Where is Ellen Grossman when she draws?
The 71-year old New Yorker — a petite woman with a silver bun, thin, wire-frame glasses, and outsize blue eyes — works at a green drafting table in her cramped St. Marks apartment. She sits across from a small television monitor on which she watches British popular science shows about ecology. She wears curatorial gloves to avoid leaving oil on a pH-balanced sheet of Cromatico paper, a flimsy page on which she will likely spend between twenty and a hundred hours tracing out fields of undulating metallic lines, each of which is dated with the exact minute of its inception and completion.
Grossman’s apartment studio is cluttered with boxes full of old towels and electrical equipment, photos and uncategorized drawings. It is where she works. But where she is when she draws is a different matter. She is “right, exactly, there,” says Grossman, pointing to the minute curl of one of her hundreds of lines, a place in the trajectory where her trace loops back on itself. “That’s why it’s meditative,” says Grossman. “People always say, ‘Oh, you must need a lot of patience.’ It didn’t take any patience at all because it was immersive. You zoom into this tiny world and it becomes galactic, or immense.”
I first encountered Ellen Grossman’s work by chance in 2012, after she appeared in a viral video entitled “Jay-Z rides the subway and explains who he is to an older lady.” In the minute-long YouTube interaction, Grossman comes across as magnetically earnest. (“I’m proud of you,” she tells Jay-Z, after learning he is taking public transportation to a concert.) The video constitutes the most memorable part of “Where I’m From,” a documentary about Jay-Z’s life. The interaction depicted in the video — kindly old lady who has tuned out the modern age meets rock star — paints Grossman in clichés. But it’s also a moment of genuine affinity: Here are two Brooklyn-born artists, both on the subway, headed to work. The only difference in their positions is summed up in Grossman’s question for Jay-Z: “Are you famous?”
He is; she’s not. But there’s more to it than you see in the video. Grossman is not merely not-famous. She is as immovably un-famous as almost anyone in New York, one of the few people you will find who even given opportunities for recognition has resolutely passed them up to concentrate on her work. In fifty years she has continued to create work in difficult circumstances, on the fringes of countercultures and at the whims of a changing city, and though her drawings have a rare and rigorous beauty, she has kept a low profile, most often not pursuing gallery representation. When she can, she attends a regular meet-up of older New York women artists who advocate for each other in the gallery scene, visits with her children and friends, but otherwise spends much of her time alone, building on a decades-long tracery of folded time.
A 2009 drawing, “Proliferation of Voices,” typifies the more recent years of this work. The drawing is a dense 25 x 39 inch modulation of aluminum gel pen, lines netted into peaks and troughs or else allowed to circulate in slow pools of themselves. Each begins and ends with the time blocked out in Grossman’s cramped handwriting, but it is difficult to follow the marks’ progress across the page. Instead, they become an illuminated mass, a sidewinding waveform that defies its own parameters. It’s weird, and frustrating. There is a clear gulf between what Grossman sets out to do and what actually happens when she does it, a gap where the air can rush in. A computer couldn’t re-create it. The drawing is dissonant, full of life.
Many of Grossman’s drawings are about what it means to grow up in a city on the edge of the water. She has rarely lived far from the ocean. Born in 1945 in Brooklyn, the second daughter of upwardly mobile Jewish socialist parents, she moved as a child to the flatlands of Long Island. She describes herself as “a drifty kid.” Grossman remembers Long Island for its bay windows and back porches, and for the peculiar bareness of her neighborhood. As a young person, she watched as her childhood home was built on a strip of purchased topsoil, amid repurposed potato fields. When she walked to school in the mornings, she’d imagine bulldozers coming in and sweeping away the homes on her block. “It must have seemed very flimsy to me,” she says. “Very temporary.”
By the time Grossman was a teenager in the early 1960s, the picket-fence vacancy of the New York suburbs gave way to hippie restlessness. Grossman would take the bus in from Long Island to Washington Square Park. She saw Bob Dylan perform in coffeehouses on several occasions before he became famous. She found the scene in Lower Manhattan to be a respite from her family’s repressive quietude, but remained on the community’s fringes. She attended one semester of college at a small school in Fredonia, New York, got involved with a man, and, at eighteen, became pregnant. They eloped to Los Angeles, where her son was born. When the relationship fell apart, she returned to upstate New York, avoiding her parents, who loved their grandson but distrusted Grossman as a mother. A cousin had been committed to a mental asylum and subjected to shock therapy, and Grossman feared that she too would be sent away. In 1966, with the help of friends, she found work and childcare in the city, and returned to Manhattan to go to school at Cooper Union.
In 1968, she lost her job and was homeless for five months. She and her son spent nights on friends’ floors and their days at museums: the Met, the Museum of Natural History, or the South Street Seaport. They used the city to fill time. This was also when Grossman became acquainted with the early feminist scene. The second-wavers could be snotty about Grossman’s decision to have a child, but they opened their homes. “Three nights was fine,” says Grossman. “By the tenth day they’d tell you they needed their space back. We left before then.” In 1969, she gave birth to a daughter.
Artistically, Grossman fell in with feminist abstractionists. She was drawn to Agnes Martin, felt sympathy with the austerity and quietness of Martin’s lines. She was also attracted to the visceral work of Eva Hesse. Grossman began to make sculpture, and to see herself primarily as a sculptor. In studio space she obtained through a friend, she worked with sand and string and cheesecloth, tethering the string through screw hooks she embedded in the floor and ceiling to create enveloping geometries. She appreciated the work’s physicality, felt drawn to its domestic scale.
That Grossman came to drawing was, in part, an accident. In the mid-1970s, still in bad financial straits, she took and passed a test and entered the state Department of Labor as a civil servant. She worked at one among a long line of fluorescent-lit desks. The job offered stability, but Grossman felt trapped. She had stopped dreaming. Her world became “grayer and grayer.”
To pass time, Grossman began to make small drawings on notepads provided by the office. The drawings were small grids build of fields of curved, near-parallel lines that Grossman would mark out at random. At the base of each page, she used a department-issued date stamp to note the time and day that each drawing was made. The process had to do with philosophical questions she was entertaining about the figure-ground relationship, and also had to do with water.
“If you look closely at the edges of a glass of water, there is something called surface tension where the water meets the glass,” says Grossman. “There is actually a curve. I was very interested in this sense of these being embedded, where the meeting happened…because they are being supported or confined. I loved that: Supported or confined? Which is it?”
The only time Ellen Grossman gave up her studio practice was for a period in the early 1980s when her daughter was in her teens. Following a traumatic custody battle with her daughter’s father, Grossman decided to focus all her attention on the teenager, who’d become involved with the downtown punk scene. She provided floor and couch space to her daughter’s friends, attended shows at CBGB while pretending to be a photographer (she didn’t like the music much), and made blurry portraits of shirtless, pale men falling into packed crowds. As her daughter grew up, she moved on from the office job to working outdoors in Central Park, and kept drawing. She turned the Central Park gig into archive work, the archive work into a position at a magazine and then with museums, and kept drawing. She made professional photographs, taught as an adjunct, rented out space in her studio to a younger generation of Brooklyn-based artists. Her kids became successful adults. She kept drawing.
On a dark winter afternoon in her apartment, Grossman unearthed from her files some of the first large drawings she had made. Her studio has a pre-war gas heater that hissed loudly while she sorted thirty years’ worth of work. In her drawings from the past decade, her lines flow tightly together in nets that appear, variously, as discarded snakeskin or aerial topography. She is captivated by the phenomena of moiré patterns, the moments of visual discord that occur when two grids misalign. Though the recent work doesn’t create moirés, there is a shared optical problem: It is hard for the eye to rest on her drawings; their latent movement seems to occur on several different scales at once, a ghost of itself.
Her drawings from the late 1980s take a broader approach to line. One, which she made as a blueprint for an unrealized sculpture project, includes many topographic lines, which enfold small sets of stairs. She hoped to build the monuments in her hometown, to note the direction of the sunrise and sunset on the shortest days of the year. “Nobody has particularly taken to the sculptures,” says Grossman. “More awkward, less elegant than the drawings.” The modeled public sculptures are nested networks of chain-link, explicitly about confinement. She is interested in how an infinite network of patterns in the fencing contradicts the fences’ purpose.
The drawings, on the other hand, are about charting the passage of time. Moreover, they are about what it means to exist, moment by moment. The linework — webs and nautiluses, maps of an unseen world — almost looks like how a thought feels before it is fully formed. Grossman’s drawings question what it means to be conscious. They do so simply, through quiet gesture.
Ellen Grossman never knows if she has finished a drawing for the day until it is midnight. She works constantly, with great persistence. She draws alone, sits very still, marking each minute, conditions that hem in her mind and allow it to run like water. The work is precious and beside the point, a disposable document of timeless flow.