New York

Red Grooms

New York Cultural Society

“The Ruckus World of Red Grooms” transformed the fifth floor of the New York Cultural Center into an entertaining Disney-like extravaganza. Rather than trying to compete with Edward Durrell Stone’s obtrusive wood-paneled interior, Red Grooms simply covered it with a retrospective exhibition of his large environmental constructions: The City of Chicago (1968), The Discount Store (1970), and The Astronauts (1971). Smaller constructions, selected theatrical pieces, paper movie facades, and various props used in past films were displayed in adjoining rooms.

If you happened to come out of the elevator at the right time you could catch The City of Chicago in full performance. Every ten minutes painted wooden figures mounted on a multicolored arch sprang into action to the sound of jazz musicians from Chicago’s South Side. Lincoln debated with Douglas, Capone looked over his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow once again kicked over the lantern to start the great Chicago fire. The room overflowed with an iconography drawn from Chicago’s colorful history. Mayor Daley and Hugh Hefner stroll down Michigan Avenue, as across the way bouncing commuters ride the Ravenswood “A” over the Chicago River. Everything is journalistically recorded, from the facade of the Wrigley building to cartoons of office workers on the inside of the panels. Historical accuracy is important to Grooms. The Discount Store is based on an actual store in Minneapolis; in preparation for The Astronauts Grooms and his wife, Mimi Gross, who helps him execute these large constructions, took a trip to Cape Kennedy to research the work. The project eventually snowballed, costing thousands of dollars and countless hours. After many revisions, Grooms ended up with thirteen-foot-tall astronauts—Scott and Irwin. Irwin juts off the painted wall like a stucco putto in Baroque palaces.

The art of Red Grooms has never been overwhelmingly accepted by serious collectors or prominent critics of the avant-garde.

Perhaps this owes to the fact that one avoids an investment in or commitment to an art that is intentionally made to he just funny. On the other hand, Oldenburg’s gigantic hamburgers and deflated fans, although equally humorous, are highly regarded by critical scholars, collectors, and the general art public. This public was equally delighted with Grooms’ constructions but then why is Grooms viewed as a popular artist and not a Pop artist? Perhaps there are two reasons. First, the average gallery-goer does not democratically cast his or her vote to assure an artist of success. It is the critic who assigns esthetic affiliation. Secondly, most critics are suspicious when they sense they are only being entertained. Oldenburg’s sculptures display overt satirical concerns. A toilet float on the Thames or a monumental lipstick mounted to the body of a tank sardonically comments on issues that can be applied on a more universal level, in this case political or sexual. The entertaining quality of G rooms’ sculpture overpowers whatever satirical comment he might have had in mind, if any. Grooms shouldn’t be criticized for making his work funny, but rather for making it nothing more than just funny.

Francis Naumann