Art Is Fleeting, but Red Grooms Is Forever






The artist Red Grooms has been working out of the same studio in TriBeCa since 1969, before the neighborhood’s name was coined. His space is pleasingly messy and gives off the feeling of some kind of bizarre antique shop, rather than a working environment. Scattered about on a visit this summer were recent sculptures: a couple dancing the tango, a batter poised at home plate, a ballerina doing a pirouette. Like comic strips come to life, they alluded to some of Mr. Grooms’s best known works, including “The City of Chicago” (1967) and “Ruckus Manhattan” (1975), monumental walk-in installations he calls “sculpto-pictoramas.”

The artist sat in front of a fan — there was no air conditioning — sipping coffee from a paper cup. His birth name is Charles, but he earned the nickname Red because of his fiery hair, which has now gone white. At 81, he is an elder statesman, and premier interpreter, of American pop culture — one of the last artists of a bygone era.

Mr. Grooms has been hailed at times as a zany genius and at others dismissed as so much kitsch. He cites both Walt Disney and Robert Wilson, the experimental theater director, as major influences. But is it possible that someone as celebrated as Mr. Grooms — Paul Goldberger, The New York Times’s former architecture critic, once wrote of the sculpto-pictoramas, “It is impossible not to like these marvelous things” — is also underrated?

The answer may become evident with the opening, on Sept. 6, of an expansive survey of Mr. Grooms’s drawings and paintings, from the late ’50s to the present, at the Marlborough Contemporary gallery in Chelsea. The show, “Red Grooms: Handiwork, 1955-2018,” reveals the artist as a master draftsman of remarkable consistency.

“I’ve known for years that the other side of Red that doesn’t get seen as much is somebody who takes great pleasure in just free form drawing and painting, with his own two hands,” said Dan Nadel, the curator of the Marlborough show. “I admire the immersive environments. There’s nothing else like them. But I’m interested in how much expression he gets from a single contour.”

As a child growing up in Nashville, Mr. Grooms found inspiration in the old weird America of the 1930s and ’40s, when he caught traveling carnivals and vaudeville acts. He had ambitions to work as a set designer for movies, reaching the masses that way. There is a crowd-pleasing, even theatrical aspect to much of his work that belies a more chameleonic nature. He first moved to New York in 1957, following a summer in Provincetown, Mass., where he studied for five weeks with the modernist painter Hans Hofmann, and upon his arrival in the city, Mr. Grooms embarked on an influential span of years that saw him move through the fringes of the avant-garde.

He joined the cooperative Phoenix Gallery on East 10th Street, then the heart of the art world, before leaving and starting City Gallery with Jay Milder in his own apartment on West 24th Street after Phoenix rejected a work by a young Claes Oldenburg, whom Mr. Grooms would later show.

City Gallery lasted all of six months. Shortly after, Mr. Grooms moved downtown, becoming a pioneer of experimental performances called happenings in the late ’50s, staging Dada-esque productions, including one called “Burning Building,” which featured performers — and Mr. Grooms himself — in white clown makeup.

“Just to show you what it was like at that time,” Mr. Grooms said, “I did ‘Burning Building’ nine times in a week, and at one performance, we had John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns — all there in the audience.” ”

And didn’t he give Alex Katz one of his first exhibitions?

“I did!” he said, sounding slightly baffled at the memory. He added, “I didn’t sell anything.”

In his 60-year career, Mr. Grooms has been so many different artists that it is difficult to assess his impact in full: a budding expressionist painter in the ’50s, a radical performer in the ’60s, a superstar installation artist in the ’70s and ’80s and, in more recent years, a G-rated public artist who created a quirky carousel full of references to Nashville history in his hometown, where it was for a time a beloved tourist attraction.

Then there is the $2.5 million, 73-foot-tall home run sculpture at Marlins Park in Miami, which sends leaping fish, palm trees and spouting water into action and is notably less loved. (When asked at a news conference whether or not he liked the sculpture, Derek Jeter, who bought the Marlins last year, said, “It’s unique,” with a slight grimace, and left it at that.)

But, despite the opinions of some baseball fans considerably less reserved than Mr. Jeter (“If Carnival and Las Vegas had a baby, this would be the placenta,” went an assessment by SB Nation), Mr. Grooms has weathered the ups and downs afforded by longevity.

The artist’s messy studio is cramped with works collecting dust. Mr. Grooms’s output is so profuse that he really doesn’t know the extent of what he has. He and Mr. Nadel discovered some of the work in the new exhibition rolled up in the studio’s basement, unbeknown to the artist. They found two preliminary studies for “Astronauts on the Moon,” a 1972 installation that showed the spacemen David Scott and James Irwin suited-up on the lunar surface, originally made for the top of the spiral at the Guggenheim Museum. (“They were downstairs,” Mr. Grooms said, “covered in dirt.”)

Other works in the show include intimate scenes from Mr. Grooms’s life — a black and white portrait from 1964 of his brother posing proudly with his dragster — and tossed off genre experiments, like a surrealist riff called “The Balloonist” (1956), completed before Mr. Grooms moved to New York.

Mr. Nadel compared Mr. Grooms to H.C. Westermann and Peter Saul — polemical artists whose mining of pop culture created a sustained political critique — and, more intriguingly, Randy Newman, the mordant songwriter whose family-friendly later career (including film scores for “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life”) eclipsed an urbane, sometimes scathing performer of conceptual records like “Good Old Boys.”

“I think Red is this highly sophisticated guy,” Mr. Nadel said. “He’s a Southern boy who came to New York, knew no one, and made himself.”

In person, Mr. Grooms has a grandfatherly aura. Wearing a button-down shirt tucked into khaki shorts, his hair cropped militarily high and tight, he looks like a man who would be at home mowing a suburban lawn during the Eisenhower administration. His penchant for words like “darn” and “heck” make him a rather unlikely early pioneer of the counterculture, a mantle he doesn’t necessarily identify with anyway. His happenings, he said, “were my only claim to the avant-garde.” As if to drive this point home, he compared his early performance work to football, which he played in high school.

“I was helpless with the darn coded signals,” he said. “So I had to play defense.”

“I really liked back lot games, where if you had the ball, you got to be the quarterback,” he added. “You make the plays on the spur of the moment, and that’s exactly the way I did the happenings. It was very simple, and the key too was that they lasted less than 10 minutes.”

Sports are an important touchstone for Mr. Grooms, who brought up the controversy surrounding his Marlins sculpture by saying, “Do you know about my disaster?” A spokesman for the Marlins declined to comment, but despite the backlash and the possibility that the team might remove the sculpture, Mr. Grooms is enough of a sports fan that he’s happy to be mentioned alongside the Marlins at all.

“It’s exciting for me to be in the sports page, even in a negative way,” the artist said. “At least I’m there, you know?”

This isn’t the first time a work by Mr. Grooms has invited controversy: His 1982 sculpture “The Shoot-Out,” a campy (or perhaps garish) showdown between cowboys and Indians, was moved from a Denver traffic island, after protests from Native Americans, and counterprotests by artists in its defense, to the roof of the Denver Art Museum.

Mr. Grooms sees this kind of response as the price of public art and a wide audience. While many of his peers during his early days in New York have remained artist’s artists, Mr. Grooms has the distinction of being a populist, someone whose work has served as an introduction to contemporary art for many.

In 1967, Mr. Grooms and his then-wife Mimi Gross created the first of two key sculpto-pictoramas, “The City of Chicago,” which includes a recreation of Michigan Avenue, with an enormous Mayor Richard Daley walking through a cavern of skyscrapers like some B-movie monster. The piece traveled to the Venice Biennale the following year, and Mr. Grooms appeared on the cover of Chicago Tribune Magazine twice in about six months.

Mr. Grooms and Ms. Gross ramped up their ambitions with their signature work, “Ruckus Manhattan,” which had its debut in 1975. (A section of the enormous installation will make a rare New York appearance in Mr. Grooms’s new show.) “Ruckus Manhattan” was a more than 10,000 square-foot reproduction of the borough, from Battery Park to Times Square, that included a nearly life-size sculpture of a subway car, a metal Brooklyn Bridge that was sturdy enough to walk across and a 30-foot-high World Trade Center. It took 21 assistants (known collectively as the Ruckus Construction Co.) nine months to complete the work.

Mr. Grooms and Ms. Gross’s distorted rendering of the city in papier-mâché, vinyl and fiberglass spoke to the precariousness of urban life, the impermanent character of the city at any given moment. Intended as a celebration of the city, it has since become a reminder of a time when crime rates were up and the local government was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

The work launched Mr. Grooms to stardom. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in The Times, said she liked his version of the World Trade Center better than the “blandly undistinguished 110 stories” of the real thing.

If New York overcame the hard scrabble ’70s, the afterlife of Mr. Grooms’s masterpiece has been more fraught. No portion of “Ruckus Manhattan,” for sale through Marlborough, sold during its debut. When the exhibition was over, Mr. Grooms’s marriage to Ms. Gross had fallen apart, and all the assistants had left. “The Brooklyn Bridge is in an industrial park outside of Denver,” Mr. Grooms said nonchalantly, and the World Trade Center was destroyed in storage during Hurricane Sandy.

Mr. Grooms’s career has, against all odds, proved sturdier than even his most famous work. “My whole life, bad or good, has occurred here, in this place,” he said, shooting a glance around his studio, surveying his creations. “Looking back, I realize I didn’t know a darn thing,” he said. “I still don’t, basically.”

From The New York Times, “Art Is Fleeting, but Red Grooms Is Forever” by M.H. Miller. September 6, 2018.