The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville has organized a touring exhibition of more than 100 of Grooms' graphics and posters. It opened at the National Academy of Design in New York to run through Nov. 11, and is scheduled to close at the Fort Wayne, Ind., Art Museum in 2005.
This is one of the most compelling art exhibitions on the national art calendar, since Grooms is the quintessential American artist whose riotous celebration of the American urban scene is as poetic in its own way as the poems of Walt Whitman. His exuberant approach to traditional flat sheet graphics makes his work in this field unique.
Grooms' prints don't just hang on the wall or lie flat in a portfolio. They fold out, hunker in, pop up, and sometimes are cut out for tab insertions that make the third dimension possible.
They come at you from the wall, floating like his balloon-like portrait of Gertrude Stein in an armchair or seeming to thrust outward with the speed of a motorcycle as does his lithograph of Willem de Kooning biking through one of his ferocious "Women" paintings. His Fats Domino playing an upright piano is boxy but bursting with life.
The viewer gets the impression that these graphics have taken the place of toys for a boy who has never quite grown up even though his full head of red hair has turned to gray. Grooms says he knew as a very young boy taking art classes at a children's museum in his native Nashville that he wanted to be an artist, and by the time he was in high school he was telling friends, "If I had to cut my ear off to be a famous artist like Van Gogh, I would do it!"
He made his first print at Peabody College in Nashville in 1956, and later studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Mass., before moving to New York permanently in 1957 at the age of 20. Not only did he find the art community in Manhattan conducive to his aspirations, he loved the hurly-burly of city life that, along with irreverent portraits of other artists and celebrities, would become the subject matter of his life work.
"I equate crowds with civilization," he has explained. "And that's why New York is my home."
Grooms never shies away from the vulgarity of urban life and is more likely to revel in it, although the sexual content of his work is on a fairly innocent level. His 1978 blue, gold and tan aquatint of Coney Island, a bird's-eye view of the now almost vanished amusement park in Brooklyn, is a lyric swirl of crazy rides, outrageous sideshow attractions, and exuberant revelers that must rank as one of the outstanding American graphics of the 20th century.
It is one of his few aquatints. Grooms seemed more at home in lithography, although he used many other print methods including silk screen, etching, soft ground print, rubber stamp impressions, stencil, and wood and linoleum cuts, as well as combinations of methods. The most recent work in the show is a 1999 woodcut self portrait colored by litho pencil.
It portrays a boyish Grooms sharpening a pencil with great concentration, his tongue slightly protruding from pursed lips, seated before a table with a sketching pad. It is a pop culture portrait exemplifying the artist's tenacity, enthusiasm, and even lack of sophistication. It says more about the man than most self-portraits though lacking the philosophical overtones and complexities of a Rembrandt self-portrait.
Susan Knowles, guest curator for the show, says that Grooms has successfully bridged the gap between modernism and post-modernism in art.
"His early three-dimensional environment and bold graphic work relate directly to his participation in the Beat era performance art 'happening,' and he continues to be fascinated by the spectacle of everyday life while through his on-going homages to other artists, he remains a reverential re-inventor of the history of art," she told UPI.
Grooms' portrait gallery includes Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, Henry Moore, rock 'n roller Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Charles Chaplin, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His cityscapes cover New York from Times Square, the Guggenheim Museum, and Grand Central Terminal to the Empire State Building, the subway, and the Pierpont Morgan Library.
So prolix is the exhibition that one could wish for some judicious editing, especially of work that seems somewhat repetitious. Much of the material in the exhibit comes from the collection of Grooms' lifelong friend, Walter Knestrick, a Nashville engineer and contractor, who has collected more than 300 Grooms graphics.
Knestrick has written an introduction to a richly illustrated catalog titled "Red Grooms: The Graphic Work," with an essay on Grooms by critic Vincent Katz (Harry N. Abrams, 320 pages, $75).
The show's tour itinerary includes Chicago, Montgomery, Ala., St. Petersburg, Fla., Fargo, N.D. Dennis, Mass., Coral Gables, Fla., Huntington, N. Y., Nashville, Doylestown, Pa., and Fort Wayne.