The Art of Friendship 

Walter Knestrick compiles authoritative, personable catalogue of Red Grooms’ graphic works

Walter Knestrick compiles authoritative, personable catalogue of Red Grooms’ graphic works

Walter G. Knestrick

Red Grooms: The Graphic Work (Harry N. Abrams, $75, 320 pp.)

Knestrick and Grooms appear 6:30 p.m. July 31 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers,

4007 Hillsboro Rd.

For information, call 385-2645

Art catalogues typically follow a fairly standard formula. Most are created in conjunction with an existing exhibition. Most are compiled by museum curators or other experts, and lack personal comments from the artist whose works are featured on its pages. And most are published with the use of public money or private grants.

Most art catalogues, however, are not what Nashville contractor/engineer Walter Knestrick had in mind when he decided to document the complete graphic works of lifelong friend and renowned artist Red Grooms in Red Grooms: The Graphic Work.

“This book is basically an engineering project,” Knestrick says. “I had to track down all the graphic works, especially ones I didn’t have in my own collection.”

Since he began acquiring Grooms’ works in 1971, Knestrick has amassed the definitive Grooms print archive of woodcuts, etchings, silkscreens, and lithographs dating from 1956 to 1999. In chronicling the artist’s entire graphic oeuvre, Knestrick tracked down nearly 240 works, photographed them, and painstakingly researched each print’s history in terms of the master printers with whom Grooms worked as well as the artist’s own intent behind each piece. Only when all the documentation was complete did Knestrick seek out a publisher—or start thinking about an exhibition to go with his catalogue. “I did it backwards,” Knestrick admits with a chuckle.

The show, curated by local arts consultant Susan Knowles, includes over 100 pieces that reflect Grooms’ mastery of printmaking techniques, from etchings and woodblock prints to spray-painted stencils. Included are portraits of famous artists and other cultural icons, self-portraits, and New York street scenes. The Tennessee State Museum, which hosted a major Grooms retrospective in 1986, proved the ideal entity to organize the show, which opened at the National Academy of Design in New York July 11. The exhibition will tour the country for the next four years, stopping at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in the summerof 2004.

Still, there was the matter of getting the catalogue published. “When I got it all in a three-ring binder, I had to convince someone to publish it,” Knestrick says. That someone turned out to be Harry N. Abrams Inc., one of the top art-book publishing houses in the world. Knestrick struck a deal that called for a significant investment of his own money, but which allowed him to retain rights to a softcover version to be published at a later date. “They told me to be prepared to lose $50,000 on the book,” he admits. “But I said, ‘I’m going to figure out how to break even.’ ”

Time will tell whether the catalogue will be a financial success, but the 320-page book’s artistic merits are hard to dispute. Besides tracking down and researching the background of each print, Knestrick also wrote the delightfully conversational introduction to the book, which details his 50-plus-year friendship with Grooms and recounts his passion for collecting the artist’s print works. The book also contains a more scholarly essay about Grooms’ art by critic Vincent Katz, personal comments by both the artist and the printer on each work, and a chronology of the artist’s life complete with vintage photographs and a helpful glossary of printmaking terms. The color illustrations are superb, and the black-and-white photos of the artist and author add a welcome personal touch. From Grooms’ full-color woodcut of himself at work on the front cover to his depiction of Knestrick on the back, the catalogue is both a thoughtful look at an artist’s journey through the trends and printmaking processes of the second half of the 20th century and a lively tribute to a friendship that has endured just as long.

Knestrick and Grooms first met when Knestrick transferred from one elementary school to another in Nashville in 1947. Both boys were 10 years old (their birthdays are just days apart) and entering the fifth grade. “I remember the very moment I first saw Walter,” Grooms recalled recently in a phone interview from his vacation home near Beersheba Springs, Tenn. “We had already been in class about a month when Walter came in. He was from another school, so he was the newcomer everyone noticed.”

It turned out that the newcomer’s family lived near the Grooms home and the boys quickly found they shared an interest in sports and art. “Our houses were within bicycle distance,” remembers Knestrick. “We would play football after school, and my recollection of how we started taking art classes together is that my mother and Red’s mother made us do it.”

Regardless of what it was that got two active young boys into an art class on a Saturday morning, what they found there intrigued them enough to hold their interest throughout grammar and high school. In his book’s introduction, Knestrick gratefully acknowledges the art teachers, both public and private, who helped develop the duo’s skills. Grooms is also quick to mention by name Nashville teachers and artists Emily Colvet, Juanita Williams, Joseph Van Sickle, and Helene Connell. Soon, Grooms and Knestrick were entering statewide art competitions—and winning top prizes. “I was landing all the blue ribbons and Red was getting second place,” Knestrick notes wryly. “That’s true,” counters Grooms with a laugh. “But those were overall prizes because we never competed in the same media.”

The teenagers also made an impression on Myron King, whose Lyzon Gallery on Thompson Lane is Nashville’s oldest commercial art space. Knestrick and Grooms had a two-person show there while still in high school, and an illustration of the poster they designed for the show is included in Knestrick’s book. After graduation, Grooms left Nashville to study briefly in Chicago before moving to New York City to pursue a career as an artist. Acclaimed for his colorful, humorous views of New York life, Grooms has had shows at every major museum in the country and is one of the most widely collected artists working today.

Knestrick also had a shot at a professional art career. He was awarded a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago but turned it down to study engineering at Vanderbilt University. While he still paints impressionistic watercolors today for his own pleasure and that of friends like Grooms, he has no regrets about his career choice. “I absolutely made the right decision,” Knestrick says. “I was always too interested in doing work that the judges would like, whereas Red didn’t care a bit about that. Being an artist was just what was inside him.”

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