It makes total sense to learn that Red Grooms was helped on his way toward his distinctive sculptural forms by an oddball comic strip. Smokey Stover, so named for the central character, featured a fireman who always wore his helmet back to front, and it got the attention of Charles Rogers Grooms, a Nashville schoolboy with a phobia about fire. “I was afraid of my own home going up in flames,” he says. The phobia vanished when Grooms left for the Art Institute of Chicago, but he remained glued to the comic strip—partly for the pictorial and word gags, which came from the same populist/surrealistic place as Buster Keaton and Spike Jones, and partly for its explosive formatting. “A lot of the panels would be drawn like a three-dimensional picture,” he says. “That influenced me into doing what my mother called stick-outs.”
Grooms dropped out of the Art Institute before the end of his first semester and moved to New York. It was 1956; he was 19. “I came here to study at the New School. This was when the Abstract Expressionists ruled. I idolized them,” he says. “I idolize abstraction. But I just can’t do it. I’m locked into figuration.” Grooms—now “Red,” for his burning bush of hair—had Fairfield Porter, the figurative painter, as a teacher: “Porter was a tremendous hero. I had two influences. The Ab Exes and Fairfield.”
Grooms had a loft on 24th Street, just east of 6th Avenue, and was increasingly using “stick-outs” in his work. “It would be a relief,” he says. “It was like a painting in color, but it would have projections.” As for his subject matter: “Fairfield said I made benign satire. I didn’t want to do propaganda. I didn’t want to take a side too much.” He was also one of a handful of New York artists who made performances in front of an audience. He called his pieces “plays,” but when Allan Kaprow became involved, he came up with the catchier word “Happenings.” Al Hansen and Claes Oldenburg shortly joined them. Happenings were swiftly part of the artscape.
Jackson Pollock—“Jack the Dripper” in Life magazine—was an influence on Grooms’s performance pieces, as was Georges Mathieu, the French abstractionist, who painted in public. “He wore a special jumpsuit, with scarves and stuff. They were prototype Happenings,” Grooms says. He channeled his childhood terror for his first piece in the genre: “I called it A Play Called Fire. It was just me making a pretty large painting, and an audience sitting on the floor.”
Has he ever published his scripts? “I didn’t really have a script,” he says. Samuel Beckett published his texts, I observe. “Yeah. But he was a word guy,” Grooms says. “These were visual artists’ pieces. I think the best idea I had was that it basically was a collage with living people in it. So, I didn’t stretch it out in time. The stage was maybe 20 feet by six or seven feet, the ceiling height would be maybe nine feet. And the depth of audience was probably 25 feet.” Only realtors and sculptors would be this specific. “It had been a boxing gym, and they had left five heavy-duty pews. I cut the legs off the first one, left the second, and built the other three on stilts. We could seat about 20, 25 people. A lot of people would just stand. Our audience almost entirely consisted of people from the art world. At one performance, Rauschenberg came and Jasper Johns. And Merce Cunningham and John Cage. There was a lot of word of mouth. We would chase each other out into the audience. You could look back and see what the audience saw for a few seconds. That, and making the sets, was a new kind of expressive thing to do. It was exciting in an aggressive way.”
Grooms’s next work evolved directly from the
head-banging actors, the in-your-face sets. He calls
them “Sculpto-Pictoramas,” and the subject of the first
was Chicago, the city in which he had spent some
unsatisfactory months over a decade before. “I let that
germinate a bit,” he says. The City of Chicago was a
breakthrough for Grooms, now positioned as a wild
card in the ultra-cool world of Pop. A couple of years
later, he did a 1,500-square-foot remake of a Target Discount Store, complete with a stock of goods and wooden shopping carts, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The following year, he made Astronauts on the Moon, an installation for the Guggenheim. “NASA had a program for artists. I went to the site and drew there. A real astronaut came into the room, and I talked to him. It was very exciting. At that time, I really wanted to be like a journalist and do very contemporary things.”
Grooms also very much wanted to create a Manhattan cityscape along the lines of his Chicago project. “I had done various projects around pieces of New York,” he says. “But there was so much to know.” A director of Creative Time, the Manhattan-based public art organization, just then offered Grooms a big space in the financial district, at 88 Pine. It was on the ground floor of an I.M. Pei building that the owner hadn’t yet rented out. Then Frank Lloyd, a founding partner of Marlborough Gallery, which Grooms had recently joined, asked if he would make a Manhattan equivalent for the Chicago piece. Lloyd wanted to call it “Gotham,” after the New York equivalent in Batman, but he went along with his artist’s suggestion: Ruckus Manhattan.
Grooms installed himself on Pine. “There were people on three sides,” he says. “People could just walk up and look at us working. I had 25 assistants, and I ran it pretty much like a straight business. Ten to five. That kind of controlled what I did, although I would work after they left.” How did he research the piece? “The hard way,” he says. “What happens a lot of times is that I want to do a realistic version and go to a lot of trouble doing research, and then I get frustrated because I can’t do it as much as I wanted to. I am forced to use my imagination.” Take the World Trade Center, for instance: “Somebody gave me aerial photographs. The Trade Center I had put in the piece hadn’t opened yet. The buildings had been constructed, but they were still finishing the interiors. They wouldn’t let me go in to research it, but they did let me go on the roof. That was kind of good.” Ruckus Manhattan would be tinkered with, and updated. “I put Philippe Petit up there. I made him out of welded metal,” Grooms says. It was a huge hit.
Grooms also makes detailed peoplescapes that capture the life of our times on a smaller scale, usually with caricatural likenesses of the very, slightly, or formerly famous, and he is not unhappy to hear himself described as an “old-fashioned caricaturist.” One project, which depicts the Ab Ex hang-out, the Cedar Bar, exists in various states, including brawls. “That was going to be a really good project,” Grooms says. “I had an opportunity to do it on the ground floor of the uptown Whitney. A walk-through piece. I made a model and everything—this was back in the ’80s—but that fell through. I didn’t do it sculpturally, but I did it in two dimensions.”
A re-imagining of the Strand Bookstore is the most recent. “I was very excited doing that,” Grooms says. Tom Burkhardt, a longtime assistant, carved the reliefs out of Styrofoam. Heather Tate, another assistant, helped with the painting: “But other than that I did it all myself.” In the foreground are sculpted versions of Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Tom Wolfe, a guitar-wielding Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and Sylvia Plath, along with their handprints impressed on the floors. Sherlock Holmes, whom Grooms treats as equally real, can be spotted upstairs. One of the points being, I suspect, that few idolize writers quite that much these days.
I noted that Grooms had given Wolfe not just the necessary white suit, but also a third arm. “I tried to put a little Futurism in there, to activate it a bit,” he says. Of his Strand experience, he adds, “I thought it would be like a citywide event, doing the Strand, like Duccio carrying the altarpiece through the streets. I actually talked with people at the rare book department there. I thought I might make a whole Strand thing. But nothing ever happened. But, to me, it was a public event—to me, it’s such a top New York venue. Also it’s a great bastion to stand against the onslaught that is going on. You’ve got a cellphone. You probably have a computer?” Guilty as charged. But we inhabit a world of images now. The work of Red Grooms is tremendous, his satire, thank heavens, not always that benign.
This article appears in the May/June issue of Sculpture.