Red Grooms is irresistible. His art raises a fine ruckus. "Red Grooms from the Museum's Collection," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, like each of his exhibits, is as much fun as a circus and as filling as a feast.
There are only eight works in it, but still it seems enormous. It has movie stars and New York slush, lounge lizards and taxicabs, barber poles and icebergs, Camel packs, umbrellas. There are skeletons and artists, bumblebees and saints, in its cast of hundreds. It has paintings and constructions, jokes, jolts and nostalgia. There is no such thing as a small show by Red Grooms.
Red Grooms is a natural. He is 44 years old, a Nashville-born New Yorker, part hick and part sophisticate. He is awkward and original, scholarly, prolific. In the history of art, he fits in somewhere between Disney and Picasso. Grooms can come home from a party and, before he goes to bed, sketch everyone he met there, their faces and their fantasies, their pedigrees, their futures, their clothes, their affectations. Art pours from him in torrents. His imagination seethes, his hand is never still. He makes the work we know seem bigger than it is.
He loves history and Hollywood and strange, baroque perspectives. He paints in three dimensions, he makes straight lines seem bent. Anything can set him off, a conversation overheard, the sight of snowflakes falling, a passage in a book. One big work on view here, "Maquette for Way Down East" (1978), was spurred by an account of the director, D.W. Griffith, and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, filming Lillian Gish in a howling storm in Maine in 1920. This is what Grooms read: "The blizzard never slacked . . . . Above the storm, Mr. Griffith shouted, 'Billy, move in! Get that face. Get that face! That face--get that face!' " Grooms' piece shows us everything, the great hawk-faced director with his giant megaphone, the ice floes bobbing on the waves, the hand-cranked wooden camera with its fitting of bright bronze and, of course, that face. It is made of glue and cut-out paper, and its beauty is enough to take your breath away.
In the early 1960s, Grooms and his wife, Mimi, shared a colorful and cluttered loft in mid-Manhattan. Before the wreckers came to tear his building down, Grooms reproduced his home, and everything that it contained, in miniature, by hand. His "Loft on 26th Street" (1965-66) is one of the most popular works in the museum, and it's easy to see why. Part souvenir, part doll's house, it is so full of detail that scholars could write a Grooms biography from its painted facts.
If you want to know his taste in art, look at the hundred little paintings, the post cards and the neckties tacked to the walls. This piece, like the vast and famous cities he has built--"Chicago" and "Ruckus Manhattan" (which is on view now at Burlington House in that city)--is wondrously inhabited. The loft is full of Red Grooms' friends. The man in the red beard standing by the stove is Paul Suttman, the sculptor (a work of his, a still life made of bronze, is in the collection of the Hirshhorn); the woman on the bed, studying Toulouse-Lautrec, is Paul Suttman's wife Elisse ; Carol Summers, who makes prints (one is in the Hirshhorn) is sitting at the table, puffing on his pipe; Gillian Walker, who sits next to him, is the daughter of John Walker, once director of the National Gallery of Art. Red and Mimi both are there. So is K.K. Kean, the artist. She is cranking the Victrola. Her brother, Thomas, was recently elected governor of New Jersey.
Grooms' art excludes nothing. What would it be like to go to the moon or ride in a rodeo or hang around with Rembrandt or see Picasso enter heaven? Grooms shows us in his art. His objects have a way of telling complex stories, part true and part invented, that make us laugh and gasp.
The late Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who purchased all the objects in this show, bought Grooms well and wisely. The objects here suggest Grooms' great love of cities ("Bus Stop," a thickly painted oil from 1964, shows the young Grooms in a greatcoat strolling through New York), his fondness for the movies, his memory, his wit, his mastery of materials, hot glue, metal, hand carved wood, paper, canvas, plastic. This show, like most shows by Red Grooms, is a kind of a self-portrait. One leaves this exhibition marveling again at the bigness of his spirit. No fear of fun restricts his energetic art. In an age when many artists seem to live in tiny worlds, adjusting tiny details, thinking tiny thoughts, Grooms seems a kind of giant. His show closes May 2.