Published: April 15, 2008
Few museums have had a calling card as effective as the Hudson River Museum’s. “The Bookstore,” a Westchester landmark, was a mid-1970s collaboration between Richard Koshalek, the museum’s director, Red Grooms, the artist, and John Holmes, director of exhibition installation. Designed at a time when New York City faced bankruptcy and there was precious little funding for cultural institutions, it was hoped that a saucy Grooms environment would stimulate interest and attendance.
Planned as a site-specific work within the museum’s gift shop, the sculpto-pictorama was realized as a riotous mixed-media fantasy that invited museumgoers to cross a portal and enter a world that was part Morgan Library, part second-hand bookshop. With walls of colorful books as a backdrop for the souvenirs and idiosyncratic vinyl characters staring back at the people staring at them, “The Bookstore” had a “giddy sense of reality.”
Thirty years later, in a different financial climate, with the appetite and appreciation of museums having swung 180 degrees, “The Bookstore” was reconsidered by the museum and it was ultimately decided that it no longer needed to function in dual roles. Permanent space was allocated and an exhibition was built around it.
Enter once again the artist, who, invited by Bartholomew Bland, current curator of exhibitions, to revisit the work, sized up the wear and tear sustained and said, with as much humor as truth, “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”
To turn the art-as-commerce venture into pure art, Grooms again entered into collaboration, this time with Bland and artist Tom Burkhardt. Grooms made drawings repositioning the doors for better traffic flow in “The Bookstore’s” new, dedicated space. The retail counter was replaced with an arty one. The carpeting was removed and replaced by a newly designed painted version. A maquette showed the changes in scale. There were budget considerations and time constraints. Burckhardt, under Grooms’ creative direction, executed the changes. He also supervised the reinstallation.
The process, one that was second nature to the artists, would be new and enticing to art lovers, concluded Bland.
He saw an opportunity to mount a Grooms exhibit that would allow viewers to step into the studio and see how Grooms’ ideas take shape through drawings and paintings, foam core figures and carved and painted Styrofoam models.
As Grooms tells it, “Bartholomew Bland proposed that I do this show based on the kind of things in the studio, the maquettes, stuff that is preliminary to the pieces. I showed him things in the state of where I got [with them] before [the commission] got cancelled&⁉ was sort of challenged to complete them.”
Consequently, “In The Studio,” the exhibition that runs until May 25, bursts with new art and new information about familiar pieces. It tracks Grooms’ major periods from 1961 to the present and, for the first time in the artist’s career, highlights important collaborations.
Having been trained from an early age in the techniques of watercolor, Grooms’ oeuvre began evolving while he was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. Combing the lakeshore, he was inspired by driftwood to make his first sculpture. “After that,” he said, “I got into working with found objects.” Later this became a more sophisticated process, with Grooms taking advantage of the industrial supplies marketed in the area south of SoHo where he still has his studio.
“We had plastic stores and rubber stores, metal stores and we had a lot of fabric stores,” he said. “They really influenced my work and led to working in all sorts of materials.” From 1984‸5, “The Alley,” a piece that was reconfigured for the show, is a good example. The shown portion is a 12-foot-tall backdrop of painted foam rubber on which Groom depicts Cortland Alley as it existed 20 years ago. Garbage cans, fire escapes and silent figures make for a shadowy and chaotic scene.
Originally created as a cavelike installation for an exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, the walk-in environment contained a large truck and figures. Foam, however convenient, came with conservation issues; accordingly, Grooms never returned to the medium. Interestingly, the painted foam rubber panels on which Grooms worked out the scene can also be seen.
Historically, Grooms has eluded being “labeled” by the art community. Often referred to as a Pop artist, he was outside the main thrust of the movement. Ironically, as he tells it, the roots of Pop had taken hold in America during a year and a half period when he was in Europe.
Returning in 1961, he spent the next year working with Rudy Burckhardt on a film. Shoot the Moon was a black and white movie set in the Nineteenth Century. “It was just the opposite of the hot, sexy underground film thing that was going on,” Grooms recounted. “I had to pay the price for that,” he said, as though implying that anticipating what the art-buying public wants is part of the artist’s job description.
Whether it is or not, playing to the audience is something Grooms understands well. Since childhood he has been passionate about the workings of the theater, exploring at every turn ways to make the magic real.
As an artist exploring the possibilities of different media, Grooms created “Happenings.” These were short performance pieces acted out in complex sets that the artist thought of as “living collages.” Perhaps his most famous was “Burning Building,” 1959. In Grooms’ view, this was a “cryptic romantic tale with dream figures.” The highly improvisational piece was recreated in the 1990s, and the diorama for it is among the objects in the exhibition.
A pivotal moment in Grooms’ career came in 1967, when the Alan Frumkin Gallery of Chicago commissioned an instillation. Grooms recreated the Windy City in a sculpto-pictorama that filled the gallery. To ready “City of Chicago,” which used carpentry and mechanical apparatus, Grooms took on his first assistant, Rusty Morgan. The sculpto-pictorama attracted the public’s attention, landed Grooms on the cover of influential magazines, and it went on to the Venice Biennale before being shown in the United States. It was purchased and donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.
The most obvious of the works demanding collaborations are the sculpto-pictoramas. They are also the most ephemeral. Usually mounted in pubic places and made of inexpensive, degradable materials, they tend to have limited life spans.
“Ruckus Manhattan,” a 1975 sculpto-pictorama that depicts the vibrant and disorderly commotion of Manhattan, all the way from Wall Street to 42nd Street, was made with Mimi Gross, Grooms’ first wife, and a team of 24 assistants. Filling the entire lobby floor of a building on Wall Street, “Ruckus Manhattan” was made spontaneously, without benefit of detailed plans or maquettes.
“Ruckus Taxi,” 1982, was Grooms’ first three-dimensional lithograph. This assemblage was also the basis for an enduring collaboration with master printer Bud Shark. For the assemblages, Grooms creates individual handmade pieces. Shark optimizes their placement on a sheet that he then reproduces on clear Mylar, eliminating the need to work in reverse to transfer an image to the litho plate.
Although “one-day wonders” happen, Grooms readily admits that “inspiration can take years.”
“Rocky Mountain High” was conceived in the early 1980s as a three-dimensional litho and abandoned before completion. When Bland and Grooms recently uncovered some of its parts, Grooms’ inspiration was rekindled.
“I had the hiker,” he explained, “some indication of mountains, some clouds and things like that.” It seemed the project could be pulled together in time for the show. “All the time I worked on it,” he said, “I was thinking, ‘I’m making my own myth. I’m in my own myth.’ I couldn’t really remember where I’d started or why. It became an interesting way to work. I still had enough drive to go ahead and do it, but it wasn’t necessary to think about its origins anymore.” Now a completed assemblage, “Rocky Mountain High” was, essentially, 26 years in the making.
Working large has never been a problem, but sometimes the imagination can get out of hand, such as with the unrealized Divine Sarah , a musical commissioned by the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colo. Six months into development of script and sets, with Grooms’ wife Lysiane Luong Grooms not only designing the costumes, but cast as the famous actress, the idea had to be relegated to the bin of “beautiful failures.” It was simply too complicated to bring to life. The painted cardboard and paper maquette itself is more than 5 feet wide.
A smaller and more personal collaboration with Lysiane resulted in “Mummy Garment Bag,” 1985. Painted on both sides and fabricated at Manhattan’s Fabric Workshop, the bag was used during the couple’s grand tour of Egypt. On return, the Groomses began work on a model for the Tut’s Fever Movie Palace, a portable movie theater that seats 40 at the Museum of the Moving Image. The caryatids for the project were none other than Marilyn Monroe and Orson Wells, the mixed-media maquettes of which open the exhibition.
Although Grooms portrays his subjects with affection, many patrons who might ordinarily commission portraits have difficulty standing up to the full force of Groomsian distortion. Two acrylic on board studies for “Married 63 Years,” 1979, shows why. Planned as part of a larger family group commission that would have been executed in three-dimensional vinyl, the artist suggested living with the family for a short while to gain a “Cheever moment” that would, supposedly, have delivered insight into the family dynamic. The family, however, was not sympathetic and the resulting portraits look, as one critic said, like “citizens of ‘Ruckus Manhattan’ who had managed to escape to Florida.”
Grooms had more success with “Dali Salad,” although this, too, was open to revision. A pop-up homage to Salvador Dali, inspired by both the cult of personality and the Hollywood presentation of produce, the first incarnation did not please its publisher, Brooke Alexander, though it had met with popular acclaim. Grooms took comments into consideration and revised it. Today, there are two versions and both have their collectors.
To understand the artist in retrospect brings continuity to a body of work. But to see what the artist is currently working on is to see the immediacy of the act. “Peaceable Kingdom,” another piece at the vortex of art as commerce, is a 5-foot-high maquette of painted foam core that Grooms is creating as the entrance to a theme park.
The largest maquette Grooms ever made is of a project close to his heart. “Tennessee Carousel” was made for a public space in his hometown of Nashville. In it, Grooms reproduced characters from history, some well known, others obscure, and set them spinning in time.
With clients waiting and projects in the works, one questions whether Grooms has time to create art for art’s sake. “Oh definitely,” he emphasizes, “I couldn’t make it otherwise.”
“In The Studio” is on view at the Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue, through May 25. For information, 914-963-4550 or www.hrm.org .
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