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Chaim Gross papers, 1920-2004

Biographical Note

New York City sculptor and teacher Chaim Gross (1904-1991) is considered one of America's foremost sculptors, known for his semi-abstract bronzes celebrating the human form, and his pioneering work in direct wood carving. Gross taught for over fifty years at the Educational Alliance Art School and for forty years at the New School for Social Research.
Born in 1904 in Wolowa, Galicia, in what is now the Ukraine, Gross studied at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1919 and at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna in 1920 before immigrating to New York in 1921. He attended the Lower East Side Educational Art School in New York City from 1921-1927 where he began lifelong friendships with artists Moses Soyer, Raphael Soyer, Peter Blume and other important twentieth century artists. Gross also studied with Elie Nadelman at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and Robert Laurent at the Art Students League. He began teaching at the Educational Alliance in 1927 where his students included Louise Nevelson.
Gross married Renee Nechin in 1932 and they had two children, Yehuda and Miriam (Mimi). Mimi Gross is a New York-based artist who was married to artist Red Grooms from 1963-1976.
Gross's first solo exhibition was held at Gallery 144 in New York City in 1932, and he began to develop a reputation as a major contemporary sculptor when he joined the Federal Art Project in 1934 and won a commission from the Treasury Department competition for art works for public buildings in 1936. His projects included relief panels for the Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, D. C., and a large-scale family group for the France Overseas and Finnish Buildings at the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1938 Gross founded the Sculptors Guild with William Zorach and served as the guild's first president. His work began to be acquired by major American museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art which in 1939 awarded Gross a $3000 purchase prize for his wood sculpture of circus performer Lillian Leitzel.
In 1938 filmmaker Lewis Jacobs produced a thirty minute film, Tree Trunk to Head, of Gross carving a wood sculpture of Renee Gross in his studio. Lewis subsequently produced a seventeen minute film, The Sculptor Speaks, of Gross working in his studio in 1957. That same year Gross published an influential how-to book The Technique of Wood Sculpture, featuring photographs by Eliot Elisofon.
Much of Gross's early work focused on performers such as acrobats and dancers, family groups, and the mother and child bond. The bulk of his work was in wood, particularly hardwoods with a dark or pronounced grain. In the 1940s, after hearing that his brother Pincus and sister Sarah and her family had been murdered by the Nazis, Gross devoted time daily to sketching in his notebooks, producing a visual diary of the emotional trauma involved in processing their horrific fate and navigating his own grief. A collection of the drawings was published in Chaim Gross: Fantasy Drawings (Beechurst Press) in 1956. Gross carved My Sister Sarah – in Memoriam (no. 36) in 1947 and made the first of seven trips to Israel in 1949.
By the late 1950s Gross was working less in direct carving and was focusing primarily on modeling in plaster on an armature for casting in bronze. In 1957 and 1959 he traveled to Rome, Italy, and worked with the Nicci Foundry. Bella Fishko began representing Gross's work after establishing Forum Gallery in New York City in 1961. After 1947 Gross had begun to incorporate more Jewish iconography and Old Testament themes into his work, designing and casting large scale menorahs for synagogues such as Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh and the Menorah Home for the Aged in Brooklyn during the 1960s. He executed six bronze panels, entitled Six Days of Creation, for Temple Sharaay Tefila in New York City in 1964, and Ten Commandments for the International Synagogue at Kennedy Airport in 1970-1971. In 1973 Gross illustrated The Book of Isaiah, published by the Jewish Publication Society of America.
Gross was active in many art-related and philanthropic organizations throughout his life and was the recipient of numerous awards, honors, and honorary degrees. He was elected to membership of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, became an Academician at the National Academy of Design in 1983, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984. A solo exhibition Chaim Gross: Sculpture and Drawings, was held at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts in 1974. In 1977 Gross had three retrospective exhibitions at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, the Montclair Art Museum, and the Jewish Museum in New York City. Scholar Roberta Tarbell wrote a key essay on Gross for the Jewish Museum exhibition.
In addition to being a professor of sculpture and printmaking at the Educational Alliance Art School and the New School for Social Research, Gross taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the art school of the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Students League.
Gross had begun collecting African sculpture in the 1930s and was later introduced by art critic Frank Getlein to Warren M. Robbins, who established the Museum of African Art in 1964. Gross gave Robbins several pieces for the museum and connected him with other individuals whose private collections of African art Robbins learned would be key to the success of the museum. A selection from Gross's renowned collection was exhibited at the Worcester Art Museum in The Sculptor's Eye: The African Art Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Gross in 1976.
The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation was created in 1974 at 526 LaGuardia Place, the historic Greenwich Village townhouse which Chaim and Renee Gross purchased in 1962 and renovated to include studio and gallery space with living quarters above. Three years after Gross's death in 1991, the Renee and Chaim Gross foundation opened to the public with a memorial exhibition of the sculptor's work. 526 LaGuardia Place continues to house an extensive collection of Gross's artwork, a photographic archive, and Gross's personal art collection. Gross's work is represented in major museums throughout the United States and abroad, with the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden housing the largest collection of his sculpture in a public museum.