memorable works by the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, John Graham, and Willem de Kooning, among so many others.
The sculptures scattered around the residence are equally amazing. How about a graceful dolphin by Lachaise, a compelling portrait of Dame Myra Hess, the British pianist, by Jacob Epstein, as well as works by Nadelman, Laurent, Zorach, and John Flannagan? I should mention the great drawings and prints, but you can see these for yourself.