November 15, 2021 1:00:06 pm
By Corey Kilgannon
It might seem unlikely, upon seeing Bettina Grossman pushing her shopping cart filled with artwork outside the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, that she was an accomplished artist with a once-promising career.
Grossman was unusual even by the standards of the Chelsea, the storied haven for quirky artists. Her studio apartment, Room 503, at the end of a long fifth-floor hallway, had become so crowded with her accumulated artwork — largely abstract, highly conceptual drawings, sculptures and photographs — that she had been displaced from her own living space. She slept in her hallway on a lawn chair.
“She was eccentric with a capital E,” said Robert Lambert, a painter who lived down the hall from Grossman at the Chelsea, which over the years was home to the likes of Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.
“Her room was like an Egyptian tomb,” Lambert added in an interview. “It looked like a wreck, but you blow off the dust and there’s nothing but beautiful sculptural treasures.”
For much of the 1950s and ’60s, Grossman worked as an artist in Europe. But after a series of career disappointments, she isolated herself as a permanent resident at the Chelsea for a half-century, fiercely guarding both her privacy and the trove of art she had produced in her prime in New York and Europe.
She refused guests and kept her apartment door secured with numerous heavy locks.
Grossman died Nov. 2 of respiratory failure at a Brooklyn care center, where she was rehabilitating after a fall several months ago, her niece Aliza Green said. She was 94.
Toward the end of Grossman’s life, she and her work became more widely known. She was the subject of two documentaries and allowed a small circle of her fellow artists to have her pieces cataloged and exhibited in shows in New York and Germany. Her work is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and at MoMA PS1 in Queens.
Bettina Grossman was born Sept. 28, 1927, in Brooklyn to Saul and Pauline Grossman and grew up with three siblings in an Orthodox Jewish home in the Borough Park section.
Her father owned a music store in Manhattan but did not encourage his children to pursue the arts, her brother Morty said in an interview.
“How she got the talent, I don’t know — I guess God put it into her,” he said.
After studying commercial art in high school, she became a designer of neckties, sheets, pillowcases and the like for a textile manufacturer and had saved enough money by her early 20s to move to Europe. There she pursued her art career and eschewed her youthful nickname, Betty, going simply by the single name Bettina.
“She chose her name and created her persona,” said Green.
Grossman became an exacting craftswoman. She traveled to Carrera, Italy, to select marble for her sculptures. She studied stained glass with a master in France.
She also led a bold, dashing life. With a model’s looks and wardrobe, her niece said, Grossman drove sports cars, skied the Alps and attracted numerous boyfriends.
She returned to the United States and was living and working in a Brooklyn Heights building in the late 1960s when a fire ruined most of her work, including paintings, sculptures, photo slides and textile designs.
“That was a breaking point,” Green said. “It was a traumatic thing for her.”
In “Girl With Black Balloons” (2010), a documentary directed by Corinne van der Borch, a Dutch filmmaker living in Brooklyn, Grossman said that after the fire “destroyed my life,” she redoubled her commitment to her art, which precluded her from marrying and having children or even taking time away from her work to promote it.
“The only way you could do beautiful things like that is by isolating yourself from reality, from friends, from the messy situation out there,” she said.
Around 1970, she moved into the Chelsea Hotel — not because of its romantic reputation, but for its accepting atmosphere and its creative habitues.
She continued to create work and showed it occasionally, but she was increasingly discouraged by the difficulties she faced as a woman in the commercial art world and by a pervasive belief that her ideas were being co-opted by other artists.
In 2007, Sam Bassett, an artist who was a hotel resident at the time, made a documentary about Grossman called “Bettina.”
“Really, she was suffocating in her own greatness,” he told The New York Times in 2008.
The growing trove of work began hindering her access to the bathroom and kitchen. With little space, she turned to photos and printmaking and slept in a space she cleared by her door.
“Surrounded by so much phenomenal art hidden in boxes from floor to ceiling, it almost felt as if she had created a bird’s nest,” said van der Borch, the director of “Girl With Black Balloons,” which won the Metropolis Competition prize at the DOC NYC festival in 2011.
Grossman was buried in Israel near her mother. In addition to her brother, she is survived by a sister, Esther Zitwer.
In recent years, fans would leave flowers and notes on a small table in the hallway outside Grossman’s door, said Lambert, her former neighbor.
“She’d get letters from all over the world,” he said.
Since she refused to let members of the hotel staff into her apartment, it fell into disrepair. In 2006, she successfully fended off the hotel’s attempt to evict her.
In recent years, with the hotel undergoing renovations to be turned into a luxury property, Grossman was among the dwindling number of full-time residents who remained because of state rent regulations. Her rent was roughly $350 a month, her brother said.
She dismissed the possibility of considering a buyout offer to give up her lease.
“I said, ‘Tell them you want $5 million,’” Lambert said. “She said, ‘Where would I go?’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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