Red Grooms: The Early Years (1937-1960)

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

For the last twenty-year period I’ve been working with ideas conceived as a child.1 

The art of Red Grooms sprang to life within a specific historical context. An account of his activities in Provincetown and New York in the late 1950s brings more sharply into focus one of the most fascinating and histor­ically significant periods of twentieth-century art, when the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism gave way to a va­riety of representational modes. Often inspired by the rich flow of ideas circulating around him, Red Grooms is best appreciated against the foil of his peers.

The details of his early years in Nashville also deepen an understanding of the breadth of his work. Grooms has always maintained that the experiences of his childhood were among his most potent influences. A perusal of the exhibition checklist will confirm that virtually every facet of Grooms’s subsequent iconography can be found in his art at the onset of his career. But with the exception of his highly influential Happening The Burning Building, 1959, Grooms’s early work is largely undocumented and infre­quently exhibited.2

Motivated by Grooms’s first major retrospective at age forty-eight, this investigation of his evolution as an artist should help eliminate the gap in public awareness between the brilliance and unexpected range of his early produc­tion and the large body of his best-known work.

Although his Tennessee origins and disarming receptiv­ity have prompted some to liken him to Li’l Abner, Red Grooms was never a wide-eyed mountain boy. Born Charles Rogers Grooms in 1937 he grew up in suburban Nashville, a few miles from the city’s center. His frequent walks into town occasioned as many insights as the actual visits: “One of the biggest influences in my life was going from home into town, making that trip. I liked the re­moval, the abstraction of leaving home, getting away, being by myself. I had this great love of downtown in the city I loved the atmosphere … it was sort of neutral territory.”3

Nashville was and is the country music capital of Amer­ica. A cultured city that boasts the world’s only full-scale replica of the Parthenon, it also sports a loud and bawdy honky-tonk district Yet to Red it is the refined aspect of his hometown that he stresses in his reminiscences: “I saw Nashville as an urban place, ‘the Athens of the South,’ and that always made me happy . . . I thought the country was anticultural, and Nashville a metropolis I had lots of civic pride.”4 But it is unlikely that the impressionable young artist, attending shows at the nearby Grand Ole Opry would not have been intrigued by the glitzy decor and raw sexuality of Broadway and Printer’s Alley Elements in his later work, such as his fondness for splashy theatrical effects, or his fascination with impolite realities, would suggest this worldly Nashville’s early if unconscious influence.

His parents, Gerald and Wilhelmina Grooms, both came from families who had lived in Tennessee for gener­ations. The Grooms clan were landowners in the western part of the state. Settling in Nashville in 1930, Gerald Grooms met and married Wilhelmina Rogers, whose fore­bears were longtime residents of the city. The oldest of three sons, Red grew up in a supportive family circle that upheld the religious traditions of southern fundamental­ism. Red was “templated in the Baptist church,” according to his lifelong friend, Nashville artist and critic Louise LeQuire.5

Because one of the abiding images in Red’s early work is of a world in flames, it is tempting to probe for its source among the many vivid sermons and Sunday school lessons he must have heard on the fire and brimstone of Hell. Bap­tist preaching may be as likely an inspiration for his scenes of conflagrations as the deadpan explanation Red himself offered in 1965. Describing Nashville’s Ryman Audito­rium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry Red cited the rickety structure as the place “where my interest in fire might have been ignited by the threat of the whole wooden place burning down.”6

Red started drawing as a young boy. Although no one around him had any practical knowledge of the art world, his father had supported the family during a break be­tween engineering jobs by working at home as a copper­smith. His highly prized bowls and ashtrays were sold through craft fairs and specialty shops. Encouraging their sons enthusiasm and genuine talent, Mr. and Mrs. Grooms enrolled ten-year-old Red in art classes at the Nashville Children’s Museum. Subsequently both Red and his father studied art with Juanita Green Williams, who took them on weekend trips to the Vanderbilt University campus and to the Cumberland River banks to draw from nature.

For two years, Red studied privately with Williams, an artist who as a student at New York’s Art Students League had worked with Robert Brackman. Williams’s downtown studio classroom was located on West End Avenue, in the attic of a ramshackle three-story brownstone called the Watkins Institute. Red recalls that the building housed a collection of “dark and spooky” Victorian paintings on the other floors.7 An eccentric and colorful personality, Wil­liams instilled in her pupil a strong sense of professional­ism and seriousness about art. Later, Red also took two years of Saturday classes with Joseph Van Sickle, a Nashville artist who did Cubist renditions of the Grand Ole Opry.

Hollywood films, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circuses, and the Tennessee State Fair’s Caval­cade of Amusement were the major formative influences of his childhood. Red recalls that as a boy it was his great ambition to create acts or rides for the carnivals. The the­atrical aspect of the circus greatly appealed to him, and he put on his own versions of circuses in his backyard. In eighth grade, the large tabletop model of a carnival Red made for a boy’s hobby fair was awarded first prize in its category in a show at the Women’s Building on the Ten­nessee State Fairgrounds. The “class artist” in grammar school, Red was often chosen to do work on the blackboards for the holidays and special occasions.

In high school, Red played football and was one of a group of boys who put on their own skits. “One bit I did was a character based on the Fisk tire kid who wore a nightshirt and carried a tire and a candlestick. I’d come out wearing the Fisk kid’s getup and say ‘Time to Retire’.”8 Among the influences on the format and content of these youthful performances was the radio comedy team of Bob and Ray whom Red regarded as “surreal” and “kind of sub­versive.”9 At the time of his graduation, Red was voted the wittiest fellow in his class at Hillsboro High.

The young Grooms enjoyed the newspaper funny pages, tickled more by Orphan Annie or Jiggs than by the Terry Ward type of adventure story10 One of his favorite comics was “Smokey Stover,” which contained constant visual and word puns. This strip, based around the activ­ities of a dopey-looking fireman, reflected the same near surrealist humor found in the Marx Brothers routines. Red “especially [liked] the guy… up in the frame with his arm coming out at you. I was intrigued by something that would come out to the spectator. I like the aggression of the things. It’s sort of like the stage, where you feel you can go right into the audience.”11

Helene Connell, his high school art teacher, was the sis­ter of playwright William Inge. She broadened Red’s in­terest in art history by introducing him to the small Abrams paperback series on European masters, such as Georges Rouault, Pieter Brueghel, and James Ensor. He was particularly impressed by the book on Pablo Picasso, which kindled an attraction both to the man and his art that has never waned. A Museum of Modern Art traveling show of drawings at Nashville’s Parthenon further ex­panded Red’s art education. In contrast to the Watkins In­stitute’s fusty canvases, here on view were drawings he found to be vital and energizing. He particularly re­sponded to the work of George Grosz and Ben Shahn, and to a portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Joseph Stella.12

As a high school student, Grooms flirted with the idea of becoming a commercial artist. Introduced to the mag­azine American Artist, he had been impressed with the live­liness and contemporaneity of the techniques of commercial illustration. In tenth grade, he enrolled in the Famous Artist School correspondence course in commer­cial art. Although his interest in these mail-order lessons dwindled when he began to learn more about the history of art, a few of their techniques remained with him; for example, the school’s emphasis on observation and the ac­curate memorization of details. In response to a journalist’s question. In 1976, Grooms described his personal defini­tion of art: “I never much separated the forms of art. Mov­ies first turned me on. Then i saw commercial art and liked that Then I saw fine art and liked that. But I kept up with the first things and the vulgarity. I think vulgarity is kind of charming.”13

As a teenager, Red often worked with soft-toned water-colors on toothy paper, drawing circus people, animals, or lone individuals. Impressionable, his early style reflected nearly every visual source he came across, for example, the work of Rouault and Picasso. “I learned by looking at stuff and [later] by meeting other artists. Just about every­body influenced me.”14For example, figures in stovepipe hats, a favored motif of this period that Red retained well into his career, were most likely inspired by seeing an in­tact print of Georges Méliès’s 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon.15  By the time he was seventeen, his friend Louise LeQuire saw to it that Red was a member of the Nashville Artist Guild, which signified a degree of professional commitment

When they were seniors in high school, Red and his friend Walter Knestrick exhibited thirty-five paintings at Myron King’s Lyzon Gallery and frame shop in Nashville. Red had spent the summers of 1953 and 1954 working at the Lyzon. An early supporter of Red, King bought his drawings and hung them up in the front of his shop, along with work by such gallery artists as Chaim Gross, Moses Soyer, and David Burliuk. Grooms recalls that at about age eighteen he had a revelation while sitting with Walter Knestrick in a doughnut shop, at which point he suddenly declared, “I’m going to be a painter.”16 Red had recently seen the work of Jackson Pollock in another traveling show, which intensified his desire to create art of significance

Grooms was to attain his aesthetic majority in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Although he was excited by the work of many Action painters, he never felt comfort­able working nonrepresentationally: “I tried to do abstract stuff [but would] never know where to stop. … [It seemed] all arbitrary…. I was painting from the sur­face.”‘7 Rejecting abstraction in favor of a then highly un-fashionable figurative mode, Red would retain the Expressionists’ emphasis on the stroke or gesture, as well as their insistence on an unpremeditated art act. Leaving Nashville at the age of nineteen, Red had the good fortune to gravitate toward several locations where he taught him­self all that was necessary to complete his art education

Red enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 1955 and moved into the downtown Chicago YMCA, By his own description “a restless and undisciplined stu­dent,”18 Red was frustrated at the prospect of waiting three years just to get into the student show. “I wanted action not education,” he recently commented. Red spent most of his time in the Art Institute’s museum and library studying the work of Bernard Buffet, Jean Dubuffet, and Francis Ba­con, his particular favorites at that time. His stay at the Institute soon came to an abrupt end: “One day I walked out leaving everything in my locker. My parents drove up and took me back to Nashville around Thanksgiving.”

In January of 1956, Red came to New York City to study weekly at the New School of Social Research with Gregorio Prestopino, a painterly social realist whose work he had seen in Nashville. Living by himself at the McBurney YMCA on Twenty-third Street, Red was isolated from any community of artists but went to see many exhibitions, in­cluding those of Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston. and Franz Kline. On his first night in New York he saw Orson Welles’s Othello, which precipitated a series of “psycholog­ical” drawings of people, including many fantasy charac­ters, who were isolated on the page.19 Sovereign Balloonist  dates from this first period in New York.

Grooms returned to Nashville for the summer of 1956 and stayed to spend the fall and spring terms in teacher training at Peabody College. Undertaken as a sincere ef­fort to satisfy his parents’ desire that he acquire practical career skills, Red found the program rather dull. He was anxious to continue working as an artist and did not wish to spend any more time in academic pursuits. By chance, Mrs. Grooms saw an article in Time magazine about the Hans Hofmann summer school in Provincetown and sent her twenty-year-old son north again.

Red fared no better as a student of the legendary Hof­mann than he had under the tutelage of his Chicago instructors or Prestopino. Grooms’s aesthetic bent had been formed by age eighteen, and Hofmann’s academic teach­ing methods left no room for Red’s preference for figura­tion Red dropped out halfway through the five-week course: “I went intending to be serious. But I just kind of lost interest “20 Supporting himself as a dishwasher at the Moors Restaurant, Red became friends with a fellow worker, the poet Dominic “Val” Falcone. Sensing that Charles,” Grooms’s given name, ill-matched the young artist’s exuberant personality, Val Falcone nicknamed his friend “Red” because of his hair color, and the name stuck. Val and his wife, painter Yvonne Andersen, were then in their third year of running the Sun Gallery and attracted to them many of the most innovative and open-minded artists working in the East.

Yvonne had studied with Peter Kahn at Louisiana State University and like Red had been unimpressed with Hofmann’s doctrinaire classes. In the summer of 1955, she and Val had opened the Sun Gallery in a former jewelry shop on Commercial Street.21 They lived in the back of the small gallery, whose variable proportions could be changed by adjusting a partition wall. Shows were up for a week, opening Monday night at nine o’clock and closing at midnight on Sunday During their first two seasons they held many group and solo shows, including those of Jan Miiller, Lester Johnson, and Yvonne Andersen. In 1957— the summer Val and Yvonne met Red—Mary Frank, Lester Johnson, and Allan Kaprow were among those given ex­hibitions. Lester Johnson’s expressionist style would be a major influence on Red’s early work.

The Sun Gallery proved to be the perfect catalyst for Grooms. “Magical stuff was going on [and because] it was the opposite of the abstract people, I blossomed under their influence.”22 At the quaint New England ritual of the Blessing of the Fleet, during his first season in Provincetown, Red briefly met Mimi Gross, daughter of sculptor Chaim and Renée Gross, who were part of the well-established summer art colony there. Not until four years later were Red and Mimi to fall in love and team up together

That summer Red and Yvonne worked on an idea of Val’s to do a collaborative painting. Called the Celebration of the Death of the Sun, the painting was executed at. mid­night over a period of several nights by the two of them wearing paper sacks with eye, nose, and mouth holes punched out. Wordlessly, with a sacramental air, they worked on the same surface, painting separate human heads. Picking up on a notion implicit in Action Painting, that the finished canvas is a visual record of the artist’s pri­vate performance, Yvonne and Red turned the idea on its ear. Creating a representational image, anonymously and in tandem, the two embodied the antithesis of the macho ego display of Abstract Expressionism. And if earlier crit­ics had used near religious terminology to describe the sa­cred arena in which the encounter of artist and material was enacted, the two painters gently ridiculed that hype by working within a context of high ritual.

The artists in the Sun Gallery circle were continually cross-fertilizing each other’s work. Several months after Yvonne and Red’s summer painting performance, in the spring of 1958, Allan Kaprow staged the well-known picnic for members of the Hansa Gallery at George Segal’s New Jersey farm The day’s activities included the collec­tive painting of a picture.23 Although there was no direct connection between the two collaborative events, the Hansa and Sun Galleries shared many aesthetic concerns. Red later recalled that Kaprow’s picnic performing events “opened things up” for him and his subsequent Happenings,24

That fall Red returned to New York and lived commun­ally with Yvonne and Val in a loft on Twenty-fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. Red was twenty; Yvonne, twenty-five; and Val, thirty. The three shared all expenses and house­hold chores and took turns at employment so that the oth­ers could be free to stay home and work in their studios. The Scholar, I.E. Pant, andWalking Man date from this period. During that winter they bought a small handpress and produced the City. This portfolio, designed by Yvonne, contained prints by Red and Lester Johnson and poems by Val. Through his Provincetown friends Red soon met Alex Katz, Rudy Burckhardt, and George Segal. For employment, Red worked as an usher at the Roxy Theater. Dressed in the natty uniform of short gray jacket with silver epaulets, high-waisted pants, and gloves, Grooms spent seven months working and viewing the kind of Hollywood spectaculars that had so impressed him as a child.

When they returned to Provincetown in the late spring of 1958, Val proposed to his friends an outdoor billboard project that would bring art to the public, without cost. At the back of Val’s father’s parking lot, which edged the amusement park in Salisbury Massachusetts, Yvonne and Red gathered unused telephone poles and erected twelve-by-twelve-foot panels in front of the roller coasters. Joined by Lester Johnson, they each painted a separate billboard. The underlying idea of the artist as public performer ap­pealed to all of them, even if the onlookers’ most frequent question was “When are you going to put in the words?”25 Red’s painting was of two large, long-legged figures walk­ing .in front of the parking lot and roller coasters, “kind of a scene of a scene,”26 in his description. The boards stayed up for several years until they eventually fell apart. It was Red’s first experience working on a monumental scale, an experience he would build upon nearly a decade later when he and Mimi Gross conceived the idea of the environmen­tal sculpture the City of Chicago.

During the time he was working on the billboard, Red began making sculpture from debris he picked up on the beach. Two and a half years before, in his Chicago YMCA room, Red had initially explored the medium, construct­ing a standing figure out of Lake Michigan driftwood. Red recalls that it resembled the style of Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, and “was not totally out of the family” of his subsequent art.27 In comparison with his two-dimensional work, Red found sculpture direct and concrete.

There is a great difference between painting and sawing at wood, and I think sculpture is very good work because you start and you get closer and closer to the thing. Paint­ing is very elusive, you can paint all day and be worse off than when you started. I think mostly in sculpture that it is going progressively and workmanlike towards the finish of the conception, but painting is demonic. It’s al­ways escaping.28

That summer of 1958, the Sun Gallery shows included those of Alex Katz and Anthony Vevers, and Red Grooms’s first solo exhibition. Acting on an idea generated by Val, Red included as part of his show a painting executed in public. An elaboration on the art-making performance of the year before, Red began with no plans about what he was going to paint, an attitude that he regarded as his ver­sion of existentialism. “I just came out and made a painting in front of the audience for forty-five minutes.”29 The improvisational factor was enhanced when, about halfway through, several rowdy sailors came up to the gallery win­dow and began heckling Red, unbeknownst to the major­ity of the audience inside. Because Red could not address his hostile critics verbally, he expressed his rage on the canvas, developing an image of firemen engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, Yvonne went outside and talked the noisy crew into leaving. “I locked all the color I had laid down with a flurry of black lines, and it kind of gave a fin­ish to it.”30 Red’s sources for this innovative event, which would later be called a Happening, ranged from his un­derstanding of the meaning of the words “Action Painting,” an awareness of the theatrically staged painting perform­ances of the French artist Georges Mathieu,31 and his boy­hood enthusiasm for entertaining a live audience with his own skits and plays.

That summer the Sun mounted two important group exhibitions based on the theme of the city The first, “The Duality of City Life and Life in the Sun,” was made up of paintings, sculptures, and writing by various members of the Sun circle. The second, simply called “The City” was a collaborative, large-scale installation/environment.32 Yvonne Andersen’s raw, free-standing figures, surfaced with black roofing cement, and her large, demolished ten­ement buildings established the harsh tone of brutal urban realities. Photographs by Robert Frank, poems by Dom­inic Falcone, charcoal drawings by Lester Johnson, and drawings by Red Grooms comprised the rest of the exhibition.

At the end of the season, Red returned to New York alone, Yvonne and Val having elected to stay in Provincetown for the winter to await the birth of their first child. Red found a small second-floor loft on Sixth Avenue near Twenty-fourth Street, where he lived for a short while before moving to a more spacious third-floor loft in a nearby building. He frequented the Cedar Bar and often walked to Greenwich Village to visit the Tenth Street art galleries. At the Phoenix Gallery where he was briefly a member,33 he met painter Jay Milder. Inspired by Val and Yvonne’s sponsorship of the Sun Gallery and by the New York art­ists’ cooperative Hansa Gallery Red and Jay opened the City Gallery in Red’s loft, which may well have been the earliest alternative art space in New York City.34

Red and his friends saw themselves as rebelling against the Tenth Street scene, where the prevailing taste favored Abstract Expressionism. “We were reacting to Tenth Street. In ’58 and ’59, Tenth Street was sort of like SoHo [is now], and it was getting all the lively attention of everyone downtown. . . We were all just kids in our early twenties . . . [and] had a flair for attracting people to our openings.”35 When the Phoenix wouldn’t show the work of their friend Claes Oldenburg, Red and Jay dropped out of it and gave Oldenburg his first show in New York. Jim Dine, who also made his New York debut at the City Gallery did a mural in the stairwell So did Stephen Durkee. Mimi Gross, who was then seeing Milder, showed there, as did Bob Thompson, Lester John­son, and Alex Katz. A two-person show of works by Red and Jay was reviewed in Art News.

A self-described “beatnik artist”36 with a limited in­come, Red worked with inexpensive hardware store en­amels and tinting colors. The paintings of 1958—59 are primarily black, gray and white, or earth reds. In these works, the emotional tone is set more by brushwork than by color. Their gestural style and figural content were close to the work of Lester Johnson, whom Irving Sandler has described as “an action painter with content.”37 Johnson was concerned with symbolizing the human condition, a theme also evident in Red’s portraits and figure studies. Articulating the humanistic philosophy behind his early interest in the figure, Red unselfcon­sciously told Nashville art critic Clara Hieronymous in I960: “I want to make some kind of strong statement about man in my paintings, such as a man standing up against the sky wrapped in atmosphere and blowing his breath against the universe.”38

Although he was never an abstractionist, Red fervently believed in the basic tenet of Action painting: “If you went out with noidea at all and you started struggling with your medium, you would come [back] with something new”39 Like other Action painters Red tended to do his painting in one shot: “If [a painting] wasn’t done in a frenzy it wasn’t real. . . . The painting represented a pure emotion from beginning to end and was found in that emotion.”

The summer of 1959 was the last season Yvonne and Val were in charge of the Sun Gallery Among those given solo shows that year were Alex Katz, Anthony Vevers, and Les­ter Johnson. Around Labor Day, Lucas Samaras, Robert Whitman, and Allan Kaprow came up for a short visit. That summer Red began to move away from pure painting, adding collaged elements to his surfaces. Three Bathers, for example, done in the basement of the Sun, has corrugated cardboard augmenting and extending the can­vas. Letter from Home incorporates a handwritten note from his mother.

In the late fifties and early sixties, before the critical for­mulation of Pop art imposed sharper boundaries between them, Grooms, Dine, and Oldenburg shared a similar iconography. While rejecting Abstract Expressionism, they did not all take up figuration. Instead, they mined the subject, form, and associative content of clothing, using images of garments to imply human presence and behavior One of Grooms’s small but important works, Shirt Collage, 1959, present whereabouts unknown, formerly in the col­lection of Lincoln Kirstein, was made in part from a denim work shirt, complete with a cigarette pack in the pocket. Later Oldenburg fabricated numerous dresses, shirts, and shoes in a loose expressionist style, for his Store, 1961, and Dine would soon choose an uninhabited bathrobe as a metaphoric self-portrait.

Red’s main production of the summer of 1959, staged late in the season, was a nonnarrative “play” entitled Walking Man. Its innovative format was derived in part from his high school skits and from the catalytic energies of the Sun Gallery circle. Through it, Red explored the fresh terri­tory of the Happenings: “I had the sense that I knew it was something. I knew it was something because I didn’t know what it was. I think that’s when you’re at your best point. When you’re really doing something, you’re doing it all out, but you don’t know what it is.”40 A curtain of bed sheets covered the set, which was fabricated from assorted metal and wood objects scavenged from the Provincetown dump. Yvonne and Val recall that it began with sounds of preparation, such as sawing, which underscored an im­plicit theme of construction qua performance.41

In response to a recent request to describe the action of Walking Man, which he had not considered since its presentation, Grooms recalled the following:

Possibly after some shadow play, the curtain was pulled back to reveal a vertical wooden box. It contained a few sparse parts with a hole cut in the back illuminated by a candle. Yvonne’s lips, painted bright red and defined by white face paint, filled the hole like a movie close-up. Maybe she spoke the words “the walking man” very clearly and slowly and then blew out the candle

The curtains were opened by me, playing a fireman wearing a simple costume of white pants and T-shirt with a poncholike cloak and a Smokey Stoverish fireman’s hel­met. Bill Barrell, the “star” in a tall hat and black overcoat, walked back and forth across the stage with great wooden gestures. Yvonne sat on the floor by a suspended fire en­gine. She was a blind woman with tin foil-covered glasses and cup. During the premiere performance Val read some words of his own, but afterwards this was dropped. Sylvia Small, my girlfriend, played a radio and pulled on hanging junk. For the finale, I hid behind a false door and shouted pop code words. Then the cast did a wild run around and it ended.42

When Red returned to New York in the fall of 1959, he rented a loft at 148 Delancey Street, near the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge. It had formerly been a boxing gym, and the back room was still full of lockers. Red slept there in a tiny cupola, which was also a skylight. The front facing Delancey was his studio area, the large central space being designated as a gallery to which he gave the mock-grand name of the Delancey Street Museum. Here he presented a variety of exhibitions and two Happenings. One of these was Marcia Marcus’s “unheralded ballet,”43 A Garden. For this Happening leftover boxing post­ers were cut up into flower forms. Bob Thompson played the bongos, Grooms depicted “the excitement of daytime”44 and Richard Bellamy then Director of the Hansa Gallery wore a long flowing gown. “It was quite ceremonial—a lot of candle lighting. . . . [Dick’s] robe caught fire and someone jumped out of the audience and put it out.”45

The other performance Red presented in the Delancey Street Museum was The Burning Building, his own most suc­cessful and influential Happening. While the script was more developed than the script for its predecessor, Walking Man, it still left some things to chance: “It was not a liter­ary idea but a kind of collage idea.”46 On opening night no one in the cast had a necessary match, and the event thus began with Bob Thompson soliciting the edgy audience for a light. This piece of spontaneous theater was included in all subsequent performances.47 For his set Red had uti­lized many pieces of what he had assumed were aban­doned furniture left by the former owners of the boxing gym. Shortly before the performance was set to open, four gangster types visited him to reclaim the items. Somehow Red managed to talk them out of tearing the set apart and they agreed to return later for their possessions. In all, The Burning Building was presented nine times. On one evening the audience consisted solely of Jim Dine.48

The Burning Building centered around the character of the Pasty Man, that “good-natured pyromaniac” of Judd Tully’s description.49 This anarchic alter ego appears in one form or another in all of Red’s Happenings, and likely drew inspiration from the candle-carrying Fisk tire kid of his teenage skits. Images of firemen appear in Red’s early paintings and populate the live performances Cavorting around with their phallic helmets and pointy tools, those rambunctious “Groucho Marxist” fire fighters of Red’s cre­ation convey a host of associations, not the least of which is the energetic display of male sexuality.

Red traces his first awareness of fire’s awesome potential to overhearing his mother questioning his father to deter­mine if he smelled smoke in the house. He also recalls en­tertaining himself during long church services by daydreaming about the theatrical aspects of conflagra­tions.50 Yvonne Andersen and Val Falcone remember Red’s interest in witnessing fires in the late 1950s:

We would be walking along the street in New York, a fire engine would come by and suddenly Red would disap­pear. We felt that he went to watch the color and excite­ment and get ideas for his paintings. We also thought he liked the idea of a team of people working together to solve a problem in a dramatic way51

The dual threat and attraction of fire was elemental to the artist, whether he lived in the suburban South or a city tenement. In 1962, Allan Kaprow referred to Red as “a Charlie Chaplin forever dreaming about fire.”52

The Magic Train Ride (originally titled Fireman’s Dream), Red’s third and final Happening of this period, was put on at the Reuben Gallery on Fourth Avenue. Bob Thompson, who understudied Terry Barrell in his role as Fireman in The Burning Building, was its star actor. Media and audience interest in Happenings was rapidly growing, and an open­ing night reviewer for the Village Voice spotted such “con­spirators of the upper beat as Dr. Meyer Schapiro, Robert Frank, Howard Hart and Bernard Scott in the jammed au­dience”.53 As did his two earlier events, The Magic Train Ride unfolded before a set of Red’s construction and featured several costumed actors, who emitted howls and soughings from backstage and “burst out from behind the scrim to stampede back and forth like buffalo children through the aisles.”54

Red Grooms had his first solo show in New York in Jan­uary 1960, at the legendary Reuben Gallery. Viewed by its founder, Anita Reuben, as “an outpost for human image art in a sea of Abstract Expressionism,”55 it helped launch the careers of many important artists during its short life from October 1959 to April 1961. Among those who showed at the Reuben were: George Brecht, Jim Dine, Rosalyn Drexler, Martha Edelheit, Lester Johnson, Nicho­las Krushenick, Claes Oldenburg, Lu­cas Samaras, George Segal, Richard Stankiewicz, and Robert Whitman. Referring both to the Happenings and the gallery exhibitions at the Reuben, Lawrence Alloway has observed that: “The city and its inhabitants was not only the subject of much of this art, it was also, literally the substance, providing the texture and bulk of the material itself “56

The iconography of the city galvanized Grooms and his circle of friends in Provincetown and lower

Manhattan. Their early Happenings, described as “animated collages” by Susan Sontag, utilized found materials. According to Sontag, Happenings resembled the involuntary collage principle of the modern city: “the brutal disharmony of buildings in size and style, the wild juxtaposition of store signs, the clamorous layout of the modern newspaper.”57Derived in part from the chance encounters favored by the Surrealists, Happenings offered a radical mix of the found and the created, intelligible words (if not content), and undecipherable collisions which had the aggressive intent of unsettling the audience.    

Although Red Grooms was only briefly involved in the world of Happenings, they were an enormously fertile in­fluence on his subsequent career. The city and its dwellers were to become two of the major themes of his work, the collaborative process, which incorporated the element of chance occasioned by the numerous participants with their varying personal styles and points of view, continued in his films and such joint productions as Ruckus Manhattan. The Happening’s “shock” effect on the audience, devel­oped in part from Antonin Artaud’s idea of a “theater of cruelty” remained a consistent undercurrent in Red’s work, even when (or especially when) he was being most be­guiling. The “curious dualism of optimism and anarchy” which Max Kozloff had found inherent in the Happenings genre,58 was to be an abiding characteristic of Red’s aesthetics.

The first six months of 1960 brought Red an expanded audience, as his reputation began to grow beyond the avant-garde circles of lower Manhattan. Word of the influ­ential Burning Building was brought to uptown dealer John Bernard Myers by both Robert Rauschenberg and Fairfield Porter.59 Porter, an early and enthusiastic supporter, had singled Grooms out of a February group show at the Reu­ben to praise his vitality in The Nation. The 1960-61 season at the Reuben was the height of public attention to Hap­penings, but Red did not participate. Reflecting on the reasons he dropped away Red later commented that he had become self-conscious and had lost the thread of what he was doing: “I started to think about writing a little bit. And I got on very shaky ground.”60

The watershed exhibition “New Media—New Forms” at the Martha Jackson Gallery in June 1960, which for­mally introduced such new movements in art as assem­blage and proto-Pop to a wider, uptown audience, included one relief sculpture by Grooms—Policewoman, 1959. With sgraffitoed features and bedspring curls, this one-legged, scrapwood crossing guard was posi­tioned against an oval tabletop. Unlike Picasso’s well-known Cubist work, Still Life with Chair-caning, 1912, which cunningly used braided rope to mimic the look of gadroon molding, the ornamental border of Red’s oval table read lit­erally InPolicewoman Grooms engineered the wholesale transformation of his street-found materials into art In re­viewing “New Media—New Forms,” the perspicacious Thomas B. Hess seemed to foretell the coming public ac­claim of both Pop art and Grooms’s work:

There is a kind of protest in many of these works, but it is not against the values of middle-class society as were the Dada manifestations. Rather the new protest is in favor of society—or for People in general—and against the invis­ible, crystal-hard barriers that an oil-on-canvas or sculptured-sculpture place between the witness and the finished object. It is as if many of these artists were trying to reach out from their works to give the spectator’s hand a good shake or nudge him in the ribs.”61

An avant-garde celebrity with a growing uptown repu­tation, Grooms was at the threshold of a new phase of his career when he precipitously left New York in June 1960 to spend the next eighteen months abroad. Changed by his travels, he was to return to a changed art world. Grooms’s former colleagues, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg, were enjoying the rush of public attention to Pop art, a newly formulated critical category Although he shared many of their concerns with popular imagery, Grooms would never fit within the profile of Pop, his art being more engaged and accessible than that of his peers. In the interim, Grooms’s painting style had shifted, strongly influenced by the high-key colors, bold compositions, and everyday subjects of the Italian Macchiaioli group. Once back in New York, he immersed himself in a yearlong project, cre­ating his first feature film,Shoot the Moon.

Many years later, in a conversation with Grace Glueck, Grooms commented: “My work is about exits and en­trances,”62referring to the subway turnstile section of Ruckus Manhattan. But Grooms’s career also concerns exits and entrances, for more than once he was to redirect his art by leaving the familiar for the unknown. It is a sign of his genius as an artist that when he returns, refreshed and strengthened, he invariably picks up in a different place from where he left off.


1  Red Grooms, interview with the author, April 1982.

2. Cf. Barbara Haskell, Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance 1958-1964,  exhibition catalogue (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984);The Early Sixties: Red Grooms and Peter Saul, exhibition catalogue (New York: Allan Frumkin Gallery, 1983).

3. From the transcript of an interview conducted for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, by Paul Cummings, March 4, 1974, p. 4. Grooms also mentioned the trip to Jerry Tallmer: “That [three-mile] walk  was a big influence on my life . . a movement into the heart of the city.” “A Little City With a Big Art,” New York Post, June 19, 1976, p. 36.

4. Quoted in Paul Richard, “Red Grooms: An Appreciation,” Grooms: A Catalogue Raisonné of his Graphic Works, 1957-1981 (Nashville: The Fine Arts Center, Cheekwood, 1981), p. 10.

5.      Interview with the author, December 1984.

6.      Red Grooms, “A Statement,” Michael Kirby ed. Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton &Co., 1965), p. 118.

7.      Cummings interview, p. 10.

8.      Notes to the author, December 1984.

9.      Cummings interview, p. 78.

10  Cummings interview, p   147. Grooms was here contrasting his taste with the prevailing style of comics favored by the Pop artists.

11. Quoted in Michaela Williams, “Son of Smokey Stover,” Chicago Daily News, Dec. 30, 1967, p. 5. From time to time Red has used Smokey Stover as an alter ego. A poem he wrote to accompany the entry on his work The Patriots’ Parade, 1967, for the exhibition catalogue New York Collection for Stockholm (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1973), is titled “Smokey Stover Visits The Holocaust.”

12  From the transcript of an interview by an unknown interviewer with Red Grooms and Marisol, on deposit in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1965, p. 15.

13. Amei Wallach, “Making New York a Fun City” Newsday, Part II May 9, 1976), p. 5.

14.  Quoted in Todd Strasser, “Interview: Red Grooms,” Ocular, 4 (Winter 1979), p. 53.

15. Notes to the author, December 1984.

16  Cummings interview, p. 24.

17. Cummings interview, p. 28.

18. This and the following two quotes are from notes to the author, December 1984.

19. Cummings interview, p. 31.

20. Notes to the author, December 1984.

21. Cf. The Sun Gallery, exhibition catalogue (Provincetown: Provincetown Art Association and Museum,  1981);  Dorothy Gees Seckler, Provincetown  Painters (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum, 1977), pp. 256-57.

22. Cummings interview, p. 37.

23. Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall (Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co , 1980), pp. 151-52.

24  Quoted in Barbara Haskell, Blam!, p. 35.

25. The Sun Gallery, p. 20.

26. Cummings interview, p. 38.

27. ” Notes to the author, December 1984.

28. Grooms and Marisol interview, p. 30.

29. Cummings interview, p. 49.

30. Notes to the author, December 1984.

31. Cummings interview, p. 52.

32. The Sun Gallery, pp. 20-21.

33. Cf  Faye Hammel, “Protest on Tenth Street,” Cue (March 28,1959), pp. 18, 39. Although he is not named in the text, Grooms is pictured in a group portrait of Phoenix Gallery mem­bers, second from the right in the top row, p. 18.

34.  Barbara Haskell, Blam!, pp  19-20.

35. Quoted in Dave Rettig, “Kind of Controlled Chaos,” Artlines, 4 May 1983), p. 6.

36. Cummings interview, p. 36.

37. Irving Sandler, The New York School The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 126.

38. Clara Hieronymous, “Nashville Artist Now in Europe,” The Tennessean (July 24, 1960).

39. This and the following quote are from Cummings interview, pp. 47-48.

40. Ibid., p. 29.

41. Conversation with the author, February 1984.

42. Notes to the author, December 1984

43. Cummings interview, p. 63.

44. Fred McDarrah, The Artist’s World in Pictures (New York:  E.P. Dutton & Co., 1961), p. 184.

45. Cummings interview, p 63.

46. Ibid., p. 59.

47. Michael Kirby “The Burning Building. The Production,” in Hap­penings (New York: E. P Dutton & Co., 1965), p. 125

48. Cummings interview, p. 62.

49. Judd Tully, Red Grooms and Ruckus Manhattan (New York: George Braziller, 1977), p. 7.

50. Conversation with the author, December 1984.

51. Notes to the author, November 1984.

52. Quoted in Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Con­cepts, Techniques (Philadelphia. Chilton Co., 1962), p. 274.

53.  Jerry Tallmer, “Theatre (?): Three New Happenings,” The Village Voice (January 13, 1960), p. 9.

54.  Ibid.

55. Quoted in Lawrence Alloway “Introduction,” Eleven from the Reuben Gallery, exhibition catalogue (New York. Solomon R. Guggen­heim Museum, 1965), unpaged

56. Ibid.

57.  Susan Sontag, “Happenings. An Art of Radical Juxtaposition” (1962),  in Against Interpretation  (New York:  Farrar,  Straus   & Giroux, 1966), p. 270.

58. Max Kozloff, “Art and the .New York Avant-Garde,” Partisan Re­view, 31 (Fall 1964), p. 550.

59. John Bernard Myers, Tracking the Marvelous (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 202.

60. Cummings interview, p. 54. Grooms did two subsequent Hap­penings, Berkeley Eruption, 1968, and Hippodrome Hardware, 1972.

61. Thomas B. Hess, “Mixed Mediums for a Soft Revolution,” Art News, 59 (Summer 1960), p. 45.

62. Quoted in Grace Glueck, “The City’s Biggest Gallery Show Twits the City” New; York Times, June 13, 1976, sec. 2, p. 35.

63. Ibid.

64.  Susan Sontag, “Happenings. An Art of Radical Juxtaposition” (1962),  in Against Interpretation  (New York:  Farrar,  Straus   &Giroux, 1966), p. 270.

65. Max Kozloff, “Art and the .New York Avant-Garde,” Partisan Re­view, 31 (Fall 1964), p. 550.

66. John Bernard Myers, Tracking the Marvelous (New York: RandomHouse, 1983), p. 202.

67. Cummings interview, p. 54. Grooms did two subsequent Hap­penings, Berkeley Eruption,  1968, and Hippodrome Hardware, 1972.

68. Thomas B. Hess, “Mixed Mediums for a Soft Revolution,” Art News, 59 (Summer 1960), p. 45.

69. Quoted in Grace Glueck, “The City’s Biggest Gallery Show Twits the City” New; York Times, June 13, 1976, sec. 2, p. 35.

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