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Red Grooms -- an under-celebrated great American artist

At 67, with a half century of prodigiously productive work behind him, Red Grooms is one of the United States' premier artists, yet has been neglected by the academic and critical communities. He works in almost every imaginable form, from watercolors to huge walk-through constructions. Generally, his art is joyful, bright and funny without ever being arch, exuding a sort of sweet irony. He has traveled the world and demonstrates an encyclopedic and sophisticated knowledge of art, historically and internationally. But his work is quintessentially -- and celebratorily -- American.

A substantial number of books on Grooms and his work have been published, mainly in the form of exhibition catalogs. I believe I own or at least have seen them all. None remotely approaches the depth and sweep, in reproductions of his work or in words, presented by Red Grooms, texts by Arthur C. Danto and Marco Livingstone, with an interview by Timothy Hyman (Rizzoli International, 240 pages with 250 photographs, $65).

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Grooms came from Nashville to New York in 1957 as a 20-year-old. He made "happenings" beginning in 1958 and moved on to make and act in films. That was a time of enormous excitement and growth for the arts and especially graphic arts in New York, which was fast becoming recognized as the art capital of the world. This was the era of the explosion of abstract expressionism. Pop art was emerging. In 1960, Grooms went to Italy for a year and a half.

Early on, he worked in bold, declaratively primitive brushstrokes, bright paints, with an almost-comic-book style of imagery. He did a great deal of work in mixed media: sculpture, installations, intricate use of found material. He works furiously fast and prolifically. There is much rough work, but if it were exquisitely polished or finished, that would defeat his entire stylistic and conceptual purpose, which is, among other things, to be spontaneous, immediate. When Grooms makes his huge multimedia works, he works with assistants, building images and structures at what seems a breakneck rate. He may have as many as 25 people in his crew.

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The first major one of those huge works was Ruckus Manhattan, a walk-through construction that included a full-sized mock subway car. Grooms made it in collaboration with Mimi Gross. It was first shown at the Marlboro Gallery in 1976.

Grooms has done a number of other enormous constructions, including, in 1982, Philadelphia Cornucopia, commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. It opened on June 14 and in March of 1983 moved to the Visitors' Center in the national historic shrine area that includes Independence Hall. In the autumn of 1987, it was installed in 30th Street Station.

Livingstone, whose introduction -- "seeing red: reasons to be cheerful" -- begins the book, is a curator and critic who has written a great deal on contemporary art. His essay is a concise, informative little biography, putting the artist's evolution and work in the context of their time.

The interview with Timothy Hyman, an English writer and painter, was done in 2002. It is very straightforward and open -- Grooms the person appears as a Grooms work of art. It concentrates on his early career in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was making films and "happenings" with a lot other people. He was a particular fan of Fairfield Porter. The interview works up to the origins of "Ruckus Manhattan," which was very involved.

Arthur C. Danto, art critic of The Nation and one of the most distinguished art critics writing in English, celebrates Grooms' sense of delight, of comedy. A professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, Danto is a philosopher by academic background and training, who came to write about art only after establishing those credentials.

He draws, in direct and simple terms, on major philosophers, writing in almost crystalline language -- thus even abstractions become clear. He relies on Platonic principles considerably but draws also on the broad sweep of Western philosophical culture. It has always fascinated me that many of the most articulate critics of art were not art trained, but rather come from other disciplines or backgrounds of very general education. Danto is a sort of sublime example of this.

Danto regards Ruckus Manhattan as Grooms' masterpiece. In one of the neatest distillations of purpose I can remember, Danto writes: "He did what comedy was invented to do: It glorified his audience at the expense of the subject." The subject was, of course, a New York City that was then in a state of desperation -- bankruptcy and conflict, crime and apparent decay.

Danto persuasively declares that Grooms is totally straightforward and instantly understandable. Yet, "A lot of Grooms's work is about art," he writes, "he has an immense and affectionate knowledge of art history, and he likes to use his art to make statements about its history and his own relationship to it."

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Then Danto moves wisely and confidently to a proclivity of artists in general, and at that time particularly, to take themselves "with metaphysical seriousness." In the 1970s and since, much art has been itself about the process of making art. And Danto delivers a delicious line: "It is a paradox that so much of the art today, designed to have a moral impact and intended to have a political effect, typically requires so much by way of explanation that the audience for which it is meant would hardly know what it is about without it."

In diametric contrast to those artists, Danto concludes, Grooms "belonged to a generation that believed in audience-centered art, where the artist puts himself at the service of the audience's responses, and the work is achieved through the responses it elicits."

But the point of the book is the pictures. The design is exquisitely imaginative, using overlays and interplays of works and images and outlines. The production is lavish and splendid. The reproductions in the book are superb, bright, vibrant, celebratory. If you don't know Red Grooms' work and have read this far, you most certainly should. And I know of no better way to learn it than to savor this perfectly marvelous volume.


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