Raising a ruckus in Southern Vermont
A show celebrating major themes of influental artist Red Grooms over 60 years — his first show ever in Vermont, and his first in New England in 16 years — opens in Brattleboro this summer
By Arlene Distler
And now, under the big top, in the center ring, Red Grooms, ringmaster of the human comedy, brings you jugglers, wild animals, acrobats, clowns, and trapeze artists; whole chunks of Manhattan, assorted city characters you are sure to recognize; and, finally, artists and their strange and assorted wares, all for your viewing pleasure!
Thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is mounting a major show of the work of “environmental installation” artist Red Grooms, a major figure in American art. The show, “Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?” focuses on three veins of his work: the circus, New York City, and art about art.
Grooms, born Charles Rogers Grooms on June 7, 1937, rose to prominence during the fertile years of late 1950s, early ’60s New York, a time of great artistic and cultural experimentation. There was a restlessness among young artists, a movement away from the dominant Abstract Expressionist esthetic; a desire to be figurative, but also relevant to modern life. It was during this period the artists Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Lester Johnson, and Allan Kaprow all cut their creative teeth.
It was a time also during which the art of film entered an experimental phase that pulled the curtain back on the work of Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas, and Bruce Conner. In fact, it was while working on a film with Rudy Burckhardt and his then-wife Mimi Gross, that Grooms first glimpsed the direction he wanted his art to take.
The short film “Tappy Toes” (1968), a stop-motion animation, was the first film in a series that included “Fat Feet” (1966), a classic of the genre. Gross and Grooms made set pieces for the characters to inhabit. It was at this juncture, Grooms has said, that he “realized I wanted people to be able to walk through my art.”
Grooms was influential in “happenings,” an art form Susan Sontag called “animated collages.” She has described them as containing the “curious dualism of optimism and anarchy,” an esthetic that abides with Grooms’ artwork to the present. Distinctly, they eliminate the boundary between the artwork and its viewer.
BMAC’s Mara Williams, curator for “What’s the Ruckus?” says she had considered the show for years. Moved things along considerably was Grooms’ daughter, Saskia, who lives in Southern Vermont, and advocated for getting at least a small showing of her father’s work into her “hometown museum.” Saskia introduced her father to Williams, and the two set to work, with Grooms inviting Williams to view his archives and “pick what you want.”
And thus the show of Grooms’ work at BMAC grew from a small show to what Williams calls “the bomb.” It is Grooms’ first time showing in Vermont, and his first show anywhere in New England in 16 years.
Grooms’ work is held by New York’s Marlborough Gallery, which was generous in letting go of important pieces for this show.
Focusing on major themes in Grooms’ work, “Ruckus” spans nearly 60 years of his career, including childhood artwork that evinces his life-long preoccupation with the circus. These early pieces in particular are personal, cherished voices in Saskia’s collection.
One such work with a circus theme, which Grooms painted at 14, earned for him a gold key in a Scholastic art awards program. As BMAC hosts Scholastic awards each year, Williams says she is particularly thrilled to include this seminal, and inspiring, piece in the show.
Grooms’ lifelong love of the circus seems to have been kindled when he was a boy growing up in Nashville. The porch of his grandmother’s house sat on the route the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus took when coming into town. He recalls the thrill of running from school to his grandmother’s house, eager to sit out on the porch in time to watch wonders parade before him. The impression was indelible.
In addition to his circus pieces, Grooms is well known for “Ruckus Manhattan,” an installation featuring scenes of New York City life that invite the viewer to enter and find their way through multiple layers of meaning. This is a prime example of what Williams calls the artist’s “story-telling propensity”: “It’s not just an eye thing,” Williams says.
Credit BMAC with a coup for exhibiting Grooms’ “The Bus,” a nearly life-size recreation of a New York City bus, complete with passengers. One may actually step board it, and therein wait surprises. “The Bus,” which Marlborough Gallery first showed in 1995, is large, at 21 feet by 9 feet.
The show will also include the large elephant sculpture, “Jumbo,” made of enamel-painted aluminum.
Grooms infuses all his work with humor. It’s as though the human race were being observed by a very bemused, benign, and loving all-seeing Eye. There seems to be no judgment — the awful, the ugly, the common, the alluring — all are shown in a cacophonous mix of energy.
And while the colors, the lively drawing, the recognizable thing-ness of it will delight children, Grooms admits to “grand themes” behind the pieces that have moved adults. His daughter Saskia recounts asking her father if there was any underlying meaning to a section of Ruckus Manhattan that included unclothed people getting on and off a bus. She said she was amazed he described it as representing “the transition between heaven and hell.”
To The New York Times’ late art critic Grace Glueck, he explained, “My work is about exits and entrances.”
Grooms knew many of the scions of the art world, and he’s made a series of their portraits, starting in the early 2000s. These too will be part of “What’s the Ruckus?”
Relief sculptures, with layers that include an example of the artist’s work, reveal that Grooms is an artist intimately in touch with art’s history and its importance, and suggest he has pondered his place in it.
Some art forms and artists are important because of their place in art history. But I’m happy to see Grooms’ art as having a life quite apart from such history — as entertainment, say, and in bringing a giddiness to the soul. If one must fit him into a historical context, let’s start the conversation here: His work helped to throw wide open the whole of what may rightfully be termed “art.”
Happily, neither Grooms as an artist, nor the larger world of art-making, has settled down since he discovered he had something to say, and invited us along for the ride in the telling.