Red Grooms (born 1937) was an American artist best known for his large scale, intensely colored, environmental sculptural pieces made of wire, acrylic, and fabric. These scenes typically capture figures engaged in places and activities characteristic of the United States, presenting a humorous and/or satirical view of contemporary life.
Red Grooms was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in June 1937. He attended Peabody College in Nashville, the New School for Social Research in New York City, the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois, and the Hans Hoffmann School. In 1961 he married Mimi Gross, who worked in close collaboration with him. Grooms began exhibiting at the Sun Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1958. He also performed public pieces which came to be known as "happenings" there. As the creator of one of the first "happenings", Grooms turned away from Abstract Expressionism formerly in favor and forged the way for the Pop Art movement. Like a number of other artists in the late 1950s—George Segal, for example—he was drawn to art forms that maximized the experience of three dimensions and was clearly representational in striking contrast to the one and even two-dimensional similarities of most abstract art of the time.
Among his earliest public works in 1958-1959 were several "happenings"—Play Called Fire, The Walking Man, and Burning Building—and he was loosely tied to the group in New York in the 1950s that was developing that form of dramatic art, including Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg. His work displays a sophisticated knowledge of the history of art and incorporates some stylistic approaches of the abstract expressionists in the shaping and coloring of figures. Some of his females seem like mundane cousins of the demonic women of De Kooning's paintings. His major works for specific installations were produced by a collaborative team.
Using sculpture wire, vinyl, elastic, fabric, wood, and any other apt materials needed, he constructed large-scale environments peopled by various human figures. These "sculpto-picto-ramas" were sometimes based very directly on a particular setting. His characteristic work took shape in the 1960s, culminating in The City of Chicago (1968). Ruckus Manhattan (1976), which recreates many features of lower Manhattan from the Statue of Liberty uptown to Rockefeller Center, is based on a series of drawings and sequences of photographs of selected features which achieve a convincing level of accuracy in the representation of the city. The familiarity of the selected images creates a carnival-like amusement, but closer examination often reveals a less humorous, satiric, or even penetrating view of society and its denizens. Buildings that are clearly identified with specific activities or are landmarks of the urban environment (such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Stock Exchange, and the World Trade Center), tourists, a subway car, the sleazy environment of 42nd Street in the 1960s—all are brought to life in these large-scale scenes.
Grooms' view of our historical past was given form in another major work, Philadelphia Cornucopia (1982), created as a commission for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia to celebrate that city's tricentennial. Forty-foot-long canvas flats with vignettes of Philadelphia history and a "ship of state" with the United States' founding fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—were part of this work, which occupied 2, 500 square feet.
Grooms' examination of the history of art is often clever and insightful. Nighthawks Revisited (1980) is a colored drawing based on a well-known painting by Edward Hopper, a major American artist. Unlike Hopper's brooding work, Grooms's version shows Hopper in the scene looking lonely and out-of-place in the very ordinary environment. The viewer realizes how much Hopper reshaped the environment in his paintings when he sees the scene through Grooms's eyes.
Red's Roxy (1985) is a work produced in a multiple edition. It is an actual movie theater consisting of a plexiglass box into which are inserted color lithographed figures. An external crank operates a tiny movie made up of scenes drawn by the artist on mylar. Like his larger works, the viewer can actively participate in this small-scale piece. Movement, change, and elements of this society—such as its video culture—are all incorporated.
Grooms chronicled the American scene with insight, wit, and humor. Yet at times his vision aroused controversy. Shoot-out (1983), a 26-foot-long painted aluminum sculpture showing a cowboy and an American Indian shooting at each other, brought about intense criticism in Denver, Colorado, where it was commissioned for a public site. Now in the Denver Art Museum, the sculpture was criticized for the artist's insensitivity to Indian history and its inaccurate view of the history of Indian-white settler conflict. Yet Grooms's vision of society was generally an optimistic one, and the general public responded with enthusiasm to his work.
In 1985, Grooms's first major retrospective showing 29 years of his work opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The 170 objects and works in the show consisted of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and enormous "sculpto-pictoramas" from The City of Chicago to the Woolworth Building in Ruckus Manhattan. The retrospective ended in Nashville, Groom's hometown, at the Tennessee State Museum on October 26, 1986. Grooms also illustrated a children's book Rembrandt Takes a Walk written by M. Strand and published in 1986.
One of Groom's most exciting "sculpto-pictoramas" was designed in Chicago in 1995. Neel Keller, the artistic director of the Remains Theatre in Chicago, brought together new creations by playwright John Guare and Grooms in a production called, aptly enough, Moon Under Miami collides with Chicago! Seer predicts audiences stunned! Outraged! Delighted! For the production, Guare wrote a depressing but mildly satirical account of money and politics, while Grooms designed a backdrop inspired by "Miami's tropical lushness, its third world sleaze, its trailer-park hoke and salsa glamour, " as Penelope Mesic described it in her review of Moon Shot in Chicago. The backdrop is also a mobile home with its lights on, and sitting outside it, the three-dimensional figures of an older couple sitting down to enjoy Guare's play, which concerns congressmen on the money trail looking for funding for campaign TV commercials. The mix of delight, parody, and current affectations among politicians is typical of both Guare's and Groom's styles. The pairing of these two was excellent and effective. Guare had previously written the prize-winning plays House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, the latter having recently been made into a successful full-length movie.
Red Grooms and Ruckus Manhattan by Judd Tully (1977) is a book-length source on Grooms's work; Judith Stein has written Red Grooms:A Retrospective, 1956-1984 (1986); frequent reviews of his work can be found in the periodicals Art News and Art in America; other articles can be found through the bibliographic source The Art Index; Grooms's work may also be seen in the children's book Rembrandt Takes a Walk, illustrated by Grooms and written by M. Strand (1986). □