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Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work


The largest collection of Red Grooms prints ever collectively assembled will be traveling across the U.S. over the next four years beginning July 11, 2001 with its opening at the National Academy of Design in New York. Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work, which will make nine additional stops, was organized by the Tennessee State Museum in Grooms' hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. The exhibit covers more than 40 years of printmaking by the internationally-known artist. The work of Charles Rogers "Red" Grooms reveals the practiced hand of a life-long master draftsman and a perfectionist experienced in all facets of printmaking.

The exhibit consists of 130 objects, including both two and three-dimensional works. This comprehensive collection of Grooms' graphic works from 1956 to 1999 offers a display of the artist's unique mastery of an array of printmaking techniques. It includes a multitude of art forms varying from delicate soft ground etchings, an eight-foot-tall woodblock print to spray-painted stencils.

Grooms is a prolific, contemporary artist whose work appeals to a broad spectrum of the public, according to exhibit curator Susan Knowles. Grooms is perhaps best known for his self-named "sculpto-pictoramas," large-scale environmental art works constructed with hardware store supplies, she said. (left: Dali Salad II, 1980, 3D color lithograph with silkscreen on paper and vinyl, 26 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches)

"Printmaking for Grooms began in making gifts for friends. Later, it became a vehicle to disseminate his vision of the city as a site of invigorating chaos. Finally, it provided an opportunity to work with master craftsmen and to align himself with great artists from the past," according to Vincent Katz, a contributor to the exhibit catalog.

Grooms, who was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937, began his artistic experimentation while attending public schools. In 1955, while a high school senior, Grooms was a participant in a two-man show of 35 paintings at a Nashville gallery.

In 1957 Grooms moved to New York City to immerse himself in its art scene while working at such odd jobs as a movie house usher. The vibrant color of his hair earned him the name "Red," and his art "Happenings," unstructured live performances, began to gain him a measure of notoriety, according to Knowles. His most famous performance was Burning Building, a 10-minute piece performed nine times in 1959. In Burning Building, Red appeared as "Pasty Man," a good-natured pyromaniac who eludes Keystone Kop-ish firemen. This character re-emerges in Red's later works as the free-wheeling, toe-tapping anarchist, the infamous "Ruckus."

In 1962, in part as an outgrowth of his performances, Red made his first important film, Shoot the Moon. A mish-mash of costumes and props and various kinds of visual distortions and animation are the qualities which characterize Red's film making. In all, he has made 12 films of various lengths.

Red produced his first major construction work, The City of Chicago, (now in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute) in 1967. It was a large, colorful, satirical view of city life, and it was a tremendous hit with the public. It earned Red a cover article in Look magazine. (right: The Existentialist, 1984, color woodcut, 77 x 42 inches)

During the 1970s, Grooms paid homage to the Big Apple with Ruckus Manhattan, a public exhibition of the sights, sounds, smells and shapes of Americas biggest melting pot. Ruckus Manhattan was a defining point for Grooms' career. Throughout the late 1980s and the mid 1990s, Red devoted himself to New York Stories, a series of prints and sculptural tableaux dedicated to the textures of the bustling metropolis.

After the opening in New York, the Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work exhibit is scheduled to visit nine U.S. cities: the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago, Illinois; the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama; the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida; the Plains Arts Museum in Fargo, North Dakota; the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis, Massachusetts; the Lowe Art Museum-University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida; the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York; the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee; and the James A. Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

The exhibition has been organized in conjunction with the publication of a catalog raisonné of Grooms' graphic work, Red Grooms: The Graphic Work, written by Nashvillian Walter G. Knestrick, a life-long friend of Grooms and a major collector of his work. Knestrick, a boyhood classmate of Grooms who has collected the artist's prints over the years, introduces the reader to Red Grooms and tells of his 50-year friendship with the artist from their early artistic experiments in Nashville to their collaboration on this assembly of Red Grooms' graphic work.



by Susan W. Knowles, Guest Curator


Red Grooms is not only artist as creator and subject of his own work, he is also artist as actor, director and producer. This multiplicity of identities is only one aspect of the complex genius of Red Grooms.

In fact, the most apt analogy for Grooms' art career might be that of the film world. "One of my ambitions was to be a filmmaker," he said recently. He has certainly played most of the roles: actor/artist on center stage, independent filmmaker, "scriptwriter" for the large-scale built environments, big-budget "director" for many major printmaking projects, and with the creation of the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel at Nashville's Riverfront Park, big-budget "producer." "The printmaking operation is sort of like being in the movie business." Grooms says, "You've got to make a good product and hope to make some money. The images really need to nail it, so you don't end up with a big stock of them left over." And most of them need to be hits.

Grooms admits to having been fascinated as a youth by the early 20th century epic films of D.W. Griffith , the pageantry of Cecil B. DeMille, and Vincent Minnelli's Lust for Life, the 1950s bio-pic starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. But he was just as surely drenched in the spirit of his own age, the postwar 1950s culture that was producing such sci-fi genre films as It Came from Outer Space (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). When he encountered Dominic Falcone and Yvonne Andersen in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the summer of 1957, and later Rudy Burckhardt in New York, Grooms joined in readily on their self-consciously funky art film projects, and soon began making similar works of his own with their help. Grooms created home-made and humorous props, and played up the artificiality of movie magic tricks by deconstructing them with the use of visible rigging and two-dimensional props.

It appears that the hands-on film making experience had a profound and lasting effect on Grooms' art. He clearly "sees" from several points of view and wants viewers to experience scenes from noticeably unusual angles. In the "No Gas" series, every print features a different aspect of city life, which is underscored by the different vantage points: inside a down and out café, looking down upon a man trying to get out of a cab, a rat's-eye view from somewhere near sidewalk level. Grooms' first attempt at a three-dimensional print comes from this series; we can almost hear the screaming siren of "Aarrrrrrhh" as its fire truck hurtles out of the picture plane. Many of his works are composed as if they were stage sets. Three-dimensional prints like "Los Aficionados" or "Wheeler Opera House" remind us of the set miniaturizations and, most recently, the 3-D cyber-renderings that seem to be taking over the motion picture industry. Like many directors, Grooms enjoys finding "cameo" roles for friends, as in "Red Bud Diner" where he, wife Lysiane Luong, and master printer Bud Shark appear as diner employees, or "Los Aficionados," in which the bullfight ring audience includes Ernest Hemingway, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, as well as Pierre Levai of New York's Marlborough Gallery.

Attempting to recapture the motion lost in still images, Grooms has created animated parts for two-dimensional prints like "Chuck Berry", which has the vision of Maybelline playing the guitar's upper neck strings or "Holy Hula", where hips sway upon command of pull-tabs in the frame. Grooms found a way to visually imitate motion in "Jackson in Action", where he shows the "action" painter with five right arms, or "DeKooning Breaks Through" in which he positions the artist as if he is riding a bicycle out of the picture plane, making us feel as if we might need to leap out of the path of a wide-eyed, big breasted woman heading straight towards us on the handlebars. In "Red's Roxy" Grooms finally did make a movie. Entitled "No Deductible," the hand-cranked mylar filmstrip viewable inside the miniature theater is the comical tale of Tarzan, whose life insurance policy has been canceled by the underwriters because it was "too risky."

Whether he is undertaking a complicated three-dimensional edition at a professional print shop, working on a contemplative self-portrait, depicting revered artists of the past, or involving a team of people on huge multi-media construction projects like "The City of Chicago" or "Ruckus Manhattan", Red Grooms stars in every role. Sometimes he is the historian, sometimes the event -- sometimes the observer, sometimes the subject -- sometimes the sophisticate, sometimes the innocent. Always he is a restless innovator who works with a wide range of ideas in a continually inventive progression of media and styles. Linking it all up is the confidence to go forward unconcerned with questions of artistic definition. With his wide array of artistic skills Grooms forges ahead with the next new (or old) thing.

He can build sculptures from scrap wood, epoxy resin, or torn paper. He can paint in oils with the sumptuous strokes of an old master or the flat brushwork of the early 20th century moderns. His watercolors are as beautifully transparent as underwater vistas in the Caribbean and he can draw like a German Expressionist, an Italian Renaissance portraitist, or one of the great cartoonists.

Grooms brings all of these impulses and influences to bear in his printmaking, which follows (and sometimes leads) the arc of his art-making enterprise. In some instances the prints help to fill in gaps between an idea and its final manifestation in a large-scale piece. Others are tour-de-force extravaganzas of print shop prowess. Many are private meditations on themes that have already been introduced in two or three-dimensional originals. The portfolio open before us in Selections from the Graphic Work ranges from personal work to grand spectacle. The creative personas revealed in these works give us new insight into this fascinating and multi-faceted contemporary art maker. Meeting him on paper -- a profoundly personal setting -- is a rare privilege indeed.

(All quotations in above and below essays from an interview with the artist, February 2001)


Selected Themes in the Work of Red Grooms

by Susan W. Knowles, Guest Curator



Red Grooms came of age in the shadow of the Abstract Expressionists, when the words "artist" and "ego" suddenly became synonyms. After deciding that the introductory level classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were too slow-paced and academic for his taste, Grooms was drawn to New York to try out his own form of social realism under painter Gregorio Prestopino at the New School for Social Research. Grooms' powers of satirical observation pulled him like a magnet to the boisterous consumer culture all around him on the streets of New York in the late 1950s. His tuned-in sensibilities placed him in the avant-garde of Pop art. "I rather cleverly aligned myself with Pop even before it happened," he said in a recent interview. "I actually thought it was coming." Grooms' version of Pop remained immersed in the immediacy of his environment. He painted scenes populated by the "characters" that he saw in the world around him. Grooms never developed the detached stance of such Pop practitioners as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein or James Rosenquist. Instead he painted his own life, and became, literally, an actor on the stage of life -- in this case the art-as-life "happenings" of the downtown New York scene.

Grooms' earliest print, "Minstrel," reveals the persona most often seen in his early work. He is an actor: a top hat-clad vaudeville-show character calling our attention to himself. Grooms, who is naturally modest and even perhaps a bit shy, claims always to have been a bit of a ham and a prankster. Here he captures for us the delightful but tingling shock waves of being onstage, which many artists will tell you is the same exact feeling as walking into an exhibit opening "Minstrel" was, in fact, an announcement for an unnamed show. Forcefully and confidently cut from a sheet of linoleum, this small image is magnified by its emotional content. The artist, dressed in formal top hat, faces us with eyes wide open and both hands up, fingers splayed out as if in surprise -- Artist meets World. (left: Mayan Self Portrait, 1966, linocut, 25 x 18 1/2 inches)

Grooms saw prints at first as useful publicity pieces, such as posters for shows. "Red Grooms, Martin Wiley Gallery," which reveals his face inside The Parthenon at Nashville's Centennial Park, was printed in both color and black-and-white offset versions for a 1978 exhibition at a Nashville gallery owned by Terry Martin and Gene (Wiley Eugene) Sizemore.

Friends and family are featured in many prints, such as artist and studio assistant David Saunders, shown working with Grooms in Bud Shark' s studio in the lithograph "Red Grooms Drawing David Saunders Drawing Red Grooms," and Grooms' mother Wilhelmina Rogers Grooms, depicted in full-length seated profile, almost as if she were "Whistler's Mother." "Grooms's Mother on Her 81st Birthday," a color lithograph, was printed in an edition of 81 by Mauro Giuffrida at American Atelier, New York.

Mr. Fox Trot, the mascot of Grooms' working circus carousel in Nashville's Riverfront Park, is a self-portrait of sorts, modeled on the wild red foxes that still dart across country roads at night in the far suburbs of town.



Grooms first introduces the theme of the city in the etching "Self Portrait in a Crowd," his first commissioned print. Created in 1962 and printed two years later at Atelier Georges Leblanc, Paris, it was included in a portfolio with prints by many other artists entitled "The International Anthology of Contemporary Engraving: the International Avant-Garde: America Discovered." Here Grooms shows himself as a jaunty, striding figure wearing a stovepipe hat on a busy city street. (The "Walking Man" persona had been invented for Grooms's first performance theater piece in September 1959.) In this small etching, the man is placed in silhouette against a crowd scene where everyone else is facing forward, an image reminiscent of Belgian artist James Ensor's "The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889." (left: Slushing, 1971, color lithograph, 22 x 28 inches)

"Parade in Top Hat City," (1993) a drypoint printed by the artist, shows Grooms and other top-hatted figures standing up on the tops of buildings for a better view of one of New York's frequent street parades.

Grooms has said that the "No Gas" series was the impetus for the large-scale walk-through city environment "Ruckus Manhattan," which was completed about five years later. "Local," a lithograph in ten colors produced by Mauro Giuffrida at the Bank Street Atelier in New York, was a forerunner of the life-sized version in "Ruckus Manhattan." The busy image takes us underground to a claustrophobic encounter with particularly strange-looking strangers. "Subway" is a more cheerful version in a three-dimensional color lithograph produced by Shark's Ink.

Back out on the streets, "Little Italy," a color lithograph printed on five sheets and assembled by four Shark's Ink staffers, has us looking down onto a city street from a very exaggerated perspective. Buildings seem to tilt in towards the street with angled fire escapes dangling dangerously over a street filled with cars and people.

The "Hot Dog Vendor" is a long-time favorite subject of Grooms' that has been attempted in several versions, including a cacophonous and monumental welded metal outdoor version. The lithographic entity of "Hot Dog Vendor" has been enhanced by master printer Bud Shark's use of metal foil on the cart.

The "Flatiron Building" (1996) is an etching whose rosy sunset tones were achieved in aquatint under the expert guidance of intaglio printmakers Carol Weaver and Felix Harlan in New York. This famously recognizable structure looks us square in the eye -- that is if we can find a 13th floor perch across the intersection from it. (right: Flatiron Building, 1966, color etching with soft ground and aquatint, 45 x 26 inches)



By his own account, Red Grooms was always drawn to drama and spectacle. In Nashville, Tennessee, where he spent his childhood, that meant anything from attending Symphony concerts at the ornate War Memorial Auditorium, to going to the annual Christmas pageant at the city's full-scale concrete replica of the Parthenon, or hanging out downtown and watching barge life on the Cumberland River. Under the intense scrutiny of the observant young Charles Grooms, a wide range of dramatis personae began to appear in his world. In the Nashville of the 1950s, it was possible to take a big swallow of both high and low culture in one gulp. The real Mr. Peanut strolled around the downtown Arcade, a turn-of-the-century shopping mall, handing out fresh-roasted peanuts to potential customers of The Peanut Shop. When the State Fair came to town, with its arts and crafts shows, prize-winning canned goods, sideshows, and carnival rides, it put down stakes right next to the Nashville Speedway. Grooms remembers seeing art in the Women's Building and afterwards sketching his first crowd scene of the teeming racetrack grandstand. A neighbor on the same quiet, large-lawned Nashville street was Sarah Ophelia Colley (Mrs. Henry) Cannon, who had once attended Nashville's Ward-Belmont School for Young Ladies. Sarah Cannon turned into "Howdeee, I'm Minnie Pearl" on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Grand Ole Opry. Grooms has since said that the 1890s Ryman Auditorium, where the Opry was held, made him nervous because it seemed like a firetrap. Perhaps this early fear of an out-of-control fire in urban setting was the impetus for the recurring theme of heroic firefighters who appeared in early plays and performance pieces like "The Burning Building" in New York City. (right: Elvis, 1987, color lithograph, 44 1/2 x 30 inches)

Even now, Red Grooms revels in the celebration of all walks of life. He pays homage to cheap eats at the "No Gas Café" and the "Red-Bud Diner" just as sincerely as he constructs a tribute to the grand dining experience of French chef de nouvelle cuisine Paul Bocuse. Perhaps his exposure to the panoply of cultures available in the "Athens of the South," (aka "Music City U.S.A.") helps to explain why. (left: Slam Dunk, 1992, 3D lithograph)

"Coney Island," a vibrant four color aquatint printed by Jennifer Melby, captures the mania of a hot summer's day at this legendary beach where it's often standing-room only, both on the sand and in the water.

"Lorna Doone," a lithograph in eleven colors with collage and rubber stamping on two sheets of custom made Japanese Gyoko paper, is an example of the extravagant treatment for which Minneapolis printmaker Steve Anderson is well-known.

This seven color lithograph shows Actor-Director Charlie Chaplin, who was a pioneer in using humor both as entertainment and powerful social commentary. The print was done on two sheets and carefully put together by Roseanne Colachis, who has been the main 3-D assembler for Grooms' prints at Shark's Ink since 1985.

Tennessee's best-known export: here's Elvis at the height of his popularity, proudly posing with his solid gold Cadillac, with big-haired wife Priscilla on the front steps of Graceland Mansion in the background of this eleven color lithograph done at Shark's Ink.



Beginning with the tiny linocut "Five Futurists" in 1958, Red Grooms has celebrated his own existence as an artist by paying homage to many of the most important figures in Western art history. Styles often change dramatically to suit the next subject that comes his way. We see this in some of the individual images that led up to his second major print suite, the "19th Century Artists" series: ten small black-and-white etchings of French artists done in 1976. In "Cafe Manet," Grooms draws the brilliant first Impressionist, looking every bit the intellectual gentleman of café society, in a square format, with a sharply detailed and restless line so suited to the etching technique. Grooms's very next print "Matisse" was larger-scale, with the sonorous deep black shadows of lithographic ink showing the white-bearded artist sketching a voluptuous nude model in a darkened studio. Following this, Grooms created "Corot." a soft-ground etching with applied color monoprinting. It's a casual close-up of the artist as a jaunty out-of-doors type in a driving cap, its application of color done with a fluidity of brushstroke that reveals the hand of an accomplished painter. (left: South Sea Sonata, 1992, 3D color lithograph, 20 3/8 x 21 3/4 x 11 3/8 inches)

In this portrait of the artist, a five-color woodcut, Grooms has even further exaggerated the tall thin figures for which sculptor Alberto Giacometti is so well-known. One of the largest prints Grooms has ever done, this was printed on handmade Japanese paper by printers Will Foo and John Stemmer at Experimental Workshop in San Francisco.

Vincent Van Gogh with his "Sunflowers" -- the best-seller that came 100 years too late. Grooms did this five color lithograph after the Van Gogh masterpiece had been auctioned for a very big figure in 1988.

In "Noa Noa" Grooms depicts Paul Gauguin as a full-fledged resident of the South Seas in an eight color woodcut reminiscent in style to the neo-primitive prints Gauguin developed there.

"To the Lighthouse," a masterful etching with aquatint, created with master printer Aldo Crommelynck in New York, Grooms shows us Edward Hopper painting in the out-of-doors and looking over his own shoulder as critic. By using himself as a model for both figures, Grooms suggests to us that he, like most artists, understands the two roles all too well. (right: To the Lighthouse, 1997, color etching with soft ground and aquatine, 22 x 30 inches)

This has got to be one of the most complicated print multiples ever created. "Katherine, Marcel and the Bride" was produced in 130 colors using three-dimensional silkscreens by Steve Anderson and four assistants. It is based on a large Grooms painting (now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia) from 1984 of the same subject. Here is Katherine Dreier, early American modern art patron, seated with artist Marcel Duchamp in her Connecticut home, contemplating one of the pioneer conceptual artist's masterpieces "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," a mixed media work done on two large pieces of glass.


Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work, is a traveling exhibition organized by the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, Tennessee, to accompany the publication of Red Grooms: The Graphic Work, by Walter G. Knestrick, Abrams Books, 2001. All works © Red Grooms, from the collection of Walter G. Knestrick. Essays courtesy of The Tennessee State Museum.

Rev. 7/19/01

See our earlier articles Red Grooms: Moby Dick Meets the New York Public Library and Red Grooms, "The Bookstore" and The Late Seventies.

Read more about the Tennessee State Museum in Resource Library Magazine

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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