Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?

June 29 - October 20, 2013

Click here for a slideshow of selected images from this exhibit.
Click here to read a preview from SO Vermont Arts & Living.
Click here to read a preview from The Brattleboro Reformer.
Click here to read a review from The Commons.

Last day to view “The Bus”  will be September 29, 2013.

Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus? explores the three themes that have preoccupied the artist from his earliest art-making endeavors—the circus, the city, and the art world. Whether we view his films, walk through his nearly life-size sculptures, or experience his “sculpto-pictoramas”—relief paintings that pulse off the wall—Grooms’s art excites and delights. Created by a man deeply engaged in living in the modern world, the work celebrates both the prosaic and the poetic, never privileging one over the other.

Red Grooms has been making a ruckus in the art world across six decades. In 1959 and 1960 he created a series of “Happenings” in Provincetown and New York City. Free-wheeling events staged by a group of aspiring young artists, the Happenings began the break from the reigning concerns of New York City’s established art world. They were a way of claiming the physicality of action painting while rejecting the view that abstraction was ultimate. A wild, anarchic mix of improvisatory performance and studio practice, Happenings presaged the social upheavals of the late ’60s and set both the art and theater worlds on their ears.

The dual threads of studio art and performance continued into the early 1970s. In Italy Grooms performed in Mimi Gross’s touring puppet show, from a cart drawn by a horse dubbed Ruckus. Returning to New York City, Grooms and Gross formed Ruckus Films, collaborating with various artists. Tappy Toes (1968), a musical extravaganza in the tradition of Busby Berkeley, combines live actors and stop-action animation. The actors move through elaborate environments executed in what became Grooms’s signature mix of precise rendering, attention to scale, and meticulous detail. The film is imbued with a Puckish sense of humor, mischievous but never malicious, that continues to mark Grooms’s work.

His fascination with performance dates back to his childhood in Nashville, when he eagerly waited for the circuses that paraded by his grandmother’s house, across from the fairgrounds. His earliest works are lively depictions of clowns, acrobats, sideshows, animals, tents, and joyful crowds. Two pieces from his school years survive and are shown in this exhibit. Grooms displayed a talent for drawing and fabricating three-dimensional set pieces, earning his artistic abilities recognition in high school with a Scholastic Art Award Gold Key.* His sets for school plays and his good natured, keenly observed skits earned him the superlative “Wittiest Fellow” at Hillsboro High School.

Years later Grooms memorialized the pachyderm star of P. T. Barnum’s circus in Jumbo and created performers of his own in The Sword Swallower and The Snake Lady. People from all walks of life go to the circus to experience extraordinary feats of strength, agility, and magic alongside animals, clowns, and funhouse mirrors. We go to witness the dazzling, the daring, and the grotesque, to eat cotton candy and experience the hurly-burly of the crowds. Grooms captures the sights and sounds of the midway, the big top, and the sideshows—and our delight in them.

What better place to view the theater (or circus) of life than New York City, with its cast of hot dog vendors, bus drivers and passengers, barbers and customers, Fifth Avenue society ladies and 42nd Street con artists? Grooms’s sculpto-pictoramas and experiential walk-through sculptures immerse us in a kaleidoscopic, whirlwind tour of the City, conducted by our wide-eyed and knowledgeable guide. The artist’s irrepressible zest for life grabs us and takes us on a ride—we get to climb aboard the M5 bus, stroll down 5th Avenue in the midst of the Easter Parade, visit the duck houses of Chinatown, and loll on the beaches of Coney Island.

The City is rife with subjects for an artist, and the art world itself is a rich one. Earlier in his career Grooms created witty reinterpretations of iconic works of art. His Unicorn Series exhibits a detailed knowledge not only of the Metropolitan Museum’s tapestries, but of contemporary art. The unicorn during the slaughter is reminiscent of the horse from Picasso’s Guernica. In early portraits of his art-world friends and luminaries Henry Moore and Robert Rauschenberg, Grooms grafts their faces to hilarious spoofs of their art.

His most recent work is a series of portraits in shallow-relief. In these subtle and elegant works, Grooms places the artist on a separate plane in front of an image of his or her work. He focuses on capturing the face and spirit of his subjects. These are portraits in the purest sense, and they are masterful. Louise Nevelson stands regally before a gold-painted relief. Grooms’s line is at once deft and bold, proving him to be a draftsman of the first order. His portrait of Joan Mitchell shows his command of paint. Mitchell’s face appears to emanate from a pool of deep blue, as if she were the spirit of one of her own paintings. Although small in scale, these are virtuosic compositions. They allow us a glimpse of the heart beating inside the exuberant showman Mr. Ruckus, who has delighted us with his derring-do for decades.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

*The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, created in 1923, are the longest running, most prestigious competition and largest source of scholarships for creative teenagers in the United States. BMAC is the Vermont Affiliate overseeing the statewide competition and hosting the exhibition and awards ceremony.

All works in this exhibit are on loan courtesy of Red and Lysiane Grooms; Saskia Grooms; Marlborough Gallery, New York City; and private collectors.