Having grown up on a farm in Oneonta, New York, Nancy Grossman trained at the Pratt Institute from 1957 to 1962, notably under Richard Lindner (1901-1978). When she was only 23, a first solo exhibition was devoted to her work at the Krasner Gallery in New York. Although her initial works, in the form of paintings and collages, were in line with the New York School (The Fall, 1962), she soon developed her own style and began to experiment with sculpture. From 1965 she created several abstract assemblages in relief by recycling items of scrap, such as tyres, leather jackets, belts, pipes and so on. Their interwoven presentation on a backdrop of wooden panels conjures up hybrid corporeal imagery reminiscent of mechanical viscera (For David Smith, 1965).
Between 1968 and the mid-1990s N. Grossman continued to use scrap items to sculpt a large number of heads in the round, swathed in black leather, zips and straps. These heads reduced to silence and deprived of external stimuli drew on the aesthetic codes of BDSM (Bondage-Discipline, Domination-Submission, Sadism-Masochism) to convey an ambivalent queer image of coercion and pleasure, linked to contemporary sexual liberation movements and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Arlene Raven, art historian and N. Grossman’s partner, saw in these above all a feminist figurative manifestation of the “unwomanly”, levelled at the gender stereotypes perpetuated at times by feminist artists themselves. This explains why N. Grossman referred to these heads as a form of self-portraiture. In 1975 she admitted to critic Cindy Nemser: “To be a woman and to be able to experience your power, your aggression, or your passivity, is not to be alive.” During the 1970s and 1980s she explicitly emphasised the violent aspect of these heads by adding pickaxes, horns or even, in Gunheads, a gun barrel bursting out of a face. More of these straitened figures can be found in many of her drawings and collages (Figure with Folded Arms, 1974), as well as in her more voluminous sculptures (Untitled, 1971).
Alongside the success attributed to these heads, which involved a highly complex technique scarcely ever divulged by the artist, N. Grossman also produced other works that drew attention away from the art object to focus instead on the creative process itself. Her series of Diaries, vast collages of notes, receipts, etc., covered and reinscribed in ink, which she began around 1973, charted the material and everyday aspects of her work, offering a form of enigmatic archive. Her daily, personal preoccupations became entwined with her political commitment to Women’s Liberation, the Black Power Movement and sexual liberation. Gleaning items of scrap from her own studio, she then went on to create sculptures from offcuts of earlier works (Process Piece, 1994).
For the very first time in her oeuvre, N. Grossman’s most recent major series evoked a precise event, the intense emotion she experienced flying over the crater of the still active Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii in a helicopter. In the ensuing years, she devised collages and assemblages in the form of abstract, quasi-mystical landscapes (Collapsing Fire Field, 1994). More recently, the sculptor has returned to her more peaceful compositions, revamping some of her first assemblages from the 1960s and 1970s (Swarm, 1969/2014).