In the corner of the room, an old black-and-white photograph shows a slender woman with a sharp bob sitting amid a sea of thick ropes. She has a slight smile on her face as she knots a massive piece of rope almost the size of her torso.
The woman is the sculptor Françoise Grossen. Now 73 years old, she straightens the photograph in a display case in the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, where she’s installing her exhibition. “This is me too,” she says in her soft French-accented English as she adjusts another historic photograph. It shows her on a crane hanging a massive rope wall relief inside a building on Lexington Avenue.
Grossen built a reputation for her giant commissions in public buildings across the US in the 1970s, but by the ’90s she faded from view. Until recently, she kept out of the public eye working in near-seclusion in her studio. One of the most sorely overlooked women artists of her generation, Grossen was in many ways too early for her time.
She began experimenting with marine ropes – used for docking and anchoring – to make monumental sculptures that dangled from the ceiling, unfurled across the floor, spilled over pedestals and floated in bodies of water. The works evoked intertwined bodies, carcasses with exposed ribs and exoskeletons of insects.
In Grossen’s hands, rope was no longer a utilitarian material, instead it melded into evocative anthropomorphic forms. The art world, however, couldn’t see past her choice of material and her work was unfairly pigeon-holed as craft instead of fine art. “They didn’t know where to place it. Things need a little drawer and it didn’t fit anywhere,” she muses.
It was only two years ago when she gave a lecture that she was rediscovered. The wife of a director at Blum & Poe gallery was stunned by her work and instantly shared her discovery with her husband. “She said, ‘Honey you’ve got to show them,’” Grossen says with a laugh.
The gallery held a major retrospective of her work in 2015, which incredibly was her first in the US. It slowly reignited interest in Grossen’s art. Following on the heels of that show, the museum exhibition shines a much-deserved spotlight on her incredible oeuvre.
Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1943, Grossen originally had ambitions to become an architect. “But it was very hard for women then,” she remembers. “We were two girls in the class and there were 58 male students. It was very competitive and I felt I would no longer be a woman if I made it to the end.”
She tried interior architecture instead but everything changed when she enrolled in a textile course. “I realised that was my calling,” she says. Grossen began working with wool on a loom but soon abandoned this and started creating freer compositions to the shock of her teachers. “I broke away from the tradition of weaving. I wanted to get rid of the frame,” she says. “With the loom you plan everything ahead of time. If you do knotting you can improvise so it’s more fun.”
After graduating, she spent six months in Africa, where her parents were based. “My father was very adventurous and my mother even more so,” she recalls. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she ventured into Congo and Senegal among other countries. “It really changed my life,” she says. “It opened my world.” She made her first piece with rope during her Africa sojourn. “I couldn’t find wool so I switched to rope. I said, ‘Why not?’”
Grossen dipped the rope in a simple camping stove container filled with dye to colour the threads before knotting it into a tapestry-like work. She continued teaching herself different knots and braiding techniques working with coils of rope. She never directly studied African art but judging from her works in the museum, it’s clear she was profoundly inspired by her experiences in the country. They have an ancient, primordial quality that suggest historic African artefacts and sculptures.
A few years later Grossen saw an exhibition featuring the American artists Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler and Sheila Hicks. “I thought, ‘I have to go to the US – that’s where it’s happening,’” she remembers. So she uprooted her life and moved to California, where she completed a master’s degree at UCLA. By her early twenties she moved to New York. “I lived in a walk-up in a Jewish neighbourhood, where I just had enough space to put a bed and make work on the other side of the room,” she recalls.
Her first big break came in 1969 when curator Jack Lenor Larsen invited her to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. “It was fantastic,” recalls Grossen, who describes it as a milestone in her career. “It was a big moment in the history of fibre, too, because that is the first time [the medium] was shown in an art museum.” She exhibited a piece titled Swan, a gorgeous, raw work made of crisscrossed undyed sisal.
Using ceiling hooks, pulleys, tall ladders and a rope cutter, Grossen began probing the possibilities of rope. “I really worked hard when I was young. I was totally obsessed,” she reminisces.
Gradually she moved away from wall pieces to freestanding sculptures including works that sat directly on the floor. “I’d seen dance in Europe but they always run around a stage or jump, but in New York I saw them crawling on the floor and rolling around. I thought I could use the floor too.”
Not unlike dancers who flung their bodies onto the ground and raised themselves up, she created undulating sculptures filled with movement. Her inchworm series, for instance, were elongated floor sculptures inspired by the insects that she noticed dropping out of trees in the city. That led her to drape braided works upon pedestals that evoked entangled human bodies.
One of the works on display looks like a body curled up in the foetus position or child pose in yoga, with another body stretching forwards on top of it. In another experiment she intertwined pieces of ropes that suggested a row of life-size human forms holding hands and installed it outdoors in one of her favourite neighbourhoods.
“It was in a tiny little street in Tribeca called Staple Street. Now with the security madness you would have to ask permission but I didn’t ask anybody. We just did it early on Saturday morning,” she says showing another black-and-white photograph of the sprawling installation slung between two buildings. A similar work titled Contact III, 1977, composed of knotted orange rope, occupies an entire wall in the museum show. With bunches of frayed rope that evoke human hair, the row of forms look like bodies lining up, hands clenched together.
Sadly many of the works like this on display in the museum have been hidden away in storage since the ’70s. “I haven’t seen them for 40 years since they were given to the museum,” admits Grossen. While the Museum of Art and Design was willing to mount this exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum refused to loan a work they’ve had since the ’60s. “I have some dilemma; I always thought to give work to a museum is the best thing that can happen but if they never show it then – ” She trails off.
Yet Grossen is anything but bitter and remains humble and optimistic. “I feel very grateful. There was a point that I thought if I leave I will have to throw away my work but now it has found homes,” she says of her monumental sculptures.
Grossen explains she’s never worked small. “It’s a confrontation,” she says of the viewer’s encounters with her art. “It’s different from when you have a little precious thing.” Grossen’s personality has a similar effect. The silver-haired woman may appear to be a slow-moving elderly artist but she’s a formidable force. If you listen carefully when she speaks, you hear the voice of that same striking young woman in the photographs.
Fiercely independent, she’s among those rare artists who emerge from obscurity because they held their ground. In her case, she was brave enough to stay true to her art, even if it took decades for the art world to catch up.