Bettina Grossman, an Artistic Fixture at the Chelsea Hotel, Dies at 94

It might seem unlikely, upon seeing Bettina Grossman pushing her shopping cart full of artwork outside the Chelsea Hotel, that she was an accomplished artist with a once promising career.

Mrs. Grossman was unusual even by the standards of Chelsea, a popular haven for quirky artists. Her studio apartment, Room 503, at the end of a long fifth-floor corridor, has become so crowded with her backlog of artwork—largely abstract and highly conceptual drawings, sculptures, and photographs—that she has been displaced from her living space. She slept in the hallway on a lawn chair.

“She was an eccentric with a capital E,” said Robert Lambert, a painter who lived down the hall from Mrs. Grossman in Chelsea, which over the years has been home to the likes of Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.

“Her room was like an Egyptian tomb,” he added in an interview. “It looked like wreckage, but you’re blowing dust and there’s nothing but beautiful sculpted treasures.”

For most of the 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Grossman worked as an artist in Europe. But after a series of career disappointments, she has isolated herself as a permanent resident of Chelsea for half a century, fiercely guarding her privacy and the collection of artwork she produced in her prime in New York and Europe.

She refused guests and kept her apartment door secured with several heavy locks.

Her niece Alisa Green said Mrs. Grossman died on November 2 of respiratory failure at a care center in Brooklyn, where she had been rehabilitating after a fall several months earlier. She was 94 years old.

Towards the end of Mrs. Grossman’s life, she and her work became widely known. She was the subject of two documentaries and allowed a small circle of fellow artists to catalog her pieces and have them shown at 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 on September 28, 1927 in Brooklyn to parents Saul and Pauline Grossman and was raised with three siblings in an Orthodox Jewish home in the Borough Park area.

Her brother Morty said in an interview that her father owned a music store in Manhattan but discouraged his children from pursuing the arts.

“How did you get the talent, I don’t know – I think God put it in it,” 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 saved enough money by her early twenties to move to Europe. There she continued her acting career and eschewed her young nickname, Betty, simply by the single name Bettina.

“She chose her name and created her character,” said Mrs. Green, her niece.

Mrs. Grossman became a strict artisan. She traveled to Carrera, Italy to select marble for her sculptures. She studied stained glass with a master’s degree in France.

She also led a daring and broken life. Her niece said that with her supermodel looks and wardrobe, she drove sports cars, climbed the Alps, and attracted many of her friends.

She returned to the United States and was living and working in the Brooklyn Heights building in the late 1960s when a fire destroyed most of her work, including paintings, sculptures, photo slides, and textile designs.

“That was the breaking point,” Green said. “It was a painful thing for her.”

In “Girl With Black Balloons” (2010), a documentary directed by Corinne van der Borch, a Dutch filmmaker living in Brooklyn, Ms. Grossman said that after the fire “ruined my life,” she doubled down on her commitment to her art, which prevented them from getting married. And having children or even taking time off from her work to promote it.

“The only way you can do beautiful things like this is to isolate yourself from reality, from friends, from the messy situations out there,” she said.

Around 1970, she moved into the Chelsea Hotel – not because of its romantic reputation, but because of its agreeable atmosphere and creative habits.

She continued to create and occasionally exhibited work, but was increasingly discouraged by the difficulties she faced as a woman in the commercial art world, and the widespread belief that her ideas were co-opted by other artists.

Her myriad frustrations often fed new business. Once when she was staring from her balcony on the fifth floor and thinking about jumping, she instead began taking pictures of pedestrians from above and collected a series of pictures.

While making her rounds in the neighborhood, she pushed a shopping cart containing wallets and samples of her work that she hated being left unguarded in the house.

While Mrs. Grossman was loved by a narrow circle of artist friends, she remained a mystery to others. Outside her room, she has installed artwork and provocative messages on her door declaring the building to be the “Institute for Nomenology Research,” listing intellectual, artistic, and philosophical principles. Another simply declared, “Help me, I’m getting killed.”

In 2007, Sam Bassett, an artist who was staying in a hotel at the time, made a documentary about Mrs. Grossman called Bettina.

“Really, she was choking on her own greatness,” he told the New York Times in 2008.

Increased work began to impede her access to the bathroom and kitchen. With a bit of space, she turned to photos and print and fell asleep in a space she’d cleared from her door.

“Girl With Black Balloons” won a Metropolis award at the DOC NYC Festival in 2011.

Ito Barrada, a Moroccan artist based in Brooklyn, became friends with Mrs. Grossman several years ago and began showing her work to curators from several museums and galleries.

Ms. Grossmann’s artworks were shown alongside Ms. Berrada at Governors Island Arts Center in 2019, as well as in the 2020 exhibition at Sapphire-Semler Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.

Mrs. Grossman’s portrait is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art along with works from the Museum’s collection selected by Mrs. Berrada. Titled “Two Hours in the Life of One Hair,” are several cases of exposure to curly hair floating in water. More of Ms. Grossman’s work is on display as part of the ‘Greater New York’ exhibition at MoMA PS1.

Ms. Berrada helped compile a book on Ms. Grossman’s work to be published next year. The Rencontres d’Arles International Photography Festival in southern France has scheduled a solo exhibition of Ms Grossman’s work next summer.

Mrs. Grossman is buried in Israel near her mother. In addition to her brother, she is survived by her sister, Esther Zetor.

Lambert, her former neighbor, said that in recent years, fans have been leaving flowers and notes on a small table in the hallway outside Mrs. Grossman’s door.

“She was receiving messages from all over the world,” he said.

Since she refused to let the hotel staff into her apartment, she fell into a deplorable state. In 2006, she successfully fended off a hotel attempt to evict her.

In recent years, with the hotel undergoing renovation work and being converted into a luxury property, Ms. Grossman has been among the dwindling number of full-time residents who have remained due to government rental regulations. Her brother said her rent was about $350 a month.

She declined the possibility of considering a purchase offer to relinquish her lease.

“I told them, ‘Tell them you want $5 million,'” Lambert said. She said, “Where do I go?”

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