Tang Teaching Museum
Hard, rusted metal and soft, aged leather pieces twist, turn, and protrude from a central leather-covered box set against a bright blue ground. The objects were taken apart and re-sewn to create corporeal shapes that commingle, separate, fight, and embrace, seemingly wanting to burst forth. This is where tension lies: we sense that something is about to occur, but we do not know exactly what or how. We start to recognize individual forms as resembling internal organs and genitalia, but together they complicate one another. The action is inevitable yet impossible, the surreal forms identifiable yet abstract.
Nancy Grossman created a pivotal series of sculptural wall assemblages in 1964–1967. Artist and friend David Smith had purchased antique farm equipment for his own work at an upstate New York auction and offered Grossman a group of horse harnesses and leather bits he didn’t need (some of which she used in Rust & Blue (Yuma) in 1967).(1) With these materials, she started working bigger, and her collages became more sculptural, moving off the page and into space. During an early showing, in 1965, an art critic called them “agonizingly clotted assemblages.”(2)
Clotted is an apt word for these works. They are bodily: as a figure—as verticality leads one to read Rust & Blue (Yuma) in particular—the forms become phalluses, voids, innards. The organs hidden beneath our human skins are revealed as reinvented constructions of animal skins mixed with machine parts. They swell out from a horizontal opening that can no longer contain them. Grossman disavows us of gendering the presumed figure—there are too many possibilities, and they are too intermingled, too compounded, too transient.(3) Their hybridity prevents essentialism.
The blue ground, atypical for this body of work, alternatively suggests landscape. Grossman says of the blue: “This began on white canvas, and it didn’t mean anything to me.” Looking for connection, she thought about her time in Tucson, where she traveled in the mid-1950s and where her family moved later that decade from their upstate New York farm. She describes Arizona’s lands as “orange” and “alien” to her, so different were they than the lush woods and lakes of New York. She says, “Arizona was the land of the petrified forests, wood that had become stone, striated with color, archaeological digs, and excavations. I felt the blue was a metaphor for ‘petrified water,’ holding the desert figure in place.”
Petrification is a stagnant state that results from tremendous transformation. More than 200 million years ago, the area that is now east-central Arizona had a tropical climate that sustained 200-foot-tall conifers and many other species. Buried by volcanic ash, the wood petrified, becoming fossils. The rusted browns, oranges, and siennas of Rust & Blue (Yuma) are found in the logs of the Petrified Forest National Park and across the Southwest. In the work, the desert’s energy bubbles up, exploding from within—from figure to landscape to figure, becoming one, the same.
Grossman’s reference to petrified water is more imaginative. “Everything is petrified in the desert,” she says. Everything is made dry, still. But the work is not still—symbolically or literally. Over the five decades since Grossman first made Rust & Blue (Yuma), parts have shifted. Perhaps most notably, two central tubular forms that were once fully erect, protruding straight out from the center, have moved slightly downward as space for the void at center-right expanded. “If it settles into itself, it’s good,” says Grossman. Ungendered and supragendered, figure and landscape together, it evolves.