The artist Red Grooms in front of Josephs Bridge, one of his new works, named in honor of Joseph Stellas paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge.
If theres anyone more American than Red Grooms, youll have to show me. Mark Twain, maybe. Steve McQueen, maybe. Gil Hodges, holding the ball out for the ump to see that shoe polish. Red is also a Downtown New York American ne plus ultra, by way of Nashville, Tennessee, where Charles Rogers Grooms was born June 7, 1937, at the height of the Depression.
Every so often he ventures Uptown, either to sketch a locale, or to take in a movie or an exhibit, or to drop in on an exhibition of his own stuff like the one at which we find him at this very moment, Red Grooms: New Works in Wood, at the Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street.
The centerpiece of the show, a little more than 10 feet wide (by 71 inches high, 17 5/8 inches deep) is the depiction of a gangsters funeral in typical Red Grooms materials: Acrylics on wood, with wallpaper, Venetian blinds and light bulb, as Red explains.
We view that funeral through those Venetian blinds from a window across the street the vantage point of a handful of FBI agents equipped with field glasses and listening equipment.
The construction is titled A Death in the Family. Red turns to this reporter and asks: Who wrote that book? James Agee, hes told the Agee who, around the time Red was born, was with photographer Walker Evans sharing the lives of Alabama sharecroppers for what would turn out to be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Oh yeah, hes great, says Red Grooms. Hes from Knoxville, you know.
He nudges the reporter closer to the 10-foot gangster funeral. See? Red says. The limousines. The casket. The mourners. Then I thought I could frame it with the surveillance thing, the FBI. I always liked Jack Levines gangster paintings.
Grooms is a large man, always was, and his now white hair is in a brush cut that accentuates the solid rectangularity of his head and face rather as if hed carved it himself for an oversized toy soldier out of The Nutcracker Suite.
With a slow smile he says: I lived for 10 years, from 1965 to 1975, at the corner of Grand and Mulberry. The northwest corner, where theres an Italian deli. Saw a lot of action there. Once some mobster got shot right in front of our door. The police outlined the body in chalk. My daughter was 5. She never forgot it.
The daughter is Saskia, who now lives in Amherst, Mass., and has two daughters of her own. Saskias mother is Mimi Gross Grooms, the artist who herself the daughter of sculptor Chaim Gross was Reds first wife and worked with him on a host of things including the extraordinary breakthrough Ruckus Manhattan of 1976.
Mimi was primary partner in Ruckus, he says. Shes still right there Downtown, on White Street. Shes doing great.
There are some 30 pieces altogether in the Marlborough show. Another impressive one is Josephs Bridge, looked at from the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with cars, taxis, hikers, joggers and a big-butted bicyclist, all this in bright reds, browns, blues, yellows.
The title is a tribute to Joseph Stella. Quite a great artist, says artist Grooms. Nobodys ever going to beat his paintings of that bridge. I was thinking of doing this piece in the colors he used, but theyre peculiar dark, actually so I abandoned that idea.
Another big, buzzing, blooming piece is Canal-Walker Split, looking west on a Canal Street full of cars, trucks, taxis, past a billboard that blares TAKE A BUD BREAK.
Grooms links his fingers atop his brush cut and says: I have an 1840 print of the same scene. The exact same configuration, the exact same split [of Walker and Canal Streets] amazing.
But not the Bud sign . . .
No. I made that up.
Dyou drink beer, Red?
Yeah, I do. Especially draft. What I do like is a simple Bud in a cup at the Knicks games. Yeah, Im a fan. They pooped out this year so badly. A disaster. So right now Im in sports limbo. What to do on weekends? I wish I liked baseball more.
He thinks of something applicable:
I was actually commissioned by Charles Bronfman to do a portrait of the Montreal Expos when he owned the team, somewhere in the 1980s. Gary Carter was still their catcher. Ive done the Knicks several times. Almost did the Knicks for a New Yorker [magazine] cover. That was when Lee Lorenz, a great friend, became the New Yorkers art editor, and brought me in. I did three covers for them in all.
Right now I have a commission from Jeff Lauria [post-Bronfman Expos owner, current Florida Marlins owner] to do a sports piece for him, but not about the Marlins. I did Mike Tyson once. Went to Atlantic City to see him fight Truth Williams. Knocked Williams out in 45 seconds. I went with my sister-in-law because my wife doesnt like sports.
Reds wife and chief advisor is Lysiane Luong, a painter and sculptor in her own right. They met one summer in the South of France, have been married since 1987. She doesnt spare me [in applying an outside eye to the work]. Thats good, you know. Pause. But you really have to do what you think you have to do. Pause. Sometimes theyre wrong, you know, and sometimes theyre not.
He really does walk around town with a sketchbook.
I never was into photography, but with these new quick-snap cameras, it can be helpful. Still, the drawings are more like the language the thing is going to be in.
By language, he means the Groomsian essence the contrariness and impertinen[ce] Marco Livingstone talks about in an essay in a new Red Grooms book coming from Rizzoli in June.
Its pretty much the city makes the language, Red tells interviewer Timothy Hyman in that same book. He also tells Hyman: Thats what I deal with: the cliches. Thats why I could work with a lot of other artists as associates. Everyone knew the references.
Here in the Marlborough he says: Ive worked with a lot of people over the years a lot. Now theres only one: Tom Burckhardt. Hes wonderful. Its kind of just boiled down to him. Hes a painter himself, with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery where Grooms has a show of prints and watercolors concurrent with the Marlborough exhibit.
About seven years ago, Tom and I made a 42-foot-diameter working carousel the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel, in Nashville with 36 characters. Tom carved them and I painted them. Id be impatient with anybody not so skilled.
That whole thing about collaboration is difficult. In a way, its easy to be watered down [through collaboration]. We humans actually enjoy working together, and following somebodys leadership.
I am really not good at mechanics, says Red Grooms. I can think: If this moved, it would be fun but I dont know how to do it. He laughs out loud as he remembers Jean Tinguely, the Swiss artist-sculptor-inventor whose triumphs were avant-garde Rube Goldberg machines that destroyed themselves.
Tom Burckhardt has his own share of Swiss blood. Now going on 40, hes the son of artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette, and thereby a descendant of the eminent art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897).
Virtually the first person Red Grooms met when he got to New York circa 1958 was the artist Alex Katz (whose cardboard cutouts are reflected even to this day in Grooms pieces like A Death in the Family). I was lucky to meet Alex, and he became the catalyst, Grooms says. He thinks it was through Katz that he met Rudy Burckhardt, the self-effacing, spirited, sweet-souled artist, photographer, filmmaker, poet, everything else who affected many people, many lives, Reds among them.
Grooms is of that generation that exploded in New York in the late 1950s: Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Dine, Kaprow. With Alan Kaprow he made early Happenings, and with Rudy Burckhardt after a wonderful year in Italy with Mimi Red made a film called Shoot the Moon, a takeoff on the epic Georges Melies 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune.
Hed started as a watercolorist and collagist out of the Chicago Art Institute, and studied at the New School, here on 12th Street, and with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, but, he says, I couldnt maintain the abstract. It was just a moment that kind of opened up. I was young, hadnt settled in, was a big lover of movies. Even in Italy I made a small eight-minute film, The Unwelcome Guest, and Mimi made an amazing thing, a shadow puppet theater. A friend got us a horse, and with that horse we took that little theater and gave puppet shows at every stop all over Italy, Venice, Florence, everywhere.
His first three months in New York, Red lived at the McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street. Then I moved to 24th Street, just off Sixth Avenue, and then to two other lofts at 24th and Sixth, and then in 1959 I took a place at Delancey and Norfolk, a little building thats still there actually.
But for years now his home has been in the American Thread Building on West Broadway, while for 35 years hes had a spacious studio on Walker Street. I used to say for 30 years. The last five years kind of snuck up quickly.
Reds mother, Wilhelmina Rogers Grooms, is 96. His father, the late Gerald Grooms, was an equipment engineer with the Tennessee Highway Department. I went with him, taking inventory at every little town in Tennessee.
Nowadays, as ever, some of Reds pieces take as long as six months to make.
Sometimes they stay around quite a while. I often work on two or three at once. The gangsters funeral and the bridge were going on at the same time.
Like so many other people, he had come through the junk art period, when you went around collecting odds and ends off the street the Louise Nevelson method. She was the great master of it; they dont make them like that any more. You know, says Red, for a long time, its just a hunk of wood. It doesnt look much like anything.
I swear, Ive been doing this for 50 years, and I never spent one day when it looked like I was getting anywhere.
Look again, Red. Just look all around you.
RED GROOMS: New Works in Wood. Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, 212-541-4900, through June 5.