A rollicking, Disneyland meets Nashville, toe-tapping good time has rolled into the National Academy of Design in New York just in time for summer -- the largest-ever survey of prints by Red Grooms.
They say that if Charles Rogers "Red" Grooms didn't exist in real life, he would have been invented by Central Casting. A country boy from Nashville with bright red hair, he wanted to join the circus and create carnival acts but instead enrolled in Hans Hofmann's painting class, but dropped out because he preferred to doodle, and eventually attained his dream of becoming a world-famous artist and built a million-dollar merry-go-round (that opened last year in Nashville).
If there's a little bit of Billy Wilder in the story, that would only please Red Grooms, an unabashed movie buff who has injected his cheerful lunacy into his graphic work for the past 40 years. More than anything, Grooms is beloved as a quintessentially American artist whose works record 20th-century urban life in the tradition of Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell.
But he's also a rib-ticklin' postmodernist, with a broad art-historical repertoire of sly, self-referential comedy. In the print 2 A.M., Paris 1943, he shows Picasso painting Cubist still-lifes while a Cubist Dora Maar makes him a cup of coffee. In the three-dimensional lithograph Jackson in Action, Grooms shows Pollock with five arms busy slinging a drip painting.
A lithograph entitled Lorna Doone (1980) is an irreverent send-up of Andrew Wyeth's masterpiece Christina's World. Standing in for Christina is a punk rock girl with purple hair in a low-cut leopard skin outfit, crawling around in the grass. In Grooms' works, as often as not, the delightful visual puns overshadow the brilliance of the drawings.
Holy Hula (1991) is a three-dimensional moving print -- when the tabs are pulled (like a pop-up book) a volcano erupts while Hawaiian hula girls sway their hips, and a missionary tries to cover their bare breasts. Red recalls that the humor was a little too esoteric for the public -- "We were deep in the print recession and there apparently was no market for missionaries or even hula girls in 1991. Sad to say Holy Hula was a bomb..."
An artistic Pied Piper, Grooms has collaborated with many different publishers and printers, who were willing to follow him on his mad-cap printing adventures and engage in his esthetic practical jokes. As a result, the exhibition shows off the talents of the best printers of the past 30 years, as well as the development of numerous printing techniques. (The museum even has a handout of print terminology for beginners).
Among Grooms' collaborators are Maurice Sanchez, who produced delicate offset lithographs such as Rockefeller Center (1985), and Jennifer Melby, who etched the portfolio entitled "Nineteenth Century Artists" (1976), which features famous artists in risqué situations. Grooms explained, "I suppose I took the old line 'Come up and see my etchings' literally, presuming that there is something sexy about an etched line." Aldo Crommelynck, Picasso's famous etcher, who worked on the Grooms homage to French Bohemian life, Les Deux Maggots (1985), was stunned to see that Grooms created the complicated etching in one sitting, without using transfer drawings or preparatory sketches.
It was SoHo dealer Brooke Alexander who suggested Grooms make the first fully three-dimensional print, Gertrude, in 1975. "Red had been doing three-dimensional sculptures, and I really thought he should make a print that would be like a pop-up doll." The resulting lithograph, beautifully printed by Mauro Giuffrida, began a lifelong practice for Grooms of making three-dimensional works, and the show abounds in brilliant technical examples by numerous master printers.
The piece de resistance is Katherine, Marcel and the Bride (1998), printed by hand by Steve Anderson in 130 colors using three-dimensional silkscreens on plywood. About the piece that depicts the early American modern art patron Katherine Drier seated with Marcel Duchamp in her Connecticut home, contemplating The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1923), Grooms commented, "this is the ultimate printer's 'show off' piece, nearly five years in the making."
The most consistent printmaking presence in Grooms' oeuvre is Bud Shark of Shark Editions, who has printed continuously with the artist since their first collaboration at Anderson Ranch in Colorado in 1981, completing almost 40 editions, many of them three-dimensional. Shark acknowledges that the pieces are challenging to make, "Each edition takes a year to assemble, once they are printed. For instance, Times Square had over 100 little pieces that needed to be glued into the piece, including 20 tiny umbrellas."
All of the prints are illustrated in a lavish new catalogue raisonné entitled Red Grooms, the Graphic Work (Abrams), with an introduction by Grooms' childhood friend and collector, Walter Knestrick, and an introductory essay by the poet and art critic Vincent Katz. Organized by Susan Knowles for the Tennessee State Museum, the show is slated to travel to nine other museums around the country.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a print specialist at Artnet.com.