The words masterful and mastery assert themselves the instant one encounters the works in “My Body” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, both for Nancy Grossman’s command of a wide range of skills and her active state of dominance, identity and selfhood.
Grossman deploys various specific techniques in her drawings, from the field of expressionist pastel strokes that create and contain the female nude in Standing Figure in Landscape (1961), to the surgically precise black pen-and-ink lines that delineate and emphasize a bound Male Figure (1969), to the tenderly delicate, pink-paper collaged construction of stitches on the torso in Gun Figure (1974). Most present a drama of mastery over the body, sexuality and personhood. Some male figures are constrained, hooded with all their orifices except noses covered or zippered shut, while in other drawings they appear to be the aggressors in a drama, as in the “Gunheads” series. Even when the figure is depicted largely through fine pen and ink line, Greco Roman and High Renaissance sculpture springs to mind: Greek pediment sculptures of war prisoners and dying warriors, or Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves struggling to escape the marble in which they are trapped. However, unlike these historical examples, Grossman’s figures are in a state of equipoise; despite the hardware of bondage, they show no sign of pain or struggle.
The central and frequently noted paradox of Grossman’s work is that the artist, who began her work in the decade before the emergence of the feminist art movement that ultimately embraced her, found her truest voice as an artist when she began almost exclusively representing men. She has said that “Whenever I wanted to say something specific, personal … I would use a woman’s image.” She explains, “But if I wanted to say something in general, I would use a man. It’s as if man was our society.” Such questions of gender identity, embodiment and power are as central today as they were when I first saw Grossman’s work at Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery, as Women’s Lib was becoming a leading popular movement in America. I was in the early stages of my own efforts to express in art the experience of living inside a female body, while having only a male art history to look to for example. I admired and accepted her work as relating to what was at that point a barely named desire to express my own embodiment and subjectivity. I read her work through the history of Surrealism, and with some familiarity with the figurative work of Richard Lindner, who had been one of her teachers. What I did not bring to my viewing at that time was any knowledge of S&M accoutrements or practices. These were not as easily available images as they are now, and Grossman herself was not aware of this type of imagery until someone showed her some S&M photographs after seeing her work, at the time upsetting her greatly. Today if anything it is the first thing one may think of, which may perhaps even limit other interpretations.
Seeing the work now, I also think about other histories and popular culture not yet in the center of public discourse when these works were first created. Grossman’s hooded, bound men and the figures whose masks become “Gunheads” are like members of the fascist Freikorps militias in Germany in the interwar period, who, in his revelatory study of the intersection of masculinity and fascism, Male Fantasies (1987), Klaus Theweleit describes as being so fearful of not being able to contain their disgusting bloody innards, which they associated with femininity, that they conceived a militarized, armored body, “the soldier-male.” Grossman’s armament-enhanced figures also anticipated Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Grossman described the figures in her work as becoming “more and more like machines.” Seen now, they are practically blueprints for the costume and make-up designs for the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s onward. This is a prescient, influential, masterful body of work that continues to inspire and challenge. —Mira Schor
Nancy Grossman (b.1940), Sighted Gunhead, 1973. Ink, wash, graphite and tempera on Bristol paper, 19 x 24 inches, signed. © Nancy Grossman; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY