Bettina Grossman, an artist who took up residence in New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel and developed a small but growing league of followers in her later years, has died. Grossman frequently evaded questions related to her biography, making details such as her age difficult to nail down, but she likely would have been in her 90s.
Artist Yto Barrada, who is overseeing a catalogue raisonné of Grossman’s work, announced the news of Grossman’s passing on Instagram. “She touched many of us in so many ways,” Barrada wrote.
Grossman was the oldest living participant in the current edition of the Greater New York quinquennial, which opened last month at MoMA PS1 in New York. At that exhibition, Grossman is showing Phenomenology Project (1979–80), a photographic series in which the artist captured warped visions of New York as reflected in various windows spotted around the city.
In addition to works like these, Grossman produced more mysterious sculptures, drawings, prints, and more that resist easy analysis. At the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Arts Center at Governors Island, as part of a 2019 two-person exhibition with Barrada that was organized by Omar Berrada, Grossman exhibited a series of wooden sculptures resembling long-lost artifacts. These slender, sloping artifacts were exhibited on plinths, along with minimalist marble objects of the sort that are also being shown currently at PS1. (Barrada also showed Grossman’s work alongside her own in a 2020 show at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.)
“I was introduced to Bettina Grossman’s work via the incredible efforts of Yto Barrada,” said Ruba Katrib, one of the curators of this year’s Greater New York exhibition. “When looking more closely at Bettina’s output, it is clear that she was a prolific and resourceful artist who, early on, was pushing notions of conceptual art practice in inventive ways. It has been very inspiring to see younger generations of artists really connecting with her work in ‘Greater New York,’ which assures me that she will be recognized and remembered for her brilliance and verve.”
Although Grossman showed her work periodically, it was not until the past decade and a half that her work was brought to the attention of the larger world. Born in 1928, Grossman lived much of her life as a recluse, remaining shacked up for decades in Room 503 at the Chelsea Hotel, which has hosted a range of artistic figures, from Mark Twain to Valerie Solanas. She plastered her door with artworks and mysterious pieces of text, including one that read “Help Me, I’m Being Killed.”
Within that unit, Grossman had been storing up decades’ worth of work. It was an astounding amount of art—especially considering that a fire in 1968 had destroyed some of her output. When artist Sam Bassett obtained access to Grossman’s apartment in 2007, he was bowled over by what he saw, and decided to make a documentary about Grossman, titled Bettina.
“I saw right away how brilliant she was, even though she had basically retracted into solitude for 30 years,” Bassett told the New York Times. “She was living in her hallway, surrounded by all these boxes, but inside, hidden away, was this incredible body of work. Really, she was suffocating in her own greatness.”
Grossman accrued a strange kind of fame. She appeared on a Mental Floss article titled “7 Famous Hoarders,” and received press in 2006 when the Chelsea Hotel’s owners attempted to evict her because of the state of her apartment. A judge dismissed that petition.
Grossman’s work could receive even greater recognition going forward. On Instagram, Berrada said that Barrada’s catalogue raisonné is due to be published next year.