Françoise Grossen's Gift of Quietude
By: Natalie Haddad
Two years after Blum & Poe mounted fiber artist Françoise Grossen’s first survey in the United States, her third show with the gallery feels like a gift of quietude. Featuring a number of hanging and wall-mounted pieces, some starkly minimal, along with floor pieces and a selection of maquettes for large-scale commissions (supplemented with archival photographs of the artist at work), the exhibition is infused with quiet, meditative energy.
Born in 1943 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Grossen first encountered fiber art in a textile class she took while studying architecture in Lausanne. The class inspired her to switch fields; shortly thereafter, she abandoned traditional fiber tools and techniques in favor of freehand braiding and knotting; in a January 2017 interview in Prestige magazine, she explains, “I broke away from the tradition of weaving. I wanted to get rid of the frame.”
After transitioning from wool to rope, Grossen began to produce hanging sculptures and floor pieces, including massive commissions for homes and offices, as well as works that interacted directly with the environment, such as “Inchworm,” an early piece made from cotton industrial piping, which she recreated with plastic tubing corked at the ends in 1978 and floated on a pond at Reed College in Oregon.
While her 2015 exhibition at Blum & Poe in New York City, followed in 2016 by an installation of her monumental 1977 work “Contact III” at the gallery’s Los Angeles location, introduced the artist to an American audience with a focus on larger and more complex pieces, her current exhibition feels more intimate, revealing subtler sides of her practice.
Grossen’s freehand style is particularly evident in a 62 by 44-inch wall hanging made in 1981, in which loose braids and textured ridges, made from golden, partially dyed strands of Manila rope of varied thicknesses, replace the precision of a loom weaving. Displayed on an adjacent wall, the maquettes for public and private commissions are artworks in themselves and tactile records of the complexity of her process.
Grossen’s objects are both organic and highly structured. In “Apodid” (formerly “ALAR,” 1986/2016), blue-and-white threaded Manila rope forms an unequal figure 8, with the shorter loop rising up off the floor and folding over itself, while thin pieces of rope stick out like antennae at the intersection of the two loops. These works can suggest human or animal figures, due less to a physical resemblance and more to their scale, orientation, and sense of movement or rhythm. In “Apodid,” the thick, coiled rope that forms the longer loop lies heavily on the floor, its inward-facing spirals creating a sense of constant motion despite the solidity and stasis of the piece.
Grossen has stressed the importance of understanding her work as sculpture. In a 2016 Curbed magazine interview, she explained, “I want to make people forget the material and see the shape.” Her pieces are rooted in the principles of process and post-minimalist art at least as much as traditional crafts, but it’s too simplistic to say that they blur the boundary between art and craft. If anything, they complicate it in a productive way: while the shape is privileged over the material, the object is invigorated by the material and its manifold uses and histories within both art and craft.
She also identifies interpretive dance, with its use of horizontal as well as vertical planes, as an inspiration for her work. The inspiration is visible in the way her rope both defies and conforms to gravity, sometimes appearing to crush form upon form, other times to support itself with its own weight. In “Embryo” (1987), a combination of Manila and cotton rope, tied at the ends with blue thread, is partially wrapped in plastic, folded over and bound with intricate knots. From the side, it suggests a body doubled over on itself or a child and adult embracing.
This sense of communion, rendered through knots and braids, is fundamental to the work’s emotive character. For the elegant “Gamma (Signe II)” (1993), two loops — one much larger than the other — formed from paper piping cord and suspended from wall pegs, are interlaced about midway down the larger one. As with “Embryo,” the anthropomorphic quality of the piece results from the interwoven and gently undulating lines of the two components.
“From the Sea” (1970) and “Metamorphosis I (5)” (1986) summon a sense of being in space and time through equally economic gestures. In the former, a length of heavy, dirt-brown marine rope, hanging from a wall hook near the ceiling, loops back upward at its ends, so the piece hovers just above the floor. The latter, like “Gamma (Signe II),” consists of two interlocked loops of rope, in this case resting on the floor. The longer loop spirals over and under itself, and both are coated with paint and plaster. These works project the stillness of a body at rest, an effect that is both pacifying and profound.
Some titles do reference specific things — for instance, “Salt Fish” (1993) and “Mermaid I” (1978). Reminiscent of a crab more than a mermaid, the latter is an arrangement on the floor of three thick braids of khaki-colored polyester rope, each one with loose ends encircled by pincer-like strands.
Comparatively small at 36 ½ inches long, the two-part “Salt Fish” is a clever example of the sculptural possibilities of rope and plaster: For the “body,” lengths of honey-colored rope are loosely braided and lightly coated with off-white plaster; the “skin” is a flat plaster cast imprinted with the pattern of the braid. (The conceptual counterpart to “Salt Fish” is “Interpolations XXI” (1982), made from muslin buff pads and evoking scales or a spine.) In another room, four stunning sculptures, hung from the ceiling in a loose arrangement, at times catching the light from the windows, are like artifacts of a lost civilization.
In his essay “The Intertwining — The Chiasm” (1964) philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, “My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle.” His “seeing body,” however, both underlies and embraces “this visible body, and all the visibles within it. There is reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other.” Activating both optic and haptic fields, Grossen’s sensual sculptures invite just this kind of “chiasmic intertwining” — to encounter them is to engage with them.