Arnold Newman, Chaim Gross with ‘Happy Mother,’ 1942. Courtesy of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation and the Arnold Newman Archive.
During the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-1991) spent two summer months outdoors, working in front of crowds that totalled some 80,000 people. “I would look them over and if they looked intelligent I would answer their questions but if not I would keep on working,” he told the New York Herald Tribune.
It wasn’t just tourists and passersby that stopped to see Gross work. LIFE Magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon also came by, and took several striking pictures of the sculptor, busy in the act of creation.
Those photos are part of a current exhibit, “Displayed: Stages for Sculpture,” on view until December 16 at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation in New York. A practitioner of the “direct carving” method who created totemic human figures out of wood and stone, Gross was a perfect subject for photographers who wanted to capture his creative process.
Born in Austrian Galicia, Gross immigrated to New York in 1921, where he took art classes at the Educational Alliance at night while working as a delivery boy by day. Later, he also studied at The Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and the Art Students League of New York. He began to have some success in 1930 when he was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to create a sculpture for the Washington, D.C. Post Office Department Building; in 1935 his “Handlebar Riders” sculpture was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Today his work can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other places.
The current exhibit, curated by archivist Zak Vreeland, includes photographs by Elisofon as well as by Arnold Newman, Rudy Burckhardt, Robert M. Damora, Soichi Sunami, Walter Rosenblum and Arnold Eagle. Many of these photographers were personal friends of Gross, particularly Elisofon and Newman, and were engaged by him to photograph his work. Their pictures highlight the complex relationship between sculpture and photography, focusing on Gross’s work in some cases, while serving as artworks in their own right in others.
In addition to photographs of completed and in-progress sculptures, the exhibit also features pictures of window displays that included Gross’s pieces, created by designer Gene Moore at stores such as Tiffany’s, Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue.
View a slideshow of images from ‘Displayed: Stages for Sculpture’:
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.
Slideshow: A Sculptor at Work