All Around The Cobbler’s Bench with Red Grooms

In Red Grooms: A Retrospective, 1956-1984, Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1985.

rgroomsAll around the cobbler’s bench The monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought ’twas all in fun. Pop! Goes the weasel.

Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle. Mix it up and make it nice. Pop! Goes the weasel

There is a traditional element of monkey business in Western art. Not only do monkeys often represent the art­ist’s imitative skills in aping nature, but they are also used to satirize the base, foolish, and vain side of human be­havior. The monkey with its dual implication of mimetic art and mordant commentary could well serve as a symbol for the artist Red Grooms. For twenty-nine years, he has been using his representational talents to monkey around with the clichés of popular culture and the pieties of art history and to subvert the received values of the art world.

Red Grooms belongs to a generation of artists who, in G R Swenson’s words, “took the world too seriously not to be amused by it.”1 At times Grooms’s humor has an ab­surdist streak, full of the impetuous energy and preposter­ous puns of the Marx Brothers. He shares a comic sense with Bob and Ray whose straight-man/funny-man team­work plays off against the mundane conventions of daily life. As an empiricist with a keen political sense and a re­tentive memory for visual facts, Grooms follows in the tra­dition of William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier, who were canny commentators on the human condition.

Because his art is often so enjoyable, Grooms has been likened to such affable, boyish fellows as Huck Finn and Peter Pan. But these superficial characterizations fail to ac­count for what the artist himself has called his “double na­ture,” or what his friend Rudy Burckhardt has termed his “fierce” side.2 Anarchistic, brutal, or politically savvy, this other dimension takes many forms. In Shoot the Moon, 1962, celebrants are seen shredding library books to make con­fetti. In Ruckus Manhattan, 1975, a window in the Woolworth Building reveals an office clerk mauled by a grotesque pair of hands, and the World Trade Center tow­ers rise high above the body of a fallen construction worker.

“Question Authority” a slogan of the sixties, is a sentiment embodied in Patriot’s Parade, 1967. Not only an antiwar statement but also a moving indictment of the persecution of demonstrators, it is one of the most pow­erful examples of the protest art of the Vietnam era, even though it is little known. Futilely proffering flowers, a young woman is trod underfoot by a soldier. A doll-like Miss Napalm and the lethal symbol of skull and crossbones visible inside President Johnson’s ten-gallon hat al­lude to the devastations of war. Nuclear Nuts, 1983, a pull toy that kinetically describes the alternative peace initiatives of the Americans and the Soviets, is a more recent sample of his targeted comedic insights.

At times Grooms’s contrariness takes the form of a Ra­belaisian raspberry The energetic Mr. Ruckus, an alter ego derived in part from the Pasty Man of the early Hap­penings, is a rude and irrepressible spirit. In the film Hip­podrome Hardware, 1972, he eats to excess, belly dances, and cleans his nose in public. Other characters, sharing his disdain for conventional niceties, are shown in the “John, with their trousers at their ankles, or rocking the bed with their conjugal exertions. A Dada personality Mr. Ruckus has been described by April Kingsley as “an ugly mischie­vous clown somewhat akin to WC. Fields in his aggressive deviltry and his pleasure in putting something over on the gullible.”3

Beginning in the late 1970s, a wide variety of sexual themes surface in Grooms’s work. In the print series Nine­teenth Century Artists, 1976, Rodin cavorts in drag before his marble The Kiss, while Cézanne lasciviously fon­dles his still life. The progenitor of modern art comes in for scrutiny again in Tie Cez, 1977, where he is shown bound and gagged, encircled by a bevy of his bathers. Night Raid on Nijo Castle, 1983-84, contains a vignette describing the libidinous pursuits of its inhabitants. who are endowed with organs of mythic proportions in the fashion of Japanese erotic prints.

As early as 1963, Grooms’s broad talent in such diverse genres as painting, sculpture, printmaking, and movies prompted critic Sidney Tillim to label him affectionately “’the leading contender for the decathlon prize of the New York School Olympics.”4 Not only did Grooms early demonstrate his virtuoso mastery of a multitude of media, but he soon invented new categories of his own:

I started making “stick-outs” early in 1963 after spending a year making movie sets. We talked a lot about “3-D-ing.” This and an earlier experience of working frantically in thick muddy paint, losing the whole thing and using card-board glued in quickly to regain a clearer image, plus an inexhaustible amount of wood and cardboard supplied by N. Y.C. wastebaskets led me to “stick-outs.”5

Hovering at the boundary between painting and sculpture, the “stick-outs” often depicted characters and events from the turn-of-the-century Parisian art world.

Many of these new works had found objects incorporated into them “. . . in Florence I never ‘found’  anything in the streets I could use, so I was concentrating on painting. When I got back [to N.YC] I made [A Light, Madam, 1962] out of a pickle barrel cover I found.”6 An ingenious improviser, Grooms can utilize almost anything for his artful purposes—the hidden framework inside the sitter’s outsize feet in the portrait of Alex Katz, 1963, consists of empty boxes from Nashville’s favorite sweet—Goo Goo clusters.

Today Grooms is recognized as a pioneer of site-specific sculpture and installation art. The

first of his walk-through, room-sized environments, which he termed “sculpto-pictoramas,” created with his then wife, Mimi Gross, was the City of Chicago, 1967. Larger-than-life-size sculptures of Mayor Daley and Hugh Hefner were joined by such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln,

Al Capone, and fan-dancer Sally Rand, accompanied by a sound track featuring gunfire and burlesque music. Grooms’s genius for rendering the intricacies of archi­tectural ornament is vividly apparent in several three-dimensional vistas of Chicago’s famous buildings. Evident here and in the numerous other cityscapes Grooms has created is his extraordinary ability to capture a sense of place with a great sensitivity to detail.

Ruckus Manhattan, the enormous, traversible “sculpto-pictorama” of New York City that Grooms created with a team of assistants in 1975, is likely his best-known and most ambitious construction. Made of fiberglass, wood, metal, fabric, and Celastic (a plastic cloth that becomes malleable when dipped in acetone), Ruckus pulsed with the authentic beat of the city. Other examples of his large-scale environments include: Discount Store, 1970-71, an interpretation of a midwestern chain store; The Astronauts on the Moon, 1972, inspired by the launching of Apollo 15; and Ruckus Rodeo, 1976, which presents Red’s version of a full-fledged western rodeo, with bucking broncos and high-riding cowgirls. Unfortunately, public access to these proj­ects is limited, since some are often in storage and others are in private collections

One exception is Philadelphia Cornucopia, 1982, commis­sioned by Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art to mark the Tricentennial of the city’s founding. Purchased by civic-minded patrons, it is now on view in a National Park Service building. Here a ten-foot General Washing­ton greets visitors from the helm of a Ship of State cum car­nival float. One wanders past a colonial courtroom and spies the liberation of Marcel Duchamp’s famous modern­ist nude, sashaying down the front steps of the Philadel­phia Museum of Art. Nearby the ornate Victorian facade of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, complete with a portrait of its architect, Frank Furness, looms above Thomas Eakins’s daring life class.

From the days of his earliest Happenings to the most re­cent installations, Grooms has periodically worked with assistants, retaining his role as director/producer Collab­oration has always been a form of collage to him. In a 1981 interview with New York Times critic Grace Glueck, Grooms described his current working method:

As we go along, we do lots of improving . . We talk over ideas. Tim [Watkins] or Rolla [Herman] may have an input. The pieces do change, I’m that much into chance. When something gets miscommunicated, at least half the time it comes out better . . One reason we can impro­vise, we’re so close to Canal Street we can get anything we want in five minutes. We put some 75 percent of our effort into the idea, 10 percent into esthetic problems, and 15 percent into visiting the hardware store.7

Those inspirational hardware store visits are only a slight variation on the serendipitous street finds of earlier years

“I try to create a … proletarian style,” Grooms told in­terviewer Paul Cummings in 1974. “I think in a way you try to create a style or an image that is supposed to work with what you’re interested in.”8 Downplaying the obvious uniqueness of his expression, Grooms enjoyed stressing his commonality with popular culture. “My style, espe­cially my broadest comic-strip style, which is the Discount Store style more than any other, is public knowledge any­way Everybody knows about it”9 While working with Mimi Gross on some of the large environmental pieces of the 1970s, a shared style passed easily back and forth be­tween the two artists: “[Mimi’s] a wonderful painter and really I’ve conceived my stuff in a lot of ways in the way she paints. I’ve picked up a style from her in a way espe­cially when 1 work with her.”10

Red’s characteristic mode, with elements of cartoonlike renditions, willful distortion, and exaggerated perspec­tives, is the expression of a master draftsman. In attempt­ing to define Grooms’s special graphic style, which he regarded as “part caricature, part affectionate humor,” Hil­ton Kramer noted in 1975: “It is a little like reading a brisk and accurate translation of a witty French poem into an American vernacular style. We experience a double pleas­ure.”11 Addressing a related issue, John Russell praised the artist in 1981 for “a mimetic ability that can give us both the thing seen and the commercialized view of it in one and the same image.”12

One of the hallmarks of Grooms’s career is his ability to allow each new medium to refresh and regenerate his sub­ject matter. Every material elicits a distinct stylistic handling, which may change as the artist changes. The early ink and bamboo stick drawings have a German Expres­sionist intensity, while later examples resemble van Gogh in their linear complexity. His frequent travel sketches were done in felt-tip pens until he discov­ered how fleeting their color could be Traditionally Grooms reserved gouache for made-up imagery and used watercolor to depict things observed. After his 1977 trip to France, he turned more and more to watercolors. In Brittany during the summer of 1980, Red worked on a small scale and took his cues from the soft color harmonies of the atmosphere He began to limit his palette to just a few tonalities—light red, gray-blue, muted greens, and pale yellow, exerting great control over their impact

The purchase of a hot-glue gun in 1973 initiated several masterpieces of paper sculpture; for example, Sam, a portrait of Sam Reily who appeared in Fat Feet; and Gretchen’s Fruit, a tour-de-force still life. Grooms was introduced to the more enduring medium of bronze in 1979 when he spent a week teaching at the University ot New Mexico, in Albuquerque, at the invitation of his friend Paul Suttman. Regarding the several western and football themes which he worked in the metal, Grooms has commented: “It looks just like my regular stuff, but it’s for the ages. . . It turns out to be easier to work with than less durable materials.”13 His outstanding skill at utilizing the lost-wax method of casting is seen at greatest advantage in the monumental Lumberjack, 1977-84, cast from a whimsical woodsman Red made as a gift for artist Neil Welliver.

Grooms has been working as a printmaker since 1958. The poster for his 1977 Paris exhibition was printed at the Mourlot print shop in Paris where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec worked at the turn of the century. Red particularly delighted in his association with Mourlot because he vividly recalled the scene in the film Moulin Rouge in which Lautrec, after carousing all night, enters the shop in the morning and commences to work.

Grooms’s commitment to the populist aspects of print-making has been influenced by the work of José Posada, the politically active, late-nineteenth-century Mexican printmaker. Cognizant of the potential for commercial ex­ploitation of prints, a medium of multiples, Grooms has used this awareness itself as an inspiration for one of his prints. According to master printer Steven Andersen, foun­der of Vermillion Editions, Minneapolis: “Red chose [Sal­vador] Dalí as the subject of his print because Dalí has been a supreme exploiter of the print medium, turning out so-called limited editions that number in the thousands.”14 Dalí Salad, 1980-81, is printed on vinyl and paper and combines such different techniques as silkscreen and lithography as well as handpainting and cutting.

Andersen’s account of the origin of another Grooms print, Lorna Doone, 1979-80, is worth recounting in full:

Once when Red was here, he needed to send a card to some friends back in New York, so he left the studio for a few minutes to drop into a card shop he’d seen down the street. Well, a few minutes later he came running back in, shouting, “Quick, where’s something I can draw on?” There were some lithographic stones laid out on the counter, and he began to draw right onto one of them a caricature of this new-wave girl who was the clerk at the card shop. She had purple hair and sunglasses, and he put her in this leopard-skin outfit. Then behind her he added some silos and put the reflection of a truck in her sun­glasses. She was supposed to be the Minneapolis version of “Christina’s World”. … He couldn’t think of a name for her, though, so he went back to the card shop and asked what her name was. It was Lorna Doone. That name absolutely made Red’s day—his week.”15

Grooms has always been attuned to the dress and be­havior of real people as well as to the overlay of art history that influences the nature of his perceptions. In Lorna Dome, an actual person inspired an art-historically allusive image.

Grooms often uses art to comment on its own history. In Notre Dame de Badminton, 1980, we see vivid in­dications of the Romanesque madonnas that clearly in­spired the piece. Dignified and majestic, Grooms’s Virgin sits resplendent on a margarine box throne. Haloed by a badminton racquet, her wine cork nose and hair curler locks are crafty features of her stylized face. In the Child’s hand rests a shuttlecock or birdie, a consummate visual pun on the bird that is a traditional symbol of the winged soul.

To survey the many self-portraits by Grooms in the course of his career is to be permitted backstage to watch as the artist “grooms” himself before a mirror. Unsparing in his observations, Red allows us glimpses of his early Expressionist Weltschmerz from 1957, his multiplicity in flat Alex Katzian planes from 1965, and his recognition of the irony of being alone in the presence of another from 1983. The artist is fond of insinuating himself in other con­texts as well: he is the redheaded taxi driver in City of Chi­cago, 1967, and he plays the awe-struck counterman waiting on Edward Hopper in Nighthawks Revisited, 1980.

A recurring theme in Grooms’s work is the group por­trait of family and friends. Loft on Twenty-sixth Street, 1965, one of the best-known works in the Hirshhorn Museum, is a small-scale sculptural re-creation of the artist’s living space, peopled with an extraordinary cast of simpatico souls. Here Grooms depicts himself slicing potatoes, and in the related Maine Room, 1965, he is immersed in a card game. A shared summer rental forms the backdrop for  Slab City Rendezvous,1964. As Red walks away from us and into the house, we survey Edwin Denby, Mimi Gross, Alex Katz and his son Vincent, Yvonne Jacquette with the infant Tom Burckhardt, and her husband, Rudy placidly painting on the roof.

The large wall relief, William Penn Shaking Hands with the Indians, 1967, is a re-creation of Benjamin West’s famous painting (in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) of the founding of Pennsylva­nia. It was intended as an homage to West, the principal American painter who revolutionized the Grand Style of history painting by depicting contemporary events with truthful portraits and modern dress. In notes he wrote as a catalogue accompaniment, Grooms commented:

To tell the truth I did [the work] more because of Mr Ben­jamin West than Mr. Penn. Benjamin West is a hero for American Art. … As I understand he set up the whole tableau for “The Treaty” on his estate using actors from a touring Shakespeare company Then he had an easel in­stalled in the basket of a hot air balloon tethered at 60 feet, and with the help of sandwiches and birch beer hauled up to him by his wife, painted this great master­piece in six days. To me, this is exemplary American behavior.16

Part history painter, part genre painter, part painter of modern life, Grooms himself may well be the most Amer­ican of our contemporary artists.

“I like to make sort of documentaries. Something you can see as it happens—what people wear and do,” Grooms told a reviewer from Time magazine in 1965.l7 This flair for journalistic reportage surfaces in various works. HarryWatley’s Mad Dash up Walker Street, 1975,  documents the escape, directly in front of Grooms’s doorway of a prisoner-trustee who was sent to buy coffee and decided to make a run for it. The homey details of daily life hold equal attraction for Grooms, as in the intimate scene of Mimi taking a snooze with the cat, or a view of Mimi feeding their infant daughter, Saskia.

In the past twenty-nine years many critics have sought to clarify the relationship of Red Grooms to the art of his times. Commenting on his work in the context of the 1960s, Grooms himself has joked: “I wanted to be a con­trast to the heavy esthetic side of art. There [was] so much formalism in art that I felt like LeRoy Neiman or some­thing.”18 In 1969, Peter Schjeldahl noted similarities be­tween Grooms and Marcel Duchamp, because both embodied “a movement of one man that is open to every­body”19 A year later John Canaday remarked that Grooms “belongs to no school and no clique. There is no one quite like him.”20 More recently Grooms has been likened to Sam Maverick, the nineteenth-century Texas pioneer, who in choosing not to brand his cattle so upset the established order that his name has come to signify an independent or a loner.21

Never a part of the Pop art phenomenon, Grooms has been excluded from the full honors the art world showers on its heroes. Until relatively recently, few of his major works were in public collections. Carter Ratcliff early ana­lyzed the complex issue of Grooms’s critical reception “. . . the critics who don’t find a place for him in their systems are so far from doing so that they don’t mention him at all, hence the constant raves from those who don’t rely on systems.”22 Writing at the time of the debut of Ruckus Manhattan, Paul Richard noted, in appreciation: “His art is too excessive to be entirely in fashion—it’s too torrential too    extravagant.    He’s    not    a    minimalist,    he s    a maximalist.”23

In 1973 Rutgers University Art Gallery organized a small retrospective exhibition that included several paint­ings, sculptures, paper movies, and three large-scale en­vironmental pieces. Writing for the New York Times about the show, which was seen in New York at Huntington Hartford’s ill-fated New York Cultural Center, John Can­aday testily noted:

This is an exhibition that would have been held at the Mu­seum of Modern Art or the Whitney—not to mention the Metropolitan—if the curators at any of those institutions had the first idea of what art is all about—instead of a lot of exquisitely developed secondary ideas.24

A decade ago, some curators shied away from support­ing Grooms, who created a ruckus by not fitting within a convenient historical niche. In fact, Grooms consciously works against the art world’s orderly groupings: “I’ve al­ways felt that it’s good to have the art context because it gives you something to go against.”25

Grooms’s cunning style of monkeyshines not only en­tertains but also holds up a mirror for an introspective glance. Although his work rouses an immediate reaction of laughter, the punch behind the humor often requires a double take. In 1966 poet Ted Berrigan alluded to the re­wards of a second reading of Grooms’s art: “It’s friendly and it’s colorful, and it’s informal and shrewd, and a little show-offy but when you stand back from it, you begin to think about just where this guy might be at. And it counts a lot on your doing it, too.”26

Notes

1. Swenson’s comment, made in the context of a 1961 Art News re­view of the work of Robert Indiana, Stephen Durkee,
and Richard Smith, is quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, Pop Art (New York: Praeger, 1966), p. 75.

2. Grace Glueck, “Odd Man Out: Red Grooms, the Ruckus Kid,” Art News, 72 (December 1973), p. 25.

3. April Kingsley “New York Letter,” Art International, 18 (March 20, 1974),  p. 51.

4.Sidney Tillim, “In the Galleries: Red Grooms,” Arts Magazine, 38 (December 1963), p. 64.

5. Quoted in Edward Bryant and Daniel Robbins, “New Talent: Old Problems,” Art in America, 52 (August 1964), p. 108.

6. Quoted in The Early Sixties: Red Grooms and Peter Saul, exhibition catalogue (New York: Allan Frumkin Gallery

1983), unpaged.

7. Quoted in Grace Glueck, “Red Grooms Reshapes His Loony World,” New York Times, March 29, 1981, sec. 2,  p.

20.

8. From the transcript of an  interview conducted for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, by Paul
Cummings, March 4, 1974, p. 130.

9. Ibid., p. 98.

10. Ibid., p. 106.

11. Hilton Kramer, “Red Grooms,” New York Times, March  29, 1975, p.  11.

12. John Russell, “Ellsworth Kelly and Red Grooms Shows,” New York Times. April 17, 1981, p.  C 18.

13. Quoted in Grace Glueck, “Red Grooms Reshapes His Loony World,” p. 20.

14. Camille Howell, “Troubled Times for a Premier Printmaker,” Picture magazine, Minneapolis Tribune, April 1, 1984, p. 18.

15.  Ibid.,p. 19.

16.  Symbols of Peace: William Penn’s Treaty with Indians, exhibition  catalogue (Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1976), unpaged.

17.  “Grand Pop Moses,” Time, April 9, 1965, p. 76.

18.  Quoted in Todd Strasser, “Interview: Red Grooms,” Ocular, 4 (Winter 1979), p. 54.

19.  Peter Schjeldahl, “Red Grooms: He Dares to Make Art That Is Fun,” New York Times, June 15, 1969, sec. 2, p. 25.

20.  John Canaday “Happy Thing in Art; ‘Discount Store’,” New York Times, February 4, 1971, p. 28.

21.  Michael Leja, “Mavericks,” in Aspects of the 70sMavericks, exhi­bition catalogue (Waltham, MA: Rose Art Museum,

Brandeis University 1980), p. 2.

22.  Carter Ratcliff, “New York Letter,” Art International,  16 (February 20, 1972), p. 32.

23.  Paul Richard, “Red’s Big Apple: Mad Hatter’s Manhattan,” Wash­ington Post, November 19, 1975, p. G 1.

24.  John Canaday “Ruckus on Columbus Circle,” New York Times, December 16, 1973, sec. 2, p. D 25.

25.   Cummings interview, p. 110.

26.  Ted  Berrigan,  “Red  Power,” Art  News,   65   (December   1966), p 46.

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