Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Leather-Bound Heads of Nancy Grossman

I wanted to share a link to a book about the artist Nancy Grossman. I remember coming across her images when I was very young, and found them absolutely fascinating. This was well before I had any knowledge about the world of S&M, and the fact that they were so gripping, and so unusual - and completely lacking in context usually. They remained mysterious to me until fairly recently. There's now a book about her work: "Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diarywhich I'd recommend, 
produced in conjunction with a major exhibition of her work at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York in 2012.

Since all I know about her work is from the writings of others, I'm including some of it below:

"These wooden heads by Nancy Grossman “with their sensory parts strapped, zipped and nailed shiut. Her famous series is a reaction to “anxiety and turmoil that weigh upon the individual in contemporary society”. When it comes to artistic influences, the exhibit description is really ignoring the big, kinky elephant in the room."

Written by Marina Galperina May 20, 2011

Physical abuse in the artist’s early years and to some disturbing, inappropriate sexual attention from a male relative in her adolescence. Ms. Raven quoted Ms. Grossman: “After 25 years, I see that all of the head sculptures are self-portraits that refer to the bondage of my childhood.” That could partly explain her seemingly obsessive repetition of the image of the enigmatic, scary yet alluring, possibly predatory man. 

But the heads might also be flirtations with a powerful but otherwise buried part of herself. The potential of the female artist had yet to be widely acknowledged in the late ‘60s. Ms. Grossman’s early heads were ferocious harbingers of the coming feminist insurgency. 

Whoever or whatever that masked being was, he, she or it possessed Ms. Grossman like an occult spirit and led  her to create figures that are as darkly weird as they are sensually beautiful. 

Ms. Grossman’s heads seem to partake in a chilling depersonalization of sex at the same time as they celebrate demonic, thrill-seeking anonymity. 

But there are other dimensions too. They can be taken as allegorical figures of extreme states of male consciousness.

Some have all of their orifices covered, which adds to the feeling of hidden, pent-up intentions and blind ambitions. Some have animal horns protuding from their foreheads. Others bellow and howl with toothy maws. Altogether they radiate a primal warrior’s spirit. Yet at the same time they appear captured by the gear they wear. They cannot escape tbeir own archetypal natures. 

If you know Ms. Grossman’s heads only from reproductions in art books, you may be surprised at how lovingly they are made. She began by carving, filling, sanding, painting and polishing a chunk of found wood - a piece of telephone pole, say - into something resembling a classical or neo-classical head. With their strong features and thick necks hinting at muscular bodies, they read as male, although Amazonian femininity is not out of the question. As for the top layer of animal skin, only Ms. Grossman knows exactly how she fitted this covering and its hardware so perfectly to the complex topography ot the underlying sculpture. 

Anyone passingly familiar with American art of the past half-century will recognize the eerie, erotically menacing leather-clad heads that Nancy Grossman produced between the late 1960s and 1990. Often including zippers, buckles, straps and chains, these sculptures most immediately evoke S&M bondage gear. Displayed in a high-end shop for the sexually adventurous, they would fit right in. 

Love the red lining around the nose, and notice the use of buttons for the eyes.

Artist in her studio at age 25.

"Signing" her work with nail heads driven onto the wooden base.

Nancy Grossman being interviewed.

This monumental sculptural figure is larger than life-sized. 

I hope this inspires some of you to do your own research about this remarkable artist and her powerful work. 


  1. Oh wow, that looks very interesting, thank you for sharing!

  2. Interesting how those were almost all male heads, except for the dog head and #34 and #59.

    The artist, being female, maybe was commenting on the "otherness" of male identity.

    She was also definitely appropriating S&M imagery. Some of those head harnesses could have come straight out of an ad in Skin Two.

    This is very interesting, and as above, thank you for finding and sharing this with us!

    1. It's interesting that you called out #34 and #59 as not male… I was just thinking they all were male, but you've made me take a closer look at them all. I guess it's the large necks. And the dog is definitely different. I understand at some point Nancy described them as self-portraits, although I'd be willing to bet that the individual heads have some kind of meaning unique to each of them. Some seem so aggressive, in pain or tortured, others are passive, resigned or introspective. They refer in the book to Grossman's personal history "and the charged landscape around her, specifically the liberation movements of the 1960s and the Vietnam War." I think they have a timeless, mysterious and monumental quality. Never seen anything else quite like them.

  3. Prolific artist of historical importance thanks for sharing

  4. daring masks perfect for me you must be an artisan with the sadism to the Flower of the Skin.

  5. Technically, she's almost certainly used classic pattern-cutting, fitting a toile to the head which she's transferred to leather. The fact she's used chrome as well as veg tans means she cannot have used wet-moulding techniques (only usable in the latter) and might well have glued the masks to the wood (I've never seen one to look carefully) - you'd have to use veg tans on a human model to get that close an impression. Then, make up loosely and tighten the stitching once fitted. The equivalent of being sewn into your clothing...