Red Grooms: father of the sculpto-pictorama

NEW YORK – Although the mane of fiery red hair that gave him his nickname as a young man has gone white over his 81 years, Red Grooms is as much a provocateur and firecracker today as he has ever been. He has spent his career distilling pop culture into his art, incorporating sports, political figures and other aspects of daily life – always with his customary dash of humor and whimsy. In nearly five decades of creating art, Grooms has effortlessly mastered a variety of artistic disciplines, from painting and sculpture to printmaking, filmmaking and theater design. He even did a stint as a performance artist in the late 1950s, mounting innovative art “happenings.”

Born Charles Rogers Grooms in Nashville in June 1937, Grooms arrived in New York City in the 1950s and embedded himself as a fixture of the art world here. He worked prolifically from his Tribeca studio, becoming irrevocably intertwined with the city as a result of works like Ruckus Manhattan, a massive 1975 walk-in installation that Grooms dubbed one of his “sculpto-pictoramas.” This work took nine months for the artist and a team of more than 20 assistants to build. It included monumental replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge, the World Trade Center and a nearly full-size rendering of a subway car.

Red Grooms, Franklin’s Reception at the Court of France, achieved $4,000 at Dane Fine Art in February 2017. Photo courtesy of Dane Fine Art and LiveAuctioneers

Grooms created several such sculpto-pictoramas – hybrids of painting and sculpture – and monumental fashion installations. City of Chicago, a 1967 work, portrayed oversize figures of Chicago’s 42nd mayor, Richard M. Daley (b. 1942-), as well as historical icons like Al Capone and Abraham Lincoln, with sounds of gunfire and burlesque music as its soundtrack.

In his native Nashville, Grooms created the 1996 work Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, which features figures of people who played key roles in the city’s history, including Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson and African-American sculptor William Edmonson. This artwork is in the Tennessee State Museum’s collection.

Red Grooms, New York City Downtown, 1966, made $12,000 at Heritage Auctions in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Some works were not without controversy, such as his 73-foot-tall home run sculpture at Florida’s Marlins Park, titled Homer, which expels mechanical flamingos and marlins into the air whenever a home run is hit. Reportedly, the city’s mayor and Marlins manager Derek Jeter are not fans of the kitschy sculpture. Grooms also encountered a backlash in Denver, Colorado, with The Shootout, which portrayed a stereotypical battle between a cowboy and an Indian. Native American protestors decried the work at its downtown debut in 1982, forcing its relocation not once but twice. The work is now on a roof at the Denver Art Museum.

From the late 1980s to the 1990s, Grooms created a series of prints and three-dimensional works titled New York Stories, depicting slice-of-life scenes of the city. One of the standouts in this series arguably had to be the nearly life-size city bus he crafted out of vinyl, aluminum, and rubber that visitors could walk through.

Red Grooms, Cowboys Eat Fruit and Vegetables, or Where’d You Park Your Horse?, 1975, earned $5,500 at Concept Art Gallery in September 2014. Photo courtesy of Concept Art Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Grooms is equally renowned for his ability to poke fun at his subjects while still paying them homage. “No artist since Honoré Daumier has had a greater understanding of humor or a more direct connection to his audience,” says an online commentary posted by RoGallery in Long Island City, New York. He uses a “self-deprecating style of humor to create art to incite and please viewers,” the gallery said.

“Charles ‘Red’ Grooms is very much a man of his time, the mid twentieth century to now,” said Jim Hoobler, Senior Curator, Art & Architecture at the Tennessee State Museum. “His art reflects that time and the people he encountered on the subway, on the streets, and in stores. His art is full of sly, and not-so-subtle humor.”

This study for Red Grooms’ Uptown Downtown, 1998, rose to $4,250 in May 2014 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Hoobler said Grooms’ oeuvre is not easy to classify, as he moves in so many directions. “He has done film, sculpture, prints, paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Some of his most interesting pieces are what he labeled sculpto-pictoramas. They are three-dimensional, sometimes even life-sized, pieces, that create a whole environment. ‘Ruckus Manhattan’ is subway cars filled with colorful characters. It is on springs and rocks as you walk through it.”

The greatest appeal of the artist’s work, Hoobler said, is easier to define. “The humor and rich graphic design are what attract you to his work. It is just plain fun,” he said.

Hoobler said Grooms’ larger constructions are among his best works. Topping LiveAuctioneers’ price-results database for the artist is the 94½ by 84½ by 24¾-inch piece, Somewhere in Beverly Hills, a 1966-1976 acrylic on plywood and Masonite creation. It achieved $20,000 in May 2018 at Heritage Auctions.

Red Grooms, Somewhere in Beverly Hills, 1966-1976, 94½ by 84½ by 24¾ inches, sold for $20,000 in May 2018 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

From artworks Grooms created several decades ago to more-recent pieces, one constant remains. The artist has an innate talent to absorb a place, interpret it and reflect it back to the viewer, espousing the unique character of city life, whether it’s in one of his clever and large-scale cityscape constructions to his more-accessible paintings.

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