It might seem unlikely, upon seeing Bettina Grossman pushing her shopping cart filled with artwork outside the Chelsea Hotel, that she was an accomplished artist with a once-promising career.
Ms. Grossman was unusual even by the standards of the Chelsea, the storied Manhattan 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 Ms. 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,” he 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, Ms. 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 heavy locks.
Ms. Grossman died of respiratory failure on Nov. 2 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 Ms. Grossman’s life, she and her work became more widely known. She was the subject of two documentary films and allowed a small circle of 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 on 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 designed neckties, sheets, pillowcases and the like for a textile manufacturer and by her early 20s had saved enough money to move to Europe. There she pursued her art career and eschewed her nickname, Betty, going simply by the single name Bettina.
“She chose her name and created her persona,” said Ms. Green, her niece.
Ms. 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. 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, Ms. Grossman said that after the fire had “destroyed my life” she redoubled her commitment to her art, which, she said, 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.
She moved into the Chelsea Hotel around 1970 — not because of its romantic reputation, she said, but for its accepting atmosphere and creative habitués.
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 profound belief that her ideas were being co-opted by other artists.
Ms. Grossman’s myriad frustrations often fueled new works. Once when gazing from her fifth-floor balcony and thinking of jumping, she said, she instead began taking pictures of pedestrians from above and compiled a photo series.
In making her neighborhood rounds, she pushed a shopping cart containing portfolios and samples of her work that she was loath to leave unguarded at home.
While beloved by her artist friends, Ms. Grossman remained an enigma to others. Outside her room, she mounted provocative artwork and messages on her door declaring the premises the “Institute for Noumenological Research” and listing intellectual, artistic and philosophical principles. Another simply declared, “Help Me, I’m Being Killed.”
In 2007, Sam Bassett, an artist who was a hotel resident at the time, made a documentary about Ms. 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 Ms. van der Borch, the director of “Girl With Black Balloons,” which won the Metropolis Competition prize at the DOC NYC festival in 2011.
Yto Barrada, a Moroccan artist based in Brooklyn, befriended Ms. Grossman several years ago and began showing her work to curators from museums and galleries.
Ms. Grossman’s artwork was shown alongside Ms. Barrada’s at the Arts Center at Governors Island in 2019, as well as in a 2020 show at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.
A photo by Ms. Grossman is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art alongside works from the museum’s collection selected by Ms. Barrada. Titled “Two Hours in the Life of One Hair,” the photo is several exposures of a curlicued strand of 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. Barrada helped put together a book of Ms. Grossman’s work, to be published next year. The prestigious Rencontres d’Arles Festival of international photography in the South of France has scheduled a solo exhibition of Ms. Grossman’s work for next summer.
Ms. 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 Ms. Grossman’s door, said Mr. 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 an attempt by the hotel to evict her.
In recent years, with the hotel undergoing renovations to be turned into a luxury property, Ms. 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,’” Mr. Lambert said. “She said, ‘Where would I go?’”