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Nancy Grossman, Head 1968 | Video in American Sign Language

Feb 21, 2018

Educator Lauren Ridloff discusses a work by Nancy Grossman in the exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017.

Behind me we see a sculpture of a head, wearing a mask made of leather with zippers made of metal. The mouth and the eyes are covered. It makes us think of S&M, bondage, fetishism, and restraint. And sex. Grossman's first experience with leather was not with those, but with riding horses when she was a child. She connects the leather and metal to bridles, halters, and lip straps.

Grossman first showed this sculpture in 1968. She said when people first saw it they felt torn. They felt both engaged and fearful of the sculptures. That is exactly how Grossman wanted the viewer to feel.

Grossman grew up in New York City where she helped her parents
who worked in the garment industry. They worked with smaller elements of clothing like darts and gussets. When Grossman started to go off on her own she supported herself by illustrating children’s books. From 1966 to 1967, for nine months straight, she illustrated. She said during that nine months her energy became quiet, contained, distanced and suppressed. When she went back home, she started drawing images of heads. She wanted to transfer her feelings to her own art. She started doing sculpture and felt it captured the same energy and feelings she had at the time.

In 1968, Grossman began focusing on making sculpture heads. Between 1968 and 1980, she made more than forty sculptures. If you take off the leather masks, you will see a real form underneath. The faces resemble Grossman herself. She refers to some of the sculptures as self-portraits. The leather masks they wear represent the same feelings she had in the 60’s. When she was a young female artist, working and trying to develop her art. She was also a vehement objector to the Vietnam war, and felt oppressed in her beliefs.