Red Grooms Constructs His Gleeful Cityscapes With Skewed Charm

In an interview, the artist talks career, travel, and enjoyment of urban life

A dragon with bulging eyes and scales of nickels and dimes ogles viewers from its perch atop a 19-foot-high Woolworth Building. Standing nearby are a 30-foot World Trade Center, a 37-foot-long subway car with life-size passengers, and a Statue of Liberty in red platform shoes. The structures are part of the miniature Manhattan that multimedia artist Red Grooms has been creating in stages since the 1970s.

Last year, an eight-month exhibit of Mr. Grooms's cartoonlike sculptures of lower Manhattan inaugurated the newly restored Beaux Arts waiting room of Grand Central Station. Grooms's giant walk-through installation packed the 12,000-square-foot space. Now advancing his three-decade project to midtown, Grooms is preparing his versions of Fifth Avenue landmarks for a November 1995 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.

Grooms creates fun-house microworlds that combine benign, keenly observed social satire with the old-fashioned entertainment of a circus midway, puppet theater, and penny arcade. His constructions burst with the energy and magic of city life.

His shows break attendance records whether at Grand Central Station or at major galleries and museums throughout the world. In New York, the city that has been a lifelong subject, his work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and in two retrospectives at the Whitney Museum.

When he is not building large-scale projects, Grooms travels and paints with his wife, the artist Lysiane Luong Grooms. In March, the Cheekwood Museum in Nash- ville will exhibit a large survey of his watercolors. ``It will [show] 10 years of holidays, friends, and intimate scenes,'' Grooms says. He will also travel to Berlin in March, where his 37-foot subway car will be displayed.

Grooms keeps his studio in a semi-industrial block of TriBeCa that is as teeming with ethnic variety as the street scenes in his sprawling creations. A tall genial man, he relaxes on an old sofa and speaks in a rapid, soft-voiced ramble of a career that has skirted the cool formality of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism.

A football player from Tennessee

``My bent has been toward life, [toward] people,'' he says.

Grooms grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in Nashville. ``I was proud of Nashville being a big city,'' he recalls. ``I wanted it to be more so.'' He visited New York on a 4-H trip when he was 14, and after stints at a teachers' college in Nashville and the Art Institute of Chicago, he returned to stay. ``I lived in a small room at the `Y' for three months and drew. It was a terrific time to be in New York, an important moment in art.''

In 1960, while Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock exhibited uptown, Grooms had his first solo exhibit downtown. The former high-school football player donned whiteface and created some of the first ``happenings'' with friends including Claes Oldenburg, Judson Church, and Jim Dine. ``In a year and a half they went full blast,'' Grooms says of the group, which became the vanguard of pop Art.

Meanwhile, Grooms traveled to Europe and the Near East. ``I thought it was what artists are supposed to do,'' he says of his first year overseas. ``I was 22. It was wild. A romantic, lyrical adventure.'' He and friends toured Lombardia, Italy, by horse-drawn gypsy carriage.

When he returned, Grooms and Rudy Burckhardt, a filmmaker and painter, made a 16-mm film, ``Shoot the Moon,'' in homage to Georges Melies and his 1902 animation piece, ``Voyage to the Moon.''

``Georges Melies was the first great theatrical filmmaker,'' Grooms says. ``He was a magician.'' In 1967, Grooms debuted his first walk-through cityscape, ``City of Chicago,'' a collaborative project with his first wife, the artist Mimi Gross, and the Ruckus Construction Company. A decade later, in 1976, Grooms and his group filled the entire Marlborough Gallery with his first major New York City ``sculpto-pictorama'': ``Ruckus Manhattan.'' More than 100,000 people strolled through the intricate maze of structures, gazing down at the Lilliputian scenes of lower Manhattan from Wall Street to Chelsea. Twenty years later, far larger crowds looked up at the 20-to-30-foot tall sculptures of the 1993 ``Red Grooms at Grand Central'' exhibit.

Grooms jams his room-filling panoramas and three-dimensional wall reliefs with jokes and references to historic, mythic, and pop icons. He researches with care, drawing details from books as well as live, on-the-scene recording. He and his team strive to capture the pulse and spontaneity of a place. ``It is woefully difficult to get information when so much is happening,'' Grooms explains. ``We draw, scribble, and take pictures.''

Moby Dick in the library

During a campaign to boost reading, Grooms installed his figures of Herman Melville and the entire Pequod crew in the New York Public Library reading room, where Melville wrote part of ``Moby Dick.'' The exhibit included a tiny Pequod bobbing on a puddle-sized ocean.

Grooms created a human-scale environment for the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. His ``Tut's Fever Movie Place'' is a cozy pharaoh's chamber that cocoons visitors in the magic of movies. A yellow mural coats the small screening room's walls, ceiling, and seats. Its frieze displays a pantheon of Hollywood stars cast as Egyptian deities. Walt Disney waves from a chariot named ``Walt's Express.'' By the entry, a vintage hand-cranked movie viewer shows Melis ``Voyage to the Moon.''

Back in his studio, Grooms displays a foot-high model of the full-size working carousel he has proposed for the revived riverfront area of Nashville. He plans to adorn the merry-go-round with such Tennessee originals as Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Minnie Pearl, and Goo Goo Clusters candy bars.

Meanwhile, the sculpto-pictorama of New York City inches uptown. ``The conquest of Manhattan continues,'' Grooms says. ``I started in '75 with the ambition to do the whole island. The '95 show will feature the landmark buildings characteristic of Fifth Avenue: the exterior and interior of Saks, a view to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the Flatiron Building, Tiffany's, the Easter Parade.''

Grooms describes the glamour of St. Patrick's Cathedral and the allure of Fifth Avenue. ``It is a vast boulevard - teeming. It inspires awe, even now.''

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