The history of direct carving in America, by artists like William Zorach, John Flannagan, Robert Laurent, and Chaim Gross during the first half of the 20th century, remains to be written. This history would reveal a large group of incredibly beautiful objects now mostly in storage at major U.S. museums. It would also describe fascinating networks of exchange and influence–of ideas, techniques, artworks, and friendship–between artists both in the U.S. and across the Atlantic.
The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in France, and later Henry Moore in England, played key roles in inspiring these American sculptors. Chaim Gross, for example, was a great admirer of Henry Moore. He was inspired by Moore’s sculpture of the 1930s, as suggested by notes in a sketchbook in the Foundation’s archives, dating from 1934-35. It contains Gross’s handwritten notes from Herbert Read’s 1934 book, Henry Moore:
Gross’s notes read:
Sculpture is certainly most difficult of al [sic] the art [sic] – most difficult of all arts to master, most difficult to appreciate. Some of the difficulties are incidental: the materials need [?] and patience to handle; and when this work is finished there is no predestined place for it
Gross emulated Moore’s smooth, organic forms in some of his own wood carvings, particularly those in ebony. His 1935 ebony Black Figure at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, and especially, his 1944 Vanity, also in ebony and at the Hirshhorn Museum, reveal him thinking about Moore. As Smithsonian curator George Gurney notes about Vanity in his text for the 1996 online Smithsonian exhibit, Chaim Gross: A Celebration:
This is one of several similar figures carved over a ten-year period in the 1930s and 1940s. These works are executed in polished dark woods without tool marks to highlight various features. The simplified organic forms suggest the influence of the British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986).
Gross didn’t meet Moore, however, until the 1950s. The two became friendly during Gross’s trips to London in 1951, 1957 and 1958 when Gross also worked with the British sculptor Jacob Epstein. (Moore came to the United States for the first time in 1946, on the occasion of his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though there’s nothing in the archive to suggest the two met then).
It was probably during these visits that Gross also collected works on paper by Moore. These five drawings and watercolors owned by Gross are now on view at The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation. They include Moore’s 1940 pencil and wash drawing of sculpture studies:
and this striking 1948 watercolor, pen and ink drawing of reclining figures:
Gross expressed his admiration for Moore in his Homage to Henry Moore, which he donated to the Hirshhorn Museum in 1974. The sculpture was made in 1944, when Moore’s influence on Gross seems to have been at its strongest.