See how Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen creates amazing NYC art with just a scalpel and matte paper

Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen with her op art
Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen with a number of pieces slated for her new show at the Ivy Brown gallery
Photo by Bob Krasner

Watching Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen create her artwork is a bit like having a magician explain the trick but you still don’t get how they do it.

Gregory-Gruen has been creating her “CUT WORK” pieces since 2000 with a surgeon’s scalpel and 2-ply matte paper, cutting designs into the paper freehand with no guide sketches. The resulting works are 3-dimensional op-art swirls that pulse with energy and need to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.

Her husband, the noted photographer Bob Gruen, has been watching her work for years and, he says, the process is confounding.

“I’m just amazed”, he says. “I watch her all the time and I still don’t know how she does it.”

People assume that it’s accomplished with the aid of a computer but, she says, “it’s just me and a scalpel.”

The pieces, which vary from all white to two-tone to a mix of colors, are created in the same fashion but vary greatly in the results. The newest pieces are a big switch from the others — which used flat color boards and pigments mixed by Gregory-Gruen — as they incorporate vintage images shot by Bob of New York City.  

“I always used flat color and moulded papers,” she explains. “But this series is so exciting because it uses Bob’s images from the 70s. I’ve been working on organizing his archives since 2014 and I’ve been coming across these images. There’s a lot in there – something that’s moving and living – it’s a moment in time.”

“I’m very happy to see my cityscape photos used in such a great new way,” Gruen remarks. “Elizabeth has captured and enhanced the chaos of the city.”

“I was hesitant to cut imagery,” she says, “but it came out quite mysterious and abstract. So I said, let’s do this some more!”

Work in progress: Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen using a surgeon’s scalpel on a Cut Work piecePhoto by Bob Krasner
Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen putting together a new piece from the scraps of the firstPhoto by Bob Krasner
The concave piece (bottom) was created first Then the cutout pieces (above) are put together to form a new convex piecePhoto by Bob Krasner

Gregory-Gruen enlisted master printer Gary Lichtenstein to create silk screen prints of the photos that she could incorporate into the new work. Although she is constantly drawing shapes, she doesn’t pre-plan her pieces and actually makes a point of not doing so.

“I don’t envision the piece before I start — I don’t want to overthink it. Going in with an expectation ruins it. I like to be surprised. I don’t like to go in with rules,” she says.

As a result, she states, “These works aren’t stagnant. It’s a comment on New York — the vibrancy and the energy of the city is fundamental to me. I consider it a great honor to pay homage to it with these abstractions.” 

The show opening this week at the Ivy Brown Gallery in the Meatpacking District will present half of the works framed and the rest unframed.

A cut piece detailPhoto by Bob Krasner
A finished cut piece (left) that incorporates one of Bob Gruen’s images from NYC in the 1970’s. At right is a vintage print of the source image and a larger silk screen print made by master printer Gary LichtensteinPhoto by Bob Krasner

“The silk screen pieces have more strength. They are more tactile without the frame,” she notes. “I wanted to show two different ways to experience the work.”

How people interact with the work is important to her and in the end “it’s not just about me. I’m presenting a story, but it’s their relationship with the story, with the imagery, that keeps the emotion going with the piece. They find what they want to find — that’s the exciting part.”

Gregory-Gruen’s work is, she muses, “about embracing life, being open to discovery, not having preconceived notions. And, ultimately, the imperfections are perfection. We have to learn to accept ourselves.”

More info about the artist is available at elizabethgregory-gruen.com and on Instagram at @elzgregory_gruen .

The show opens Thursday, April 4, from 6-8 p.m. at the Ivy Brown Gallery, 675 Hudson St.. After that, an appointment is required. More info can be found at ivybrowngallery.org.