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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights
From Red Grooms, a Trademark Ruckus
His telephone voice and manner suggest his Tennessee
origins, and more than that: a careful upbringing in politeness and
sincerity, as well. Then you learn that Charles Rogers Grooms is
"Red" because of his hair color, and you see some photographs
of him, and all of that together makes you think of a freckle-faced
redhead, in rolled-up jeans and plaid shirt, with his bandanna-wrapped
belongings tied to a bamboo pole, and oh, yes: bare feet. This would
be the kind of boy who regularly sneaked under the circus tent to
see the big show, and for months afterwards, concocted variations
on a circus theme to amaze his family and friends.
What you know for sure is that Red Grooms — whose sculpture is
featured in the spring exhibition at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton
— was born, a redhead, in Tennessee, and did love all things
He is also polite and sincere on the phone, even during three phone
calls necessitated by taping difficulties. Who knows, as he spoke
from his studio in lower Manhattan, he may also have been barefoot
and wearing jeans.
Grooms’ artistic identity has been official since he was named class
artist in elementary school, in suburban Nashville where he grew up.
Although he later studied at the School of the Art Institute of
New York’s New School of Social Research, and the Hans Hofmann School
of Fine Arts in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he realized, "I
action, not education," and in 1957, at age 20, moved to New York.
In the years since then, drawing on both his childhood enthusiasms
and his art training, he has mastered many mediums. Around our
talks, Grooms was working on a circular mural with a "fun, food,
and sensuality" theme that had been commissioned for a midtown
Manhattan restaurant opening in early May. He likes to make 2-D works,
Grooms says, and he obviously feels the same about 3-D works. Though
he’s often described as a "sculptor and painter," that summary
doesn’t include his pioneer involvement with "happenings,"
or his filmmaking — and it doesn’t even suggest his signature
"sculpto-pictoramas": mixed media assemblages that combine
two-dimensional and freestanding elements, sometimes on a scale large
enough to become walk-through, room-sized environments. These started
with "City of Chicago" in 1967, and may have reached their
apogee with "Ruckus Manhattan," in the ’70s, probably his
best-known work in this vein.
As a newcomer to New York in the late ’50s, Grooms experienced —
and contributed to — a vibrant art scene. Abstract Expressionism
was still "it," and readily visible in the 10th Street
he visited. He arrived in high season for Abstract Expressionism,
but he stayed with figuration to the extent that now, asked about
one description of him as "a figurative expressionist," he
says that "sounds about right."
Founding one of the earliest alternative art spaces in Manhattan,
Grooms and a friend opened the City Gallery in his loft. Claes
and Jim Dine both had their first New York shows there. He also
the Cedar Bar, the subject of his 1986 sculpto-pictorama at the Art
Museum, Princeton University. About the size of a big, rectangular
dining room table that you can look down at and into, "The Cedar
Tavern" shows an unlikely-at-the-same-time collection of art world
figures who are eating, drinking, and posturing at the bar and in
An oversize Jackson Pollock looms over the scene, pouring something
— beer? paint? — onto the table. Lee Krasner and Elaine
are there, as are Mark Rothko, in a deep brown slouch hat; critic
Harold Rosenberg, an ominously dark and vertical figure; Frank O’Hara,
Franz Klein, Barnett Newman, and many others. Beer signs in relief
appear along the top of the bar, and painted figures along two walls
complement the sculptural figures in the center. About a third of
the total space shows the outside of the bar, defined with a green
awning and a bulbous, blue Hudson that’s part painting, part relief,
in the street.
By the summer of ’59, Grooms had moved away from "pure
and began to add collage elements to his work. He moved to a loft
on Delancey Street and opened the Delancey Street Museum — the
scene of exhibitions and art "happenings," improvisational
theatrical events with sculptural elements. January, 1960, marked
Grooms’ first solo show in New York at what gallery founder Anita
Reuben called "an outpost for human image art in a sea of Abstract
Expressionism." The "New Media — New Forms I"
that June formally introduced the assemblage and proto-Pop movements
in art. Grooms showed "Policewoman," a relief sculpture, and
shortly after that, left for 18 months abroad. When he returned, he
picked up at a different place: making movies.
While not at all uncritical of its subjects or their milieu, the
colors, exaggerations and distortions of Red Grooms’ work convey a
positive, all-embracing view of the (usually urban) world. His work
is fun, often funny, and both easy to understand and easy to like.
Grooms is a kind of visual kindred spirit to poet Walt Whitman —
one heard America singing; one seems to see it happening.
"Ruckus" is a word Red Grooms could have copyrighted as his
own domain — although that’s exactly what he did in effect. His
word for "the chaos defining late 20th century urban civilization
— with a healthy dose of comedy," it’s perhaps best
in "Ruckus Manhattan," once called "a sculptural
A colossal and complex installation of three-dimensional pictoramas,
it celebrated places and people of New York: Wall Street to the
Bridge, the Woolworth Building to the subway, Chinese cooks to
— in Grooms’ own scale and style. Participatory as well, it
viewers to literally enter into the work — in some parts, people
could walk through or sit down. Since its collaborative creation by
Grooms and his first wife, Mimi Gross, elements of "Ruckus
have been sold and exhibited all over the world. "Ruckus
was a multi-media environmental and performance company the artist
founded in 1963, and the catalog for his early ’70s show at Rutgers,
an exhibition he remembers as being very good for his career, was
titled "the Ruckus World of Red Grooms."
No minimalist he — based on his accretion of detail and inclusion
of real objects and materials, he has actually been called a
"I like to make sort of documentaries," Grooms has said.
you can see as it happens — what people wear and do."
Grooms likes the mix of doing "his own work"
and jobs for others: "We’re all glad to help someone realize what
they have in mind." It’s very rare for an artist to be
to do whatever he wants, he says; in fact, "sometimes they have
alarmingly specific ideas." He has made his living by showing
in art galleries, and knowing that "people who buy there have
practical space considerations," he sizes some work accordingly.
(This makes Grooms’ pieces, already "accessible," also, well,
accessible.) Every three years, he has a show at Marlborough Gallery,
with which he has been associated since 1975. His 1993 landmark
in Grand Central Station drew more than 100,000 visitors, and allowed
him to display for the first time a 30-foot high piece made in 1976.
His ’99 Marlborough show featured "Hot Dog Vendor," a 10-foot
high, multi-figured sculpto-pictorama.
Still another branch on the Grooms multi-media tree: the artist’s
"Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel." Installed in 1998 at Riverfront
Park, Nashville, it depicts the city’s roots and history through 36
figures of past and present personalities in cast, painted fiberglass.
President Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Kitty Wells, and the Everly
Brothers are among those included. And it’s fully operational too
— Grooms is among those who have ridden on it.
The basement and ground floor of a one-time hardware store have been
his studio for the last 30 years. There, with 16-foot high ceilings,
a skylight, and easy in and out, Grooms and his assistant, Tom
put in 10 to 5 days Monday through Friday. Kidding about his seemingly
"skimpy output," he describes the place as "backstage"
for public viewing in galleries, and because he shows so often, he
never has "masses of work at any time." His studio may not
show it, but to get a real idea of Grooms’ output and range, consider
that overlapping the spring exhibition in Hamilton, he is also showing
in Virginia Beach, an exhibition that includes practically no metal
sculpture, and draws instead on other art work.
"I don’t believe in inspiration," Grooms says. He talks of
"seeing the possibility of what can be as you work." You
try to get past the fear of "breakage," the show of ineptness,
he says of his process. "Sometimes it takes me three to four hours
to warm up. It’s like athletes: they get loose as they play."
He doesn’t necessarily set out to make his work funny, he says; he
couldn’t decide to do that ahead of time. All the circumstances at
a given time can change a work in progress.
In making selections for the spring exhibition at Grounds for
director and curator Brooke Barrie talked with Grooms, visiting both
his studio and Marlborough Gallery’s warehouse. The artist calls the
35 choices of volumetric sculptures and flatter pieces "a good
survey." Almost half of the show is comprised of cast bronze,
aluminum, or epoxy pieces, besides two cast fiberglass figures from
his "Tennessee Carousel"; 11 others are fabricated works —
that is cut and welded from flat material; and there are five mixed
media works and one wooden sculpture. The artist’s interest in modern,
lightweight materials is reflected in his "Henry Moore in a Sheep
Meadow," carved from styrofoam, then sprayed with epoxy for
strength. In a nod to its subject’s own style, Grooms’ "David
Smith" is the only unpainted piece in the show. One aerial work,
"Sutt-Putt," will hang in the museum, where the rest of the
Grooms pieces will be on view.
Proving again that instant gratification is not necessarily the
lot, Grooms says he had wanted to do the Henry Moore piece for 10
years, but a combination of time, money, and material reasons
its creation till 1992, when he made what he says is his only
sculpture on speculation. It shows a shepherd with his sheep around
a Henry Moore-like work, an allusion to Moore’s proclivity for placing
his sculpture in sheep meadows. In another case of the initial concept
being put on hold or altered: his original "Muscle-rama"
(shown in two large watercolors that will be on view) never happened
— what resulted instead was the series of painted bronze pieces
— "Mr. Universe," "Sailor Kelly," and so on.
Other titles suggest the delight that awaits viewers at Grounds for
Sculpture: Joltin’ Joe Takes a Swing (painted wood); Hot Dog Vendor,
No. III (painted aluminum); Davy Crockett (painted fiberglass);
(painted bronze — cast at the Johnson Atelier); The Sword
(painted aluminum); Geisha in a Hot Tub II (painted aluminum, rope);
Hook and Ladder (painted bronze); Demoiselles de Marseilles (cardboard
and foil construction); Goal Posts (painted bronze).
The oldest of three sons, Grooms says his parents were always
of his art. His father, who died in 1993, was a copper craftsman and
guild member who made hammered bowls and trays and took art classes
with his son. Wilhelmina Rogers Grooms, his mother, kicked off
for the Tennessee Carousel project with the first contribution. The
artist’s brothers, Roger and Spencer, are "a prominent
and "a professional draftsman," respectively. Named for
wife, "and because the name is so beautiful," Saskia is
daughter from his first marriage, and her child, Sarah Young, his
first grandchild. In 1987, Grooms married Lysiane Luong, with whom
he had collaborated on "Tut’s Fever Movie Palace," a small
but active movie theater that holds about 40 people, at the Museum
of the Moving Image.
"Participatory" and "collaborative" are key concepts
to Red Grooms, and they are bound to be realized during his exhibition
at Grounds for Sculpture. Don’t look now, but aren’t the visitors
in the museum building all interacting with Grooms’ work, making a
living sculpto-pictorama — or life imitating art imitating life?
It’s a real happening.
— Pat Summers
Road, Hamilton, 609-586-0616. Thursday, May 11, through Sunday, July
2; after which Grooms’ work will be on view there outdoors through
February 20, 2001. The sculpture park is open to the public Thursday
through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Tuesday and Wednesday by
The exhibition also includes sculpture and painting of Bill Barrett,
and features "The Partisans," Andrzej Pitynski’s monumental
work that is now part of Grounds for Sculpture’s public placement
program, on view on Klockner Road, between the Hamilton Railroad
and Grounds for Sculpture.
York City. To see more of his work, visit that website,
www.MarlboroughGallery.com and click on "Archives" for
highlights of Grooms’ last exhibition
there. If his name appears underlined in a list of artists, click
on that to see a new work. You may also try various search engines
for periodical coverage of Red Grooms and information about other
galleries where his art can be seen or purchased.
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