The year was 1982.
James Gross was a young artist fresh out of Wichita trying to make it in New York City, pitching his abstract artwork to various galleries and museums across the Big Apple.
One of his pieces caught the eye of Thomas Messer, legendary director of the Guggenheim Museum.
Messer invited Gross, a “farm kid from Kansas,” to his personal office in the Guggenheim, asking him to display 12 original works.
“Most museum directors don’t do that ... but with the clout he had, he could do what he wanted to,” Gross said.
“He would have Picasso in his office, Miro, all of them were in his office,” he said of the caliber of artists Messer worked with.
Messer handed Gross a check for a small amount of money for “Land,” an abstract collage of the Flint Hills that Gross completed as a graduate student at Wichita State University.
The piece hung in Messer’s office for awhile before it went into storage.
And that’s where the piece remained until recently, when it arrived in “a beautiful crate” delivered to Gross’ east Wichita doorstep.
“It’s quite a journey it’s been on,” Gross said in a recent interview from his living room.
It’s quite a journey it’s been on.
James Gross, Wichita-based abstract artist
After Messer died in 2013, lawyers could not find an heir to claim the piece, Gross said. That meant the piece was eventually shipped back to Wichita.
“It’s such a strange story. Patricia (McDonnell) at the (Wichita Art) Museum and Bob Workman (of the Ulrich Museum) have never heard of this,” Gross said. “It’s a strange thing. Of course it would happen to me.”
So how did the farm kid from Kansas get into the 1980s New York art world anyway?
Gross credits Martin Bush, former director of the Ulrich Museum of Art, for encouraging him to travel to New York after getting his master’s degree at Wichita State University.
He was set up as a studio assistant to Robert Goodnough, who was friends with Jackson Pollock, and “one thing leads to another,” Gross said. Pollock was a major painter of the American abstract expressionist movement.
“It’s friendships – people you know – getting you in the door,” he said. “It’s a rat race trying to get in a gallery. It’s real competitive.”
Gross recalls traveling back and forth many times on Amtrak attempting to sell his artwork.
His big break came in November 1982 when he sold the piece to the Guggenheim director, as well as works to Dorothy Miller, curator emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, and to the World Trade Center curators, he said.
To prove his story, Gross still has photocopies of the checks from these New York institutions, for people “who think Jim is just embellishing his career.”
By 1987, Gross had grown weary of the constant self-promotion required to be an artist in New York, as well as the financial stress.
He moved back to Wichita, where he taught for decades at Butler Community College and Mark Arts.
He still makes art to send to clients in New York and elsewhere. His prints are still featured in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
His art has hung in the U.S. Embassies in Beijing and Vienna. Locally, his works are in the collections at Emprise Bank and the Wichita Art Museum.
“Land,” his 1980 piece, now leans against the wall – in a protective box – above his Wichita living-room mantel.
“I’ve done a lot of things in life, but that little story is probably one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said.