Red Grooms

by Franklin Hill Perrell



The Fifties, Abstract Expressionism's fruitful decade of freshness, vitality, and fascination, was the chronological episode that embraced Red Grooms arrival in New York. Full of expectation, he arrived in the city, then that movement's epicenter and a magnet for artists around the world as once had been Paris. The thrill of discovery enveloped his burgeoning awareness of the new art. Contrasting with this cosmopolitan scene, the artist's roots deriving from Nashville, Tennessee, represented a differing cultural foundation, its perspectives and potential artistic themes based on the life of one of America's heartland regions.

Red Grooms' art is like that also, embodying contradiction: representation, narrative, history, observation, social comment, all traditional concepts which combine by an array of formal strategies that bind him to the abstract painters of the New York School. Grooms's subjects link him to the social realist tradition in the witty and irreverent mode of a Reginald Marsh. But in his way of making a painting, or a sculpture, he deals with color, line, and space like an Abstract Expressionist. Every element of the design is carried out to the edge, foreground and background all bound together into a unit that doesn't elevate or demote either. This is representational painting to be sure, yet figure-ground are fused, and like Pollock's drips, effects are equable everywhere in the canvas as lines and colors command attention right up to the canvas edge.

The problem for the artists of the fifties was to get away from subject matter, to make the act of painting, its process and follow-through via the paint itself, the priority from which, by attaining familiarity with a methodology and premise, and often of reduction into simplified forms, the artist achieved a vision that became associated with his individual identity.

In the work of Grooms, there was no such conscious intent. He never participated in the marathon of eliminations that would take such artists as Reinhardt or Rothko away from their roots in either Surrealism or gesture painting. From the outset, Grooms never premised his work on a divorce of action painting from subject matter. In this, he has something in common with De Kooning, and more-so with such of his contemporaries as Rauschenberg, Johns, Dine and Oldenburg. The atmosphere around Grooms's most famous teacher, Hans Hofmann, accommodated easily such an approach, and this phase of art, characterized as the "figurative fifties," was marked by the accomplishments of such artists as Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Neil Welliver, Al Leslie, or Alex Katz.

An exhibition at the Whitney Museum, called Blam, in which Grooms was featured, portrayed the unstable but enormously vital ground in the interstices between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. From the expressionist mode to manifestations more purely Pop, a struggle between subject and handling dominated the practice of the more powerful artists in this generation. While Lichtenstein and Warhol clarified their edges and simplified their graphically engaged approach with the strategy of commercial art, Grooms never yielded his penchant to Abstract Expressionism. Yet to the larger public, his art seems all about subject, especially New York. So is he to be considered a Pop artist with an abstract expressionist foundation? Popular culture is essential to his metier, but that reality that is substantially filtered through the tactics of abstract or expressionist art. Yet, his commitment to observation of the moment, in all its specifics, is inescapable. Grooms's particular approach to anti-elitism in subject matter, which has so much in common with Pop, also has an element of Dada about it, in that there is a deliberate element of shock, deriving from the very familiarity of his topics.

Despite the last hundred years of innovation in painting, it is subject first and foremost, that captures the public's attention. The painting has got to say something readily comprehensible to the viewer, and this is easiest done where the abstract element is not too pronounced. Grooms never based anything on this expectation, but just did what came naturally to him. He was aided by fortunate circumstances such as where he was born, whom he met in coming to New York, and the opportunities afforded by the successful career that unfolded. Making the most of his chances, he came to be defined by what he chose to do as much as by what he avoided. Instinct and selection, in constant interaction, animate his art.

Red Grooms was born in Nashville, in 1937. Precociously talented as a child, he was encouraged to study art be his parents. His early exhibition career, as a teenager, included an episode when a local art store paid him a salary to produce paintings week by week. Briefly attending the University of Chicago, he continued his art education in a number of venues. He came to New York, first for a few months in 1956, and then to stay beginning in 1957. He quickly learned about the downtown art scene, met other artists, developed a relationship which led to an early marriage, and along the way also studied with Hans Hofmann.

Kindred spirits certainly in these years were Red Grooms and his first wife Mimi Gross with whom he collaborated on many of his early art projects. Chaim Gross, who thus became Grooms' father in law, was one of the surviving artists of the 14th Street School, with links to the Ashcan school and the heritage of the Eight. This ambience undoubtedly had an influence on Grooms. The Ashcan pictorial vocabulary of New York's rough and tumble street life, the exuberance of its disorder, crass emblems of consumer culture, or conversely of pathos and poverty, all engender a humanism that is at the center of Grooms art. He is an artist who loves people, even if satire is fore-fronted in his oeuvre. Though sympathetic and rather non judgmental, he captures the humor, if not ridiculousness, of his human subjects' conceptions of style, fashion, or the lack thereof, by their ordinary action, especially in eating fast food, or similar possibilities.

His first years in New York were an era of experimentation. This was the time of the Beat Generation in literature, from Kerouac to Ginsberg, and of a bohemian lifestyle that would teach a the lot to the hippies who followed. It was about freedom, and living a life that had some deeper meaning. It was a revulsion from the tidy life of the Eisenhower era, of suburban conformity, and antiseptic cleanliness. It embraced chaos, disorder, outrageousness, and provocation. History has had moments like this before, including Rimbaud and his Symbolist crew, Dadaists, the Cubists, the Montparnasse School, the later Exiles in New York, and Grooms immediate precursors, the first wave of the New York School including such personalities as Pollock and Greenberg, De Kooning and Rosenberg, and its meeting hall, the Cedar Bar.


Manhattan, Ruckus Manhattan, and New York

Grooms occupies the same studio that he's had for decades, on a street in Tribeca that betrays scant evidence of gentrification. Doorbells are mysterious items, parking lots and half de-constructed sites are everywhere, there are neither gourmet take outs, nor upscale boutiques on this apparently forgotten street, near Canal Street and Chinatown. When artists of Grooms's generation found such lofts, way before the trendy Soho of the 70's, there was an atmosphere of guerilla insurgency, occupancy that was furtive, beneath the legal radar. Nobody in the art community expected to make any money, and hardly anybody had any. To be an artist, and live in a former industrial or commercial space, in a neighborhood advancing slightly into degradation, was a badge of honor, a mark of belonging to the group.

Living in similar downtown locations since he came to New York put Grooms within a few blocks of just about anything he could use for his art: the street side vendors of Canal Street with their odds and ends who proffered an array of materials that could serve for collage, assemblage, or performance. Foods of all varieties, from Little Ital to Chinatown, all of utmost authenticity were handy. Disneyland had not come to this part of town, and New York characteristic tawdry splendor was and is everywhere in evidence.

For an artist who came from a comparatively wholesome small city, the actuality of this environment was no doubt a revelation, with its immediacy and ever changing energies and collisions of activity. A Ruckus was what it was, and Grooms appropriated this ethos for his Ruckus Theater and ultimately Ruckus Manhattan, the sculptural piece that started his career, which constituted a crystallization as well as selective distillation of his experience of New York City.

Grooms' context of theater is apt as a metaphor for much of his work, as costumes fix the certain moments of time, the setting elaborated with details of typography or architecture like a stage backdrop, while facial and bodily expressions conveying individuality, are all combining into its narrative. As an extension of this, Grooms over the course of time has created work in a wide variety of media, ranging from film to painting, drawing, and a multiplicity of techniques in printmaking, but mostly he is known for his work in three dimensions. There, he is combining many media into pieces, at times environments, that render their imagery through manifold figures and constructions. An attitude deriving from theater also extends into the mode of what he portrays, as he sees his subject mostly in its social relationships or interactions.

Ruckus Manhattan became a unique phenomenon of the art world. A collaboration with his former wife, Mimi Gross Grooms, and the help of as many as thirty assistants, it combined happening, theme park, interactive art work, spectator sport, and the notion of being in on the latest thing. The public flocked to the Marlborough gallery where the collection of individual pieces comprising this work were first presented. Grooms, the artist of the moment, became famous overnight.

The installation idea, which then was new, meant the realization of a work of art that could be walked around and into, adding thus a time element and experiential viewer quality. A memorable element of Ruckus Manhattan was the Subway Car. Inside it was a bizarre cast of characters, some mildly threatening, but no more so than found on any real subway. Viewers of Ruckus Manhattan walked around buildings and simulated streets, showing a host of novel settings and characters. Red Grooms' version of the city seemed to rock and reel, an effect that was physically actualized by his Subway Car as its floor structure, in several independent pieces, was mounted on a device with springs. Its pervasive color, and contorted shapes and passage ways, heightened the spectacle of audience involvement as one maneuvered around the component pieces as if amidst some fluid twisted forms from a De Kooning painting that would coalesce into recognizable shapes of real figures. One could laugh along, or just feel impressed that somebody had the wit and sense to capture all of what one experiences about New York's essential qualities while provoking amusement rather than dismay. As high art in its scope and capacity, the piece also charmed its viewers by not taking itself too seriously, being genial and good natured like the artist himself. The work conveyed an uplift of spirit, putting a good face on the inevitable, and conveyed an assurance that we all were experiencing the same thing.

Closely related to Ruckus is the print Local, 1971, with its subway populace including a giant wearing a patterned jacket and boy ties, a hippie girl with platform shoes and emboldened peace sign on her bell bottoms, and a policeman with gun and nightstick turning towards the subject riders as he leaves the scene on the right. Sunglasses, hairstyles, sideburns, jewelry, all observed with care, date the styles to the precise year of execution. As in the work of his precursor, Reginald Marsh, Grooms shows newspapers on the ground with headlines explicit as well as the lettering on posted advertizing further perform a visual narrative of popular taste and current events. The Ruckus concept has been restaged several times in slightly different formats, with elaborate bridges, entries into skyscraper lobbies, ferry boats that rock in simulated water, and lots of related new features.

The major sculpture, New York Bus 2001, perfectly captures the mood of the original Ruckus Manhattan. Though it is made from vinyl mounted on a steel frame, whose slightly wrinkled texture lends it the quality of a "soft sculpture" somewhat akin to Oldenburg's Soft Toilet, it is most definitely the Fifth Avenue Bus. Appropriating the ludicrously tasteless motif of much bus-side advertising is a poster sized ad for Big Boy underwear showing a smiling, brief- clad, otherwise nude male figure. Viewers get on and off this life sized "kneeling bus," wander among the sculpted riders, much as they did on the Subway in Ruckus. To fully experience this work one has to get inside it, like the sculpted figures inside, as looking out adds to the semblance of being part of the scene.

Ferry Landing, 2001, show the masses being disgorged from the Staten Island Ferry who's gaping maw expels an array of nearly diminutive figures, dressed in city clothes, from its gangplank. Like an open mouth and tongue, the structure of steel and iron frames this, while boats on the New York Bay are in the background. Joseph's Bridge, 2004, is comparable, though the overall structure is an oval rather than a vertical rectangle. Here, there are fewer figures, and they are larger compared to the bridge. Jogging, biking, and simply looking, this is the foot traffic of the Brooklyn Bridge whose pointed Gothic arches dominate the piece, fronting the Manhattan skyline. The cars below are smaller in the foreshortened perspective. Perhaps the amplified scale of the pedestrians attests to their freedom and enjoyment. Doing what they want, they are not crushed together, not part of the herd, so they become more individualized in poses and activity. As if in a world unto themselves, some boats and ferries serenely ply the East River below.

Since Ruckus, Grooms has adapted the idea of three dimensions in his art in increasingly sculptural ways. They start out as bas-relief back-drops of architecture or interior, but typically feature a shelf like projection on which sculpted figures interact. In Easter Parade, 1994, Grooms invests every corner of the piece with descriptive interest. At Street level, along Fifth Avenue, the forefront of the piece, an outrageous array of hats are worn. The adjoining cathedral spires attenuate upward while the surrounding buildings appear to be dancing every which way. The quality of animation and movement pervades the all the forms, accentuated by the exuberant Easter palette of lavender, green and yellow.

A street-scene is also the topic of The Plaza, 1995. This features a fore-ground image composed of limos, a Rolls Royce and a taxi, the three likely modes of transportation to this hotel, while a conspicuously ostentatious couple makes their way down the steps under the Trump logo and columned, flag bedecked, entrance. Miscellaneous walkers and bellhops mill about on the sidewalk below. The iconic towers and roof peaks of the Plaza's upper stories loom above us in exaggerated perspective. Flanking the hotel, at left (58th St.) Is the marquee of the Paris movie theater, a horse's head emerges from the right, framing the dominant central image. T he Expressionist brushwork forming the clouds, whose distance and height is affirmed by the treatment of the building introduce a contrast of nature to this cosmopolitan vista.

Rockefeller Center, 1995, with its distinctive art deco lines is portrayed from the vista along Fifth Avenue from St. Patricks Cathedral where one sees the international court across into the skating rink and gilt statuary. Figures walk across and into the perspective interior, as above, a plane flies off to the right. The infrastructure of plumbing, heating, and electrical components is shown in a lower section portraying what's going on beneath the street. Further descriptive interest is expended on the bas-relief adornment of the doorways of the two flanking buildings.

Another New York diorama is Saks Fifth Avenue, 1994, showing the Christmas tree display in the store window, figures inside the revolving door entrance, while a cut away is showing a perspective view inside the store where the holiday crowd of shoppers jostles their way to the display counters under the festive auspices of trumpeting angels and similar decor.

Closer to Grooms ' heart are the downtown streets near his studio which convey a surprising variety of street traffic, and a street population with unpredictably varied hairstyles, oufits, and ethnic characteristics.. Urban pragmatism and wild creativity co-exist: life here is less uniform, lacking regimentation, as everybody clearly does their own thing. In Study for Looking South Along Broadway toward the Woolworth Building, the viewer can focus on two exotically dressed figures in striped or patterned African garb, or on the baggy pants clad figure with the huge pony tail, or one of Grooms very characteristic images of a New York policeman. A scene within a scene, to the right shows a sanitation worker engaged in trash collection as cans are being emptied into the garbage truck. As typical Broadway traffic, varied trucks proceed in a disorderly way southward between buildings, each tilted ins own a crooked manner, especially the central Woolworth Bulding motif.


New York City Firemen

Grooms's series about firemen and the burning building relate to a performance piece - happening, and film that date to his earliest days in New York. There is enough representation of this topic in his oeuvre to constitute a sub-set of his ongoing New York series. The poster of The Burning Building is done in a simplified style, of bold block letters, reminiscent of the woodcut style of Die Brucke artists of German Expressionism. Grooms reprises this original event with his construction, The 1959 performance of "Burning Building", 1970, which shows the audience in the theater watching the performance at a moment when a fireman enters the building while a nude, presumably a bather, escapes. In Engine Company 8, 2003, he shows the fire truck and men emerging from the firehouse, done in white tile, with a Dalmatian looking on, and a pair of empty fire-mens's boots at the right.


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