The way things are in Grooms's world
Some artists paint nouns (Mondrian), others verbs (Pollock), still others produce nothing but grunts and groans. Very few fashion art complex or detailed enough to resemble sentences, let alone paragraphs or complete articles or stories.
Red Grooms is a dramatic exception. He has turned out the equivalent, not only of articles, but of novels, plays, operas, and film scripts as well. Nothing is too complicated, difficult, or obscure for him. Neither is he deterred by traditional limitations of size, technique, or subject matter. Idea and expression appear to be one and the same thing to him, and he will use whatever tools are at hand to actualize what he sees in his mind's eye. Over the years he has made good use of crayon, watercolor, oil paints, plaster, aluminum, plastics, strobe lights, bronze, and practically anything else that can somehow be used to create art. And with them he has produced everything from tiny drawings to huge canvases, from small maquettes to room-size environmental sculptures.
Probably his best-known piece is ''Ruckus Manhattan,'' a huge, three-dimensional, wonderfully wacky miniaturized version of New York's most famous borough. It is bright, colorful, reasonably accurate in its landmarks and details, and jammed to the rafters with ebullient big-city life. It has slightly askew brownstones and skyscrapers, dramatically distorted streets and stores, impossible traffic jams, and enough people, dogs, traffic lights, trucks, and buses to give anyone who's never been there a pretty good idea of what life in Manhattan is like.
Viewing this extravaganza during its first gallery showing in 1976 was something of a problem. Word had gotten out, and over 100,000 people jammed the gallery during the three weeks it showed this piece. Its popularity was such that every subsequent display of his work has drawn crowds not unlike those that attend circuses and carnivals.
Grooms's imagination spills over in every direction. His 1981 show included a delightful, mixed-media construction depicting a garishly dressed man walking two garishly sweatered dogs; a takeoff on Edward Hopper's famous painting ''Nighthawks'' updated to include dirty streets, garbage cans, and Hopper himself sitting at the counter of the all-night cafe; a colorful sculpture of a cowboy and an Indian shooting it out from behind rocks on a decrepit wagon; a freakish football game in brightly colored bronze complete with players, cheerleaders, and spectators; a richly detailed reconstruction of a busy city street; and a sly, witty watercolor of a herd of cows walking contentedly (yes, it shows on their faces) down a country road in Brittany.
But that only begins to tell the tale of that exhibition. It consisted of roughly 60 works, each of which evidenced considerable talent, imagination, and wit.
Grooms comes as close to being a contemporary Bruegel or Rabelais as anyone else - at least as far as his vitality, frankness, and expansive good humor are concerned. One gets the impression he doesn't pre-edit which of his feelings or experiences are appropriate for his art but throws in everything that strikes his fancy. He is capable at times of being almost unforgivably gross, and yet, such is his charm and honesty that we do forgive him, especially in the light of his frank appreciation of the more ridiculous and free-spirited aspects of human nature.
His recent New York exhibition was especially colorful and lively, and included several outstanding pieces. Chief among them were ''Night Raid on Nijo Castle,'' a large, carefully painted sculpture that depicts an attack upon a small Japanese castle, and ''Oscar de La Renta Meets Charles IV and Family,'' a delightful spoof of Goya's famous portrait of that Spanish king and his close relatives.
The latter is doubly wicked because Grooms has chosen to satirize a group portrait that was itself intended as a sly dig at Charles IV and his silly and pompous family. In Grooms's version, however, all pretense at intelligence or formality has been stripped away, and we are face to face with humanity at its most inane and foolish. The inclusion of a fashion model in modern dress and hairstyle doesn't help, of course. Only Grooms, glancing out at us from the left rear corner of the canvas, seems to have any idea of what is going on.
''Night Raid on Nijo Castle'' was shown in a darkened area of the gallery in order to heighten its nighttime effect, and to bring out its predominantly deep blue and fire-red colors. It is irregularly shaped, nine feet wide at its broadest point, and among the most handsome of all his things. It is also more purely decorative than any other three-dimensional piece of his I can remember. In effect, it is more Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than serious tragedy, for in doing it Grooms focused on the drama, action, color, and human comedy of the event. The more one studies it, the more obvious it becomes that it is primarily fun-and-games. Once morning arrives, the castle and all who live in it will again be alive and well - and ready for whatever new, fanciful adventures the following night will provide.
But then, that's the way things are in Grooms's world. It's not that tragedies don't occur, only that they always take second place to the passions, enthusiasms, idiosyncrasies, and fantasies of the living. In his world, everything is subordinate to life - no matter how wild and woolly it may at times be.