Red Grooms

by Franklin Hill Perrell

 



 

Sports

The sports subject for Grooms is a natural segue from all the tumult of New York, so much of which is shown on foot, jostling, running, pushing, shoving, and then its ethos, which is free-wheeling, competitive, and unpredictable. For in sports, national and regional obsessions, hero worship, and cult identification with celebrity all join together, enlivened with the spirit of pure fun, offering a distraction away from more ordinary, pragmatic, everyday pursuits, all consuming to its afficionados.

Depicted in Groom's sports series are the muscle men of the beach, directly from the artistic heritage of Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh via the popular muscle magazines and their contemporary televised incarnations. One sees also the protagonists of popular sports like baseball, football, or boxing.

In Clean and Press, 1990, the weight lifter's chest expanse is like a side of beef, the strongly marked contours of his muscles suggest even more strength than is needed to handle the mammoth weight that he wields. Muscle Beach Totem, is a seemingly impossible stack of five figures with the top man doing a hand stand while the lower figure is confidently supporting their weight. Mr. Universe, 1990 grins confidently and knowingly through the swollen forms of his musculature, showing off abs, quads, biceps, etc.. The pose,like the prototype for a trophy, could easily be the featured page in a monthly muscle magazine and at once evokes the memory of Charlie Atlas. Sailor Kelly, 1990, lifts his entire body, horizontally, off the floor, leaning onto is outstretched, sneaker-clad feet uplifted, mitt-like, hands, supported on sturdy tattooed arms, grimacing in strain with a projecting massive jaw. In Muscle-Beach Party, 1989,

two male figures together create an L shape design, one stretched across the upper part of the composition, balanceing himself on the grasp of a seated figure who occupies the right side. The rest of the composition contains images of footprints in the sand, scroll like suggestions of the ocean waves, the patterned white-caps, horizontally arrayed, of the sea, and at the horizon, a passing ship against sky and clouds.

Hulked, 1996 (p. ), shows the celebrity wrestler in a struggle with his opponent, who is nearly his match, as referees and reporters evaluate the progress of the contest. This work belongs to a genre of work done in colored pencil which have an almost pointillist quality due to some very intense activity of individual marks used in shading and line which very intensely give dimension to the characterizations. When Grooms works flat, rather than in the round, he is still thinking much like a sculptor in the way space is handled, flatness versus depth occupies much of his attention, as if he is emphasizing the dimensionality of his figures- their anatomy twists and contorts as if seen from several vantage points. The centrality of the square platform with the lights above heightens the theatrical, diorama-like quality of what otherwise is a two dimensional work.

Butter the Bull (p. ), is the central sculpted piece from a collection of separate elements that comprise Ruckus Rodeo, which was conceived in the spirit of Ruckus Manhattan to convey a western theme. Here, the Bull is so full of power, energy, and life, not like one of Picasso's very serious ones awaiting death with dignity, but rather a bull who's only thought would be making a ruckus, as he kicks, snorts, and scowls, menacing with his horns, and tossing his tenacious rider.

In The Big Game (p.), the very bulk and roundness of the figures, the collision course on which they impact into an array of twisted bodies bespeaks the dynamism of football. It is so typical of Grooms way of framing he image, that he flanks it by other motifs, here, a dancing cheerleader to the left and a drummer on the right. Spectators' heads comprise a quilt like pattern, with highly individual, usually toothsome expressions.

Grooms is impressed by his travels, and never fails to glean motifs from them. A recent trip to Japan afforded him a multiplicity of pieces attesting to a long standing fascination of western artists with the art traditions of Asia. Sumo Summit, 2001 (p.), is truly in the round, using the tondo format and the device of a circle within a circle to portray wrestlers and spectators in their respective rings. The kimono clad figures in the foreground as well as the graphic character of lettering and variously patterned printed fabrics or woven mats lend the work a flatness in design that links it to uki-yo-e woodcut art, while the round format is reminiscent of the shape of a sword-guard, that is at times laden with artistic imagery.

Joltin Joe, (p.), a tribute to Yankees hero Joe Dimaggio, has the mystique and drama of a real-life sports incident. The ball, quite low, is poised in mid air, about to be received by the catchers mit, while the umpire seemingly signals a strike. Joe, with his bat poised, looks up, as if to indicate his disdain for a bad call. Strike, 1992 (p.), compresses th full length of a bowling alley into a trophy-like composition mounted as if on a bowling ball. The bowler, in logo-emblazoned shirt, is shown taking aim at the pins, the laminated wood pattern of the bowling alley and its distance are compacted into an undulating snippet of its actual expanse, but it effectively conveys space and time, and at the end, the pins, in the process of falling, attest to the impact of the bowler's energetic thrust.

All this culminates in the large scale work, Sports Heroes Banquet, a great example of Grooms employing the brightest most saturated color, the most vivid greens and searing reds and oranges. A network of caging lines brings all the characterizations fully developed to the periphery of the image. The product of a series of acrylic on paper studies, each having as subject one of the individuals portrayed in the whole, the totality portrays a n imaginary banquet that spans generations, and apportions a feast, chiefly of hot dogs and pizza accompanied by beer and at least one bottle of wine. Among the characters portrayed, from left to right, and most easily identifiable are Babe Ruth, John McEnroe, Carl Lewis, Nolan Ryan, Vince Lombardi, Pele, Billy Crystal, Larry Bird, Jackie Robinson, Jerry Lewis, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Unitas, Red Holzman, and Wayne Gretzky. The large acrylic painting Sports Heroes Banquet I (p.) serves as a study for the subsequent Sports Banquet II (p.) which was rendered in three dimensions, built up out of resin and foam, mounted in wood, and painted in enamel. In terms of imagery, the overall comosition is quite similar, but some details differ in their particulars. For example, in Sports Banquet II, the straw on the floor for Secretariat has been removed, leaving only the wood inlay, and the blue jacket of Red Holzman has been replaced with a loud yellow plaid. The waiter holding the pizza has a new identity since he is now grey haired with a beard, where-as he formerly was clean shaven with black hair. While there are some relatively minor adjustments in color or scale, the general brightness, exuberance, frenzy, and atmosphere of revelry and excitement are retained.that form and color, shape and design so effectively transpose apart from the salient features of each caricature like portrait.

 

Food

An inescapable feature of New York life is its food, at any level of expense, addressing the origins, tastes, and proclivities of a multiplicity of nations, languages or ethnic groups. Here, for an enormous mass of people, the sensation of food in New York is ever changing, overwhelming, and present everywhere in eternally evolving. The smells from a street vendor's cook stand entice or assault one's senses, likewise, a street whose multiple pizza shops exude a sweet fog of garlic, as food crazed consumers in shop windows are staving off the malaise of low blood sugar with high cholesterol, high calorie, and high starch offerings. Lunch and Crunch (p. ) is a terrific image with its contradiction of slimming and exercise in the salon above the somewhat fashionable eatery where slender and well dressed customers, those of the 57th street gallery neighborhood, have stopped for a stylish snack.

In Red Grooms' work, however, most often the food is fast, cheap, spicy, and quickly eaten, on the run, like just about anything else in New York. Amenities and niceties are most often set aside in a flurry of rapidity. No time is wasted to get down the biggest gorging gulps and move on, as the eaters swelling proportions, especially cheeks and stomachs evidence the swollen impact of stuffing in more on top of more. The Hot Dog Vendor,1996 (p.), is a piece whose more than life-sized scale packs a disorienting Surrealist punch, turning observers into virtual Lilliputians as they confront eight and nine foot protagonists in a true to life image from many a New York Street corner: a man wearing a jacket and bow tie and sneakers eats a hot dog while a mini-skirt clad woman with boots and sunglasses looks on with the bearded vendor clad in a checkered shirt behind his colorful stand emblazoned with advertising for his "delicious" products.

Pastrami on Rye, 2003 (p. ),could be almost any deli with its tile floor, mat counters, and apron clad clerks serving up sliced meat, the neon letters, delicatessen, and clock. The framed sports photos on the wood paneled wall, attire of the clerks, all of whom are wearing striped aprons, white shirts and ties, bespeak a tradition still alive in New York, though fast disappearing. Typically, it also embraces imagery of the life outside as trucks and people on the sidewalk are shown in a reflection through mirror and glass.

The Duck House (p.), with its lettering of Sun Say Kai Restaurant, English and Chinese, is typical of the Chinatown neighborhood near where Grooms has his studio. One figure is shown coming out of a hatch-way door from under the sidewalk doorway and another is bringing meat products into the shop. Separately, a pedestrian carrying an "I Love New York" shopping bag crosses the street. The perspective, sharply pointed to the right is exaggerated to give a view of the sidewalk going around the corner. This very Pop subject which combines lettering with food items displayed in the shop window, has something in common with Claes Oldenburg's products from The Store and with Wayne Thiebaud's typical paintings of pies and cakes.

The subject of eaters ingesting vast quantities of food is portrayed in many of Grooms' pieces including Double Scoop, 2001 (p. ), and Hamburger Deluxe (p.), where over-scale characters, clearly redolent of the good life as attested by their bulk, are struggling mightily to absorb food at a scale even larger than themselves. In Bubblegum, (p. )the gum's bubble, produced by the efforts of a freckled girl with side pony tails, is larger than her face, and indeed looks like an engorged stomach. In The Swimming Hole, (p. )the bather completely fills the pool with his rotundity, which he is greedily amplifying with canned soda. In Pretzel Break, 2000 (p. ), two construction workers, wearing hard hats, devour pretzels along with their canned drinks. Dali Salad (p. ) where shredded lettuce assumes the free-form of a biomorphically mutated Dalinian shape in the spirit of surrealism.

 

Art About Art

Grooms himself has his individual heroes, and they cross a wide spectrum of talent from movies, history, literature, music and dance all of which have provided him material chiefly for portrait homages. By far, the preponderance of such portrayals are of artist heroes, the big guns to be sure, but since they're from the world of art, not known in every instance to the broad cross section of the public who know Grooms but not necessarily his major predecessors. Picasso is his favorite, Cubism in general interests him, Dali merits an individual portrait, as do Pollock, De Kooning, Rauschenberg, et al.. Peggy Guggenheim represents the surrealists and artists in exile as a type of proxy for that whole episode. In Queen Peggy, (p. ) she is shown enthroned on a Gothic chair from her Venetian palazzo as the aged Grand Dame, wearing huge, Surrealist designed sun glasses, an outrageous large necklace and of patterned dress, with her pet Lhasa Apso on her lap. Without the vast resources associated with today's collecting, she singly changed the course of art history through galleries, love affairs, and a museum.

The Studio at Rue des Grands Augustins, 1990-96 (p.), conveys the mural like scale and narrative urgency of its inspiration and subject which was the Guernica painting, whose grey and black shapes create a backdrop for its creator, Picasso, and his cohorts. Dora Maar stands weeping and talking, a standard poodle next to her sitting and looking similarly forlorn. Picasso, in shorts and undershirt paints, another woman, most likely Francoise Gilot, disrobes, while an old woman, no doubt his wife Olga, reads the newspaper, as refreshments are brought in by yet another figure.

Hoffmeister, 1990 (p.), shows the great artist-teacher, Hans Hofmann, with whom Grooms very briefly studied, who so influenced the freedom of the 50's generation, and helped them liberate their color and brush-work, all suggested by the Hofmannesque abstract composition to which the portrait is fused. Grooms own period has several representations. In The Pouring (p. ), one glimpses an art world mystery: the creation by Morris Louis of one of his veil paintings. Nobody knows exactly how they were done as Louis was very secretive about his technique, but it is widely assumed that critic and art world king-maker Clement Greenberg was enormously influential on him. The mystery of how far did this went is suggested as Clem's head is affixed to that of Louis, as if they are Siamese Twins, and thus symbolically communicate. They've fused into one, a position that many watchers of the scene contend Clem assumed with the artists he reputedly advised. As if to extend this by proxy further into the Color Field movement, two other figures, presumably Frankenthaler and Noland, complete the trio. Dominant however, is the Louis painting itself and of course, it is not just a copy since its surface, which was so much an issue to this movement, is uniquely transformed by the alternate technique of Grooms's colored pencil.

In Bedtime for Rauschenberg, 1991 (p .), the artist-subject is shown as free and easy in his southern way, relaxing on the notorious bed, the famed work that Leo Castelli presented to the Museum of Modern Art. The tire around Rauschenberg's leg derives from another work wherein Rauschenberg created a combine using a taxidermized Angora goat which is squeezed into a tire wrapped around its middle. Above the artist is the stuffed chicken, deriving from yet another Rauschenberg work. Its amazing today that anybody was ever scandalized by such images, but Grooms picks his themes with care, saying to his audience, don't forget that what's considered classic today had to go through a stage when only few people understood or cared for it. Moreover, Grooms is bringing forth the identity of these artists as real personalities with fascinating lives who dared to be different, and their impact, by being themselves, has really lasted. These pieces convey a special excitement in that Grooms identifies with this subject as fellow artists.

TV Dinner, for Juan Gris, 1991 (p.), combines a television set with simulated cubist imagery, a Gris style painted composition to the right, and the frequent motifs, fruit- still life, from Cubist works rendered in a straightforward, non-Cubist manner at the lower half of the painting. Grooms' Cubists, 19 (p. ), montages images from two sources: Braque, shown as he was in the apex of Cubism, around 1911, and Picasso, perhaps fifty years older, giving reality to Picasso's observation that the Braque he knew before World War I (when that artist came back injured) was frozen in time. In Picasso, 1997 (p. ), the artist is shown at his most elderly stage, close to ninety, as he is sketching in the setting of his villa, probably La Californie, where he is surrounded by evidences of his famed subjects. The physiognomy of the artist is unmistakable as his expression of intense concentration is captured, brush in one hand, cigarette in the other.

 

Old Tennessee

It would come as a surprise to some Red Grooms fans that he can do watercolors with the sensitivity of the19th century English School. Of course these works still have Red Grooms' typical boldness, decisiveness, and power of line, but they also capture a degree of subtlety and nuance that can only result from a close scrutiny of nature. Works in this vein were mostly inspired by the artist's periodic visits for vacation retreats at his native Tennessee where he and his wife have built a log cabin vacation home with a spacious veranda porch that affords vistas into the nearby landscape. A peaceful, idyllic setting, which constitutes an antithesis to Red Grooms' New York. The series of works done there has its own quality. The presence of this body of work clearly affirms Grooms complexity and inherent dichotomy.

In On the Deck, 2003 (p. ), Grooms stages a contemporary version of the traditional "conversation group", a convention that provided the artist an opportunity to demonstrate his skill in multiple portraiture. While many such examples in art history date to the 17th and 18th centuries, the commencement of the modern era abounds with instances like Bazille's family on the terrace, Monet's Terrace at St. Adresse, or Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Grooms' On the Deck follows these earlier examples as a portrayal of the artist's own intimate circle in a setting against the backdrop of nature. To the Impressionists, this was a way of reconciling portraiture with landscape painting. For Grooms, it follows his pattern of responding to his environment, wherever he is, with a cast of characters pertinent to the locale, in this case the vacation home he and his wife have built amid the dramatic vistas of the Blue Ridge mountains. Grooms paces himself in the scene, dressed in Hawaiian shirt and shorts, carrying drinks, for the entertainment f his guests.

In Queen Anne's Lace, 1999, the floral bouquet is juxtaposed to a deep straw basket full of peppers, a shallow bowl with varied whole fruit and a sliced open peach, on a pine table, set against the glass of a window through which one sees part of the wood deck and foliage outside. Here, Grooms also places himself in the tradition of earlier art, especially the still lifes of Cezanne where uptilted perspective and the capacity to pull in extraneous environmental references all add visual interest and dynamic movement, so that the humble still-life becomes more than of an opportunity to orchestrate dynamic formal elements without losing any of the sensuous appeal of its subject. In the same spirit are Wildflowers at Dawn, 2000, and Wildflowers and Raspberries, 2000.

These watercolors belong to a series that may be described as "quiet Tennessee." In these works, the artist is stepping back from the frenzy of the urban existence, the hectic pace and excitement of foreign travel, or the grand themes of art and history. One might think of these pieces almost as private works, a visual diary, recording a mood of introspection, feelings and observations based on the renewal the artist finds in re-acquainting himself with the peaceful ambience of his boyhood.

There is another side of life, however, in Tennessee, a public spectrum with amusements and entertainment, travel, and odd or eccentric people and places. This is the Ruckus side of Tennessee, which shows that Grooms the country boy always had the aspiration for the city. An early work, Tennessee State Fair, 1952, has all the ingredients of his mature art. Reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec, Grooms takes one inside the circus tent, portraying with incisive caricature the performers on stage, with special interest in the figures and revealing costumes of the two women at the edge of the stage. Notable among the spectators are two muscular men, one with tattoos and the other in a striped shirt. Interaction and mutual awareness unites the characters, further emphasized by the same pictorial background of the tent interior. Figures are composed to the edge, as well as cropped, with stress on nearly abstracted shapes and patterns in flat silhouette. The expressionist brush work, and strong independent color, anticipate the aesthetic ambience of the "figurative fifties" that existed in the New York Tenth Street Gallery scene even though this work dates almost five years before Grooms arrival in the city.

While Groom's surroundings in Tennessee, and the activities of its people whom he observes, differ in their particulars from those of New York, he equally applies his predilection for movement and eccentricity to his selections of subjects there. In Tennessee S Curve, 2001 (p. ), the stylistic twists and turns so characteristic of Groom's urban works are used here to perfectly convey the dangers of a rural mountain road whose traffic is dominated by an enormous log-loaded eighteen wheeler bearing down on smaller vehicles. The grinning dog in a Ford pick-up belies the implications of a cross inscribed with the words "prepare to meet the Lord.." Hillbilly musicians, likely a family,are depicted in Study for Tennessee Waltz, 2000 (p.). One musicians plucks the string of an instrument made of broom stick and wash basin as the other plays an upright piano accompanied by a female vocalist in sneakers. They're all on the wood deck of a log cabin, whose chimney seems to rock with the rhthym which also attracts the involvement a howling hound and a bawling baby. Seeming to ignore them is a "granny" character, in hair curlers and slippers, reading her magazine. Completing the scene is a still dripping moonshine into a jug. Noisy dogs are depicted in Hound Dog Village, 2001 (p. ), where their varied poses and expression convey human affinities, as their dog houses and dinner dishes suggest a community and meals.

Woody the Pecker, 2001 (p. ), shows the bird high up aloft the top of a pine tree that he has perforated with enormous holes. His expression suggests satisfaction and confidence as he can survey from this perch the rolling hills and farm below with road and truck, barn, tractor, horse, and corn crops. In these works, the quantity of elements and details that Grooms records is staggering. Especially striking is the fact that although Grooms observations of the city seem so particular to that environment, the similarities of threads of food, action, entertainment, and odd characters sustain a consistent pattern of underlying themes transcending the locale as if to say, wherever people are, they will do similar things and have the same types of human interests.

 

The Circus

Red Grooms art engages because of its exuberance, its spirit of fun and what would be indeed a more perfect theme than the circus. It follows from his whole philosophy of entertainment with the spectacle of New York city's streets on one hand and the panache of celebrity performers. The circus, as it attracted the early Picasso, Calder, Walkowitz, Marsh, and a host of artistic precursors assumes a special place for Grooms because of its natural evocation of enjoyment. Also, its costumes, the configuration of amusement park rides, circus tents, acrobats and animal acts all afford an array of shapes, as provoked by no other source. Here the quality of three dimension yields essential force and vigor to his interpretation of subject.

Red Groom's early works for the circus all foretell the interests which would animate his future career. Here are the essential inmgredients derived from popular culture: descriptive lettering and signage, and immediately recognizable prototypes of characters as shown in his Sideshow Banners or Carnival Model: Nohed the HeadlessWonder, c. 1950 (p.). The informality of the lettering, imbued mor with the individuality of the artist than any known type-face, along with the brushy quality in each figure reveals the future expressionist artist.Groom's Brawl at the State Fair, 19 (p. ) ,takes on a theme worthy of Curry, Benton, or even Rogers & Hammerstein. The setting is amidst tents and a dramatically depicted airplane-ride with a crowd including of farmers, other men, women, and lots of children beside a little girl with a stuffed animal. Among the main figures in the middle, the protagonists, a sailor and a man in undershirt and bright striped pants take swings at each other. Especially notable about the composition is the nearly abstracted pattern established by the interlocking diagonals of several figures's legs, a geometric compositional underpinning that is further reinforced by the "X" shape created where the elbows of each fighter meet.

Grooms returned to the circus theme many times in his career. The Great Western Act, 1971 (p. ), shows elaborate costumes and action. A cowboy twirls his lariat around the leg of a dancer while cougars scowl in a ring behind which a cowboy on horseback gallops, while spectators look on from the periphery. The paint handling is creamy and expressive, giving a consistent rich gestural quality to the whole composition.

A group of constructed metal sculptures, that have some kinship to antique metal toys, comprise part of the body of work that Grooms has dedicated to the circus. The Bicyclist, 1999 (p. ), portrays a Gay Nineties barbershop quartet style character with a huge moustache, astride an old fashioned high bicycle, where the front wheel is enormous and the rear wheel is tiny. His elongated slender shape is further emphasized by the bold stripes of his outfit. A cast shadow heightens the illusion of reality and movement.

The Ferris Wheel, (p. ) portrays its subject with respect to the engineering of a ferris wheel, a star motif at the center of its strokes, as supported by two triangular bolted steel structure, the wheel suspended within, its movement suggested by the crank handle on one side. Other riders, singly or twos or threes, occupy the benches within, hands holding onto a protective bar in front. The Sword Swallower, 1997 (p. ), portrays its character complete with sword partially swallowed, with lettering on its platform saying "Mr. Gulpo goes to the hilt," and "Mr. Gulpo's tonsils are the talk of tinsel town." A world of relative innocence, childhood memories and collective societal nostalgia for less sophisticated entertainments, especially their low tech, character are attributes of these pieces.

 

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