Editor's note: The following essays were rekeyed and reprinted on November 4, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. The essays are included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition Red Grooms: Ruckus in Roslyn held at the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
by Constance Schwartz
Red Grooms, the soft spoken Southern artist from Tennessee, zoomed into the art world of New York City and quietly, in an off-beat manner, made a major impact on impressionable New Yorkers. In a store front on one of the most fashionable avenues in the world, Madison Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets, a Discount Store was opened in February 1971. No exquisitely dressed shoppers were on view, no furnishings, no diamonds or rubies were there to be sold. Instead, made of wood, fabric, and what-have-you, an idiosyncratic assemblage emerged consisting of dry goods, physically flamboyant, ordinary customers and sales persons, women adorned with curlers in their hair pushing shopping carts, stacks of tractor tires, bags of seed, a doughnut machine manned by a ten-foot woman, a counter where bras and girdles were jumbled together to rummage through, plus salesmen and customers. Ordinary objects of every sort of everyday life, depicted with primitive energy were on the wall and extending further and further from the wall into and filling the space of the store front gallery. It was an expression that combined deliberately crude figurative impulses with the physicality and textures of low city life. This young artist discovered out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness and did not try to make them extraordinary.
The distinguished art critic John Canaday wrote in the New York Times under the banner of Happy Thing in Art: Discount Store. "It's the happiest thing that's happened to Madison Avenue in years....a work that speaks so jubilantly for itself that it makes critics superfluous."
Red Grooms invented the first "Happening," originally presented in 1958 in Provincetown and later on at New York's Grand Street. It was called Fire!  The Discount Store evolved from Grooms' early "Happenings," a performance venue that amalgamated the junk materials of assemblage, the gestural vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism with found objects in their environments. The "Happenings" included costumes and sets constructed out of urban cast-offs in object-oriented tableaux that came to life with action, lights and movement with the performers improvising their actions according to the dictates and logic of the materials rather than the logic of a narrative. There was no linear story line -- no sense of cause and effect. The "Happenings" and "Environments" were conceived as a response to counter "...the notion of a work of art as something out of experience, something that is terribly precious."  It was a rebellion against what was felt to be Abstract Expressionism's proscription against incorporating everyday reality into art.
In the interim, Grooms left for Europe for two years and by the time of his return the "Happening" movement, which had included such experimentally minded artists as Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and others had concluded. His three dimensional expressions grew larger and larger -- some as individual environments that one could interact with -- others that were mounted on the wall as great sculptural environments.
From the imagination of Red Grooms, in this exhibition Red Grooms/Ruckus in Roslyn we have an epitome of the Big City of New York, his interpretation of Sports and Popular Foods, his individual appropriation of famed artists and their work. It also glamorizes the protagonists of the Circus and his birthplace Tennessee. In Grooms' work are the currents that make up what is called the ocean of life. It is a maelstrom whose buildings echo the time, the place, men and women, and architecture. The barbaric variety, the unrest, the vulgarity, the scholarship, the culture, the skewed architecture, each lives out its raucous individual note. They altogether sway and swirl into a huge roar of an uncanny lot, the most extraordinary aggregation in life's vast menagerie.
In his Big City interpretation, Red Grooms portrays the eminent and questionable persons alike in an impression of reality, a city of illusion that shares values of both poverty and wealth, growth and decay. The buildings provide the screen in front of which are men, women and children, a populous island with an ostentatious spread of material wealth.
In examining Grooms' ingenuity of constructions, one realizes that there is a break-up of natural form and a re-assemblage in a new manner that is akin to Cubism. His brilliance as a sculptor makes it possible for him to establish the expressive goals that his sculpture serves.
Yet is Red Grooms' art a statement of a negation of democracy? Is this a statement of the transitory in life's values? Red Grooms shows us a spectacle, a drama, gigantic energy to depict how the people of a city portray themselves as a living and working mass.
Red Grooms is unique in a sea of art "isms." He belongs to no school and no clique. He is a pop artist only by coincidence inasmuch as he deals with pop culture as his subject matter. His work is a strong, natural artistic expression combined with unfailing ingenuity in the methods of benign caricature. As in the American cartoon tradition of Bud Fisher and Rube Goldberg, humor is an infectious laugh at the amplitude of experience which includes the unexpected bonus of art.
It stands to reason that in Red Grooms' art outward appearances resemble inner purposes. The form is the tangible evidence of the function. In imagination, a word commonly enough used, one would probably call it a reality, yet one that disappears when you reach for it. It is the very soul of the subconscious -- yet it is intangible. It is the spirit that can grasp the physical. To understand the art of Red Grooms you must see it to know it. It is the variations that are the more suggestive and instructive for it is the imagination of each person that is the key to the character in each work. Each peculiararity of structure and form and function, each of his people has its specific life and its identity. It is within the power of analysis to follow Grooms' immeasurable imagination and flow of function into specific forms. His is a universal aspect of the imagination, of its fluency, its quality, its range, its visibility. His is not just a flight of fancy but a close and practical sense of reality. He is a most skillful and ingenious craftsman, a great constructor and reconstructor. Yet Grooms' art is never fanciful; his populace is a direct reflection of visual experiences common to everyone.
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