Red Grooms: A Retrospective
By Arthur C. Danto and Marco Livingstone (Rizzoli, 240 pp., $65)
Red Grooms discusses and signs the book, 6 p.m. June 30 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
As a kid, I suffered through trips to art museums but perked up whenever I encountered a piece by Red Grooms. His works were oversized pop-up books, and what kid can resist those? Or what adult, for that matter?
Grooms is one of the two unarguably important 20th century artists raised in Middle Tennessee. (Robert Ryman is the other.) Like any master, he has an instantly recognizable styleskewed and compressed perspective, cartoon-like characters, surfaces crammed with people and details. The newly published book Red Grooms: A Retropsective documents his work generously.
Grooms is associated with New York, where he has lived most of his adult life and which provided the subject for his best-known works. The throngs of people, constant activity and dense mass of buildings fed his vision of humanity as a rich sea of personality and activity.
But there is also a distinctively Southern character to his work. Grooms has that strong Southern impulse for storytelling, a delight in making a tale out of the slightest incident or encounter. He goes into the street with his sketchbook and comes back with stories about everything going on there: the people doing their jobs, bustling around, wasting time, looking for trouble. His comic visions document in detail the vitality and variety of human life, forming a contemporary Comedie Humaine.
In this book Grooms' work speaks for itself. The textual material, though not excessive, includes a fine essay by the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto and an interview with Grooms by Timothy Hyman. But the real value of the book is its reproductions. It contains 250 photographs, including many stills from the performances and films of Grooms' early career, projects that shaped the theatricality of his work and the interplay between viewers and his three-dimensional artworks. There are reproductions of work from throughout his career, as well as details from his sketchbooks that show Grooms' transitions from observation to artwork, and from two dimensions to three. The book is organized by the works' subjects, but the groupings aren't all that clearly differentiated, giving the whole a fragmented quality. I would have preferred more chronological organization to give an idea of the way his style developed as his career progressed.
The last section in the book does present a distinct change of pace in focusing on Grooms' work in Tennessee, and his paintings done here are calmer, although still informed by his comic vision. "On the Deck," for example, depicts Grooms, his wife, and two other couples on the deck of a summer home in the mountains or the Plateau, looking out on green-covered ridges. He is bringing out a tray of drinks, dressed in shorts, sandals and a busy summer shirt; his wife Lysiane leans on the railing and faces the viewer with a wry expression. Their four friends sit in chairs in the center of the frame, one reading, two sketching away, lost in their own worlds. Like all of Grooms' work, it is carefully observed, capturing a relaxed summer moment, but also poking fun at the seriousness some people can't quite leave behind, which drives them to use this time not idly but for productive work.
In the interview, Grooms notes that his city and country work take on different personalities. I miss the manic energy of the city works. (I would probably be one of those busy houseguests.) Although mania wouldn't be a fitting response to the environment of his summers in Tennessee, without it his work is more ordinary. The city, New York City specifically, has been Grooms' most important muse.
The pinnacle of Groom's Tennessee work is the "Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel." The book gives it plenty of emphasis, making it a bookend to his most important earlier piece, the installation "Ruckus Manhattan." Like pop-up books, carousels are a source of instinctive delight to children. They entice you to explore the different characters and decide which one to ride and claim as your own. Grooms' carousel chortles along with fantastic creatures like Kitty Wells as a "bus-maid," the torso and head of a woman attached to the front of a tour bus. The carousel is a perfect format for Grooms because of its inherent playfulness and the way it makes the viewer part of the work.
It also provides the setting for a strong series of portraits. The combinations of figures and attributes draw out the subjects' character and qualities of the historical eventsKitty Wells' tour bus points out the work required of pioneers in country music and the excitement of traveling and performing. Again, we encounter the storyteller's craft of choosing and depicting the details that convey the most meaning.
For the last 18 months the carousel has been in storage at Riverfront Park, but it appears that resources are falling into place to make this important work accessible again. The Legislature just came up with $350,000 to retire the debt of the nonprofit corporation that funded the carousel, which will donate it to the State Museum, and Metro has appropriated the money to move it to the Bicentennial Mall. Now the State Museum has to work out the details for opening it to the public. Red Grooms has achieved a rare thing, creating a distinctive and lasting body of work that records its own time but promises to remain relevant long after, thanks to its vision of humanity. Grooms is of this place, and in the carousel he has given us the best he has.
Red Grooms will appear at Davis-Kidd Booksellers next Wednesday, June 30 at 6 p.m. to discuss and sign copies of his book. The Frist Center also has two Grooms exhibits running: drawings, models and casts for the carousel through Oct. 4, and graphic works through Sept. 5.
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