Mimi Gross

I was at my friend’s poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in the Spring of 1980. During a break, I was outside with him and two other people talking about politics and art, and how nobody was bothering with it, and whether or not it was of any interest. I’m always full of my opinions, so I said something like: "Well, there are some rare examples and they are really interesting, like Goya and George Grosz and Picasso…" Then I was stumped.  It bothered me that I couldn’t think of others at the time. Later, I was going to visit this very same friend and, since I was taking the train, I picked up Time magazine, feeling like maybe I should check things out. In the magazine there was a photograph of the eight soldiers who had died on April 25, 1980, in the preliminary maneuverings leading up to an aborted attempt to rescue American hostages being held by Iran. I thought: "Well, if one could do something that transcends the literalness of the photographs, then maybe it would have its statement. The work would be political, but it wouldn’t be from the original point of view."

When I came back home from visiting my friend I did eight large charcoal drawings based on the photographs; and just due to serendipitous timing, John Ahearn and Suzan Pitt came to my studio. When they came by, they were talking about the Times Square Show that John was organizing. I had the drawings that I had just done up on the wall, and I told them the story of how they had come about. And John said: "Oh, we’re doing a war and death room, will you show the drawings?" I was floored, and said: "Yes, of course I will." 

Well, a month later I received a grant to do ceramics at a studio on Great Jones Street in New York City for one month. So I took the drawings to the shop to see if I could make a ceramic version of them. I did many portraits from life during the day, and at night I was working on the soldiers. I had two technical assistants, which is how they were completed so fast. I had learned about clay slabs, and I was cutting the clay silhouettes after the drawings with a matt knife. The works were fired, but when they were fired the second time for the glazing, all of them broke. I arrived for the installation at the Times Square Show with eight broken pieces. David Wells, a wonderful, very quiet artist who was included in the show, just sat down on the floor and methodically glued them all together. The next thing you knew they were put up on the shelf. They were presented on a shelf because there wasn't a way to hang them. It was relatively simple, in the way that the process went from one step to another, and the timing just fell into place. 

I never made anything quite like those pieces again, and I was never in a show quite like that again. The work was presented anonymously. I ended up putting my name on the wall near the portraits because I had a technical assistant, and I wanted her to get credit. So I had to put a name, but then it seemed weird because I had actually made the portraits, so I had to put both our names. But most of the work in the show was anonymous. The response to the work was beyond my dreams. I didn't realize how ambitious the whole show was.  I thought it was an exciting project when I realized how large it was. By the time I arrived with these eight broken pieces, which was as close to the opening as I could make it, a lot of the work was already installed.

I knew about Colab before the show, because I knew Jane Dickson and Charlie and John Ahearn, and I also knew Kiki (Smith) and Becky (Howland). Justen Ladda I knew quite well. So I knew some of the core group. But John in particular I knew the best, and Suzan Pitt. I was a good ten years older than most of the people, and they were focused on their own ambitions. I already had layers of career experiences.                                                                                                    

Ruckus Manhattan was made a few years before, in a space provided by Creative Time, though Creative Time didn’t provide any funds for materials or labor. It took Red Grooms and I, and many assistants, thirteen months to make. We were working in a complete void, we never had any money, and it was just really hard. It was too hard. We really didn't have any idea that people would just fall over for it. Maybe Red did, but I don't think so. Ruckus Manhattan was the culmination of quite a few large installations. It just happened to be the largest. We made movies, and so on.  I was used to working not only with helpers but with younger people who were artists who needed jobs. There was a genuine camaraderie. I met Suzan Pitt through her then-husband, who was filming a project that Red and I were doing in Minneapolis called the Discount Store. It was a big installation for the Walker Art Center. Eventually Suzan moved to the East Coast and we got to know each other a lot better. It was through Suzan that I met all of the Colab group.

Only John tells the story of using my name to help get the building for the Times Square Show. It wasn't me he mentioned; he claims it was my father, Chaim Gross. My father was a sculptor, and in the Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was very well known. Apparently the guy who owned the building was more receptive to renting out the building when John mentioned my father's name. Once John got the idea, and got the building, it was just total focus. I do remember hearing that cleaning out the building was an extraordinary amount of work. That was a labor of total love. That's another thing about the Colab group, they really worked together without a monetary aspect, whereas with Ruckus we paid all the helpers, even those who worked a short amount of time. It was a different attitude towards having help.

Collaboration is an increasingly important question. Unfortunately, collaboration is misunderstood. People think: "Well you'll do that and I'll do this and then it's a collaboration."But a real collaboration is when each collaborator comes together, and does something that they are unable to foresee when they were starting out. Something new is developed. That's why Colab worked. For example, everyone wanted to be part of the Souvenir Shop. It was the sum of the parts, and not the parts themselves, that made it really interesting, and strange and new. And the whole Times Square Show was like that. It may not have been the greatest art in the world, but the atmosphere, the intention, the music, the liveliness of it all, is what made it really an exciting moment.

I wasn't part of the Souvenir Shop, and I think that I wasn't a particularly noticeable character within this group. I don't remember the general public visiting the exhibition. There were musicians and other characters who were friends of friends. I don't remember street people particularly. If they did come in, they were really peripheral, and there are people I know who claim they saw the show, but they really didn't. It's sort of like Haley's Comet: people said that they saw it, but it was before we were born. I went off to Mexico for a week, and when I came back, I realized that there was a huge fuss around the show. I opened the Village Voice and the soldiers were in the centerfold! I would have liked the show to continue all summer, it was too bad that it was just for a month.

The notoriety of the Times Square Show was really after the fact, partly because some of the artists actually used the show to promote their careers. Some people were very quickly picked up by galleries because of the Times Square Show. It was a time when suddenly the galleries were all over Soho, mushrooming and looking for new people. When one artist was picked up and taken to a gallery, he or she didn’t necessarily say: "Hey, this is my whole group." They took care of themselves, which is understandable. People were struggling on an individual level. It wasn't overnight. It was over a period of time. Some people had families, or were having a hard time working a second job while trying to make their artwork. Then the people who were picked up and actually sold their work had the freedom to make more work, because they didn't have to worry about money. Colab was never quite the same after the TSS, even though there were other Colab events. It was bigger than anyone anticipated, and it pushed people in different directions, including the musicians. Some of them became very well known rather quickly.

I have said this before, and I do feel it, that my participation in the TSS was extremely encouraging for me. I was moving into my current loft, and I had been teaching; it was a complex period of time. The ceramics were one of the first things I made when living in this loft. The Times Square Show made me feel a tiny sense of belonging, and I've never belonged to any kind of group whatsoever. I remember having a very positive feeling about the show.

As told to Karli Wurzelbacher, June 27, 2012

Mimi Gross (b. 1940, New York, NY)
Mimi Gross is the daughter of sculptor Chaim Gross and Renee Gross. She attended Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, MA; and Kokoschka School of Painting and Sculpture, Salzburg, Austria. She began exhibiting her work in the late 1950s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she created large-scale constructions with her then-husband, artist Red Grooms, including Discount Store (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1970–71) and Ruckus Manhattan (88 Pine Street, New York, NY, 1975–76). She has worked with the dancer Douglas Dunn on select dances, set design, and costumes since 1978 and her work includes painting, drawing, film, mail art, book design, diorama, and sculpture.


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