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From Red Grooms, a Trademark Ruckus

E-mail: PatSummer@princetoninfo.com

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

called

"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

circus-y.

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

Chicago,

New York’s New School of Social Research, and the Hans Hofmann School

of Fine Arts in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he realized, "I

wanted

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

telephone

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

galleries

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

Oldenburg

and Jim Dine both had their first New York shows there. He also

frequented

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

booths.

An oversize Jackson Pollock looms over the scene, pouring something

— beer? paint? — onto the table. Lee Krasner and Elaine

DeKooning

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

painting"

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"

exhibition

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

high-key

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

illustrated

in "Ruckus Manhattan," once called "a sculptural

novel."

A colossal and complex installation of three-dimensional pictoramas,

it celebrated places and people of New York: Wall Street to the

Brooklyn

Bridge, the Woolworth Building to the subway, Chinese cooks to

tourists

— in Grooms’ own scale and style. Participatory as well, it

invited

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

Manhattan"

have been sold and exhibited all over the world. "Ruckus

Productions"

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

maximalist!

"I like to make sort of documentaries," Grooms has said.

"Something

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

commissioned

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

exhibition

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

Burckhardt,

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

always

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

Sculpture,

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

protective

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

artist’s

lot, Grooms says he had wanted to do the Henry Moore piece for 10

years, but a combination of time, money, and material reasons

prevented

its creation till 1992, when he made what he says is his only

"monumental"

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"

proposal

(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);

Lumberjack

(painted bronze — cast at the Johnson Atelier); The Sword

Swallower

(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

supportive

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

fundraising

for the Tennessee Carousel project with the first contribution. The

artist’s brothers, Roger and Spencer, are "a prominent

businessman"

and "a professional draftsman," respectively. Named for

Rembrandt’s

wife, "and because the name is so beautiful," Saskia is

Groom’s

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

Red Grooms, Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds

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

appointment. Www.GroundsforSculpture.org.

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

Station

and Grounds for Sculpture.

Red Grooms is represented by Marlborough Gallery, New

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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