Red Grooms. The art world's most highly regarded clown

BARNUM would have liked Red Grooms, and would have recognized him immediately as a kindred soul. Not because Grooms believes that a sucker is born every minute, but because he thoroughly understands his public and knows how to put on a thumping good show. He proves it in his current exhibition at the Whitney Museum here - and he does so with a bang, with several of his largest and most outrageous creations, and a number of his smaller, but no less witty and pointed pieces.

There are 55 tableaux, paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings in all. These range in time from 1958 to the present, and include such well-known room-size and slightly smaller constructions as ``City of Chicago,'' ``Night Raid on Nijo Castle,'' and portions of ``Ruckus Manhattan,'' including ``Wall Street,'' ``Woolworth Building,'' and ``The Subway.''

As everyone must know by now, Grooms's work demands a degree of viewer participation. In order to see this show in its entirety, for instance, one must walk through ``The Subway,'' filled with its grotesque parodies of real-life subway riders. And one cannot help being caught up in the excitement of ``Ruckus Rodeo'' as one picks one's way between high-riding cowgirls, bucking broncos, frenzied steer, and wildly cheering members of the rodeo audience.

Wherever one looks, something is bound to startle or amuse. It might be the fierce dragon that encircles the lower portion of ``Woolworth Building''; the fanciful baseball players attached to a large horseshoe-like structure in ``4, 6, 3''; the figures of Mayor Richard Daley and Hugh Hefner looming over Grooms's version of downtown Chicago; or ``Mr. and Mrs. Rembrandt'' all dressed up in their finest in a tableau that combines painting with actual materials, including a real palette and yards of fancy lace.

Or then again, it could be the sight of painter Edward Hopper seated in the all-night caf'e he immortalized in his ``Nighthawks''; the color lithograph of Gertrude Stein designed to be cut out and mounted; or the various self-portraits, mostly in watercolor, that Grooms did of himself over the years.

Zest and verve, at least

But whatever the subject, one thing is certain, the work itself will have been executed with zest and verve, and with little if any of the traditional niceties of drawing or color most artists accept without question.

But then, Grooms has always been something of an iconoclast, from his early days as an art student in Chicago, Provincetown (where he studied briefly with Hans Hofmann), and New York, right up to the present and his current status as the art world's most highly regarded clown.

In his case, at least, iconoclasm paid off. According to Barbara Haskell, the exhibition's curator, ``Red Grooms occupies a singular position in the history of American art: he is an artist for everyone.

``His work has captivated the art world and the public at large with its satirical blend of high art consciousness and lowbrow subject matter....

``His energy, wit, and willingness to challenge pictorial conventions have made him an important innovator: Grooms as one of the first artists in the early Sixties to move away from Abstract Expressionism and reinvest art with figurative content and vernacular imagery.

``His early use of urban subjects and advertising slogans was seminal in the development of Pop Art.''

Popularity in evidence

His great and wide-ranging popularity was very much in evidence during the show's opening reception.

Despite a severe heat wave and an air conditioning system that couldn't quite accommodate so large a crowd, almost everyone connected with art in New York showed up - many in formal attire.

The press of humanity, the heat, the noise, but most of all, the flamboyant nature of the work itself, all conspired to create a scene totally in keeping with Grooms's vision. He, at any rate, seemed happy with the event - as indeed did most of those who jostled their way through the crowd to get a glimpse of what he had produced.

Things looked very different the next morning, with only a dozen or so viewers in sight and the entire exhibition appearing oddly quiet and inert.

I wandered about, peeked into corners, windows, and doorways, examined every figure, structure, costume, architectural detail, and what have you, and came away feeling grateful that Grooms is in our midst.

At the same time, I must admit that I don't really care for most of what he's done and cannot, for the life of me, hold it in particularly high esteem. He may be the closest thing to a Bruegel or Rabelais that late 20th-century America has produced, and his may be as positive and life-enhancing a voice as any in today's art world, but the work itself strikes me as generally too forced and artificial to be included among the best or most important art produced by his generation.

One has to forgive too much, forget too much of what art is capable, to put him in the company of Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, James Turrell, Enzo Cucchi, or Anselm Kiefer.

Welcome and delightful as his work may be in many ways, its impact - at least for me - ends the minute one leaves it. It produces a moment of more or less effective entertainment, and I'm grateful for that, but I'm not always in the mood for the degree of sophomoric humor, forced wit, garish color, and blatant use of symbols I find in his large-scale - and occasionally even in his smaller - productions.

At the Whitney Museum through Oct. 18.

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