New York

Red Grooms

Marlborough | Midtown

Red Grooms is one of the few artists whose work, particularly his mixed-media collaborative installations, has attracted the attention of people who don’t ordinarily look at contemporary art. City of Chicago, 1967, Ruckus Manhattan, 1975, and Ruckus Rodeo, 1975, were both events and exhibitions, the kind to which parents were glad to bring their children. Grooms took something big and domesticated it through flamboyant caricature, painstaking detail, and an unabashed affection tempered by a wild, snappy wit. Complete with a ferryboat large enough to amble through, Ruckus Manhattan was a sprawling installation where everyone saw some aspect of themselves. It was raw, democratic, expansive, polyphonic, and, above all, funny. With its broad cast of everyday comic characters, it seemed as if everyone got to make an appearance, from subway straphangers to the local pimp. As an artist who documents his surroundings, both the macrocosm and microcosm, Grooms is in a class by himself. However, when he looks at contemporary history, he has a tendency to succumb to nostalgia and consensus opinion.

The centerpiece of his recent exhibition was a five-paneled, elaborately framed drawing of the Cedar Bar, the nightly watering hole of artists and writers during the ’50s. The drawing is an homage dominated by an air of nostalgia and the feeling of something lost forever—perhaps the artist’s own youth and the sense of optimism with which he started out. Certainly, there is a sentimental poignancy to the bartender, who bears a strong resemblance to Grooms when he was a young man newly arrived on the scene. For the most part, Grooms is so respectful of his scene’s protagonists that he doesn’t transform them into characters. The drama he depicts—a typical night at the bar—is stiff and somewhat staid. The one exception is the rendering of Norman Bluhm and John Chamberlain wrestling on the floor, which electrifies the otherwise dull composition.

There was also a toylike, three-dimensional version of the bar, in which Jackson Pollock hunkers down in a booth, pouring ketchup and mustard over the table, while Philip Guston lounges nearby in his signature pink shoes. Caricature is Grooms’ forte. His art is that of the barbed yet affectionate send-up. The greatest caricaturists (Honoré Daumier and George Grosz come to mind) can transform anyone into a memorable character, while someone like David Levine, at his best, gives us only a distortion of obvious physical characteristics. The former provide new insights, while the latter ends up being merely timely. Grooms’ exhibition contained both aspects.

The rest of the exhibition was largely taken up by mixed-media portraits of the Abstract Expressionists and others who went to the Cedar Bar. The best of them are satirical or, in the case of Mark Rothko, something else again. The drawing is an aerial view of Rothko working on a painting late at night and is itself a Rothko-like composition. Grooms’ depiction of Rothko becoming subsumed by his work is neither satirical nor sentimental; there is an imaginative generosity to the compositional synthesis of multiple viewpoints and transparencies of light. When the artist depicts Adolph Gottlieb in a suit posed in front of one of his paintings, or Frank Stella as the comic-book hero Spiderman, who can stick to any surface, he’s funny and on the mark. However, in his almost straightforward renderings of Pollock, Guston, and Joan Mitchell, the work becomes sentimental.

The weaknesses of his exhibition were inadvertently summed up by the inclusion of two small, sculptural models, one of which depicts two Chinese men transporting a woman in a palanquin and the other a Chinese man eating with chopsticks, derived from ’50s mass-produced, kitsch items such as salt-and-pepper shakers. These pieces, which are dependent on consensus opinion and the dominant culture’s definitions of what’s funny, revive racist stereotypes. Grooms is only funny when he goes against consensus opinion. Otherwise, he becomes sentimental, as he does with these small objects and his portraits of Pollock and Guston. It is easy to see why so many artists use media-derived images to depict well-known people. It is a method that gives the viewer someone or something they already recognize, reaffirming them as icons. Grooms has always wanted to go further, and in a couple of the works in this exhibition he has done just that.

John Yau