PHILADELPHIA — The name Red Grooms evokes the antic, flamboyant energy stereotypically associated with carrot-topped persons. It also suggests various character types from a gregarious Southern Gentleman to a baggy-pants burlesque comedian. One thing it does not suggest--at least not on the West Coast--is a veteran New York artist dripping great dollops of talent into heaving seas of accomplishment.
In the West, we have heard of Red Grooms without seeing much of his art in the living flesh. Even repeated exposure to magazine reproductions only tempts one into further error. The art always looks like the work of a very young chap enamored of the broad satirical style of old Mad comics. It utterly lacks the panache we associate with New York art, having rather the purposefully provincial scruff of Chicago.
Well so much for second-hand impressions. Through Sept. 26, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is out to set us straight in a retrospective that proves that Grooms is, among other things, mature. At 48, the artist has been in business nearly 30 years. He was born in Nashville, which is the home not only of the Grand Ole Opry but the site of the world's only full-scale replica of the Parthenon.
Precocious and impatient, Grooms was a serious artist at age 18 and ensconced in Manhattan's offbeat Chelsea district by 1958. The next year he was already pioneering performance art in a legendary piece called "The Burning Building" (fire is one of his most persistent motifs. As an artist he's a pyrotechnical pyromaniac with the sly social subversiveness of a shy arsonist.) He was the young prodigy of a generation that included Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and others who launched a respectful Populist rebellion against the waning might of Abstract Expressionism. Along with painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, they formed that hard-to-name generation between AE and the cool mannerist Pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Some call it proto-Pop but Classical Pop seems more apt. Well, now that's sorted out, how does Red Grooms' art appear?
Still looks like it's from Chicago.
The actual exhibition is overwhelming. It includes 170 artworks plus 11 films that make you feel like you are in the middle of a mass pillow fight on a downtown street. Everybody is amiably bashing each other about and laughing from tickly feathers drifting down. I don't know when I've had so much fun at an exhibition but its very Rabelaisian sweep makes it hard to describe.
One minute you are completely absorbed by the 1967 "City of Chicago," which is a little like a walk-in cartoon by Basil Wolverton made out of everything from corrugated cardboard to papier-mache and chicken wire (Grooms is a virtuoso trash picker). The scale shifts around woozily so that life-size cartoon figures of Hugh Hefner and Mayor Richard Daley striding down State Street tower over famous skyscrapers and look as big as King Kong. Once you've joined in the idea of cheerful urban chaos there is a walk-in subway car adapted from Grooms' Gargantuan project "Ruckus Manhattan." It has a wobbly floor that approximates the sway of the old transit cars. Visitors can sit right down between a Superfly black guy and a Mafioso nerd. It's like entering the titles for "Saturday Night Live."
By the time you're out of there, Grooms has you eating from his hand and he never lets up. He takes you strolling along grungy 3-D relief streets in Manhattan and Paris pointing out every pimple, bunion, silly costume and overturned trash can in sight. His style is downright scatological but it's never dirty or hostile even when he takes out after Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. The guy has a medieval sensibility that revels in the raunch of life because, well, it's lively.
There is generosity and affection in this art. It extends to Grooms' habit of giving credit to those who assist him in building large projects. (His wife, the painter Mimi Gross, is a frequent collaborator.) Grooms' art makes you like the man so much that you start worrying that he's charmed your critical mechanism into a coma. The Dobermans of intellectual rigor are alerted.
Well, look, isn't he just another one of those missed-the-boat provincial artists who happens to live in New York? University art departments from Austin , Tex ., to Urbana , Ill., are encrusted with these superannuated adolescents who never recovered from the cartoon style that made them popular in high school .
Right, but the symptom of 30 years as a self-appointed outsider is usually a kind of smug academic bitterness. Grooms' manic energy is just too upbeat to admit the normal whiny sarcasm and convoluted pretentiousness. This work feels like an authentic American Proletariat art. Blue Collar Baroque. It's so street-smart, it's almost anonymous.