Grooms, Charles Rogers ("Red")

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GROOMS, Charles Rogers ("Red")

(b. 2 June 1937 in Nashville, Tennessee), multimedia artist famous since the 1960s for environmental walk-in sculptures that are boldly colored and comic-book naive in style.

The older of two sons born to Charles Grooms, a highway equipment engineer, and his wife, Martha, a homemaker, Grooms was known from his youth by the nickname "Red" because of his carrot-colored hair and his preference for wearing bright red clothes. What Grooms would become famous for, beginning in the 1960s, was the creation of walk-in environments for the public. When they were children, he and his brother, Spencer, filled their backyard with an elaborately constructed toy circus so that they could live in their own Ringling Brothers environment. Grooms avidly attended movies, and Saturday afternoon cliffhanger serials especially absorbed him. During the 1940s into the 1950s, such matinee experiences included cartoons, a feature, and a weekly serial. Serial heroes such as Captain America or Dick Tracy would face dastardly villains who, in elaborate and campy plots, would almost vanquish them. In those days before television, these serials constituted the principal form of episodic entertainment, leaving audiences to wait until the next week to see how the hero escaped. Grooms was disappointed, however, in the filmed versions of his favorite comics: "I expected," he later said, "to see Dick Tracy with the same hook nose and famous profile I saw on the comic pages." His later artworks would retain the cartoonish quality of his comic-book sources, and those sources would provide the content of the later walk-in art environments.

Classmates at Nashville's Hillsboro High School, which Grooms attended from 1951 to 1955, considered him witty and fun loving, yet it was in his high school art class that he first decided to become an artist. During his senior year he enrolled in the Famous Artists Correspondence School, but he discontinued it because the correspondence school gave him low grades for his shading in illustrations. In 1955 he briefly attended Nashville's George Peabody School for Teachers and then enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1958 he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to take a summer course in painting with the painter Hans Hoffmann. Grooms, however, did not appreciate Hoffmann's abstract style and rigorous teaching methods.

Later that year, he permanently settled in New York City, where he supported himself as a dishwasher, a sandwich maker, and as the head usher at the Roxy Theater while living in various cold-water lofts in New York's Greenwich Village and Chelsea areas. During this time, Grooms attended uptown painting shows and downtown avant-garde theater. He was fascinated, in particular, by "happenings" or "painter's theater," in which a visual artist animated an environment with nonactors performing assigned tasks. In the late 1950s a group of artists—Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenberg, among others—formed a cooperative loft space called the Reuben Gallery, which became the locale for their exhibitions and happenings. In 1958 and 1959 Grooms participated as a performer and then as a director of happenings, including The Burning Building (1959), which comically evoked flames devouring a cardboard construction, with Grooms playing both a pyromaniac and a fireman. In addition to happenings, Grooms made small sculptures from cast-off materials.

In 1960–1961 Grooms lived in Europe, where he spent time studying painting and sculpture with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. A fellow student was Mimi Gross, daughter of the sculptor Chaim Gross; after they finished their course, they toured northern Italy in a horse-drawn gypsy wagon, vividly decorated by Gross. "Ruckus" was the name of the horse, and that name would be attached to Grooms's later projects when he founded the "Ruckus Construction Company." Grooms and Gross were married in 1964. Like his brother, his wife would become a part of the troupe of collaborators who assisted Grooms in his later productions.

When Grooms returned to New York in 1962, he collaborated in making films with Rudi Burckhardt and, in 1963, with George and Mike Kuchar. These animated and action films suggest the antics of his earlier happenings and exude the childlike wonder of his experiences watching Saturday matinees. Shoot the Moon (1962) celebrates the poetry and magic of Georges Melies, a very early French film director who blended sculptural design and science fiction. Later Grooms films spoof the elaborate Hollywood musicals he had enjoyed as a child.

In 1963 Grooms constructed The Banquet of Douanier Rousseau, the first of his elaborate signature art tableau environments, which he called "picot-sculptoramas," affectionate and joke-filled allusions to art history and culture. This particular piece alludes to a famous 1908 dinner by the Parisian avant-garde to honor the "primitive" artist Henri Rousseau. (Grooms himself was associated with a particularly American primitive tradition: the 9 April 1965 issue of Time nicknamed him "Grand Pop Moses," likening him to Grandma Moses with his "quaint, cozy, whimsical realism.")

Another Ruckus construction was An Installation: The City of Chicago (1967) in which an arch with caricatures of that city's notables hovers over tilted skyscrapers and the Chicago River. In 1968 this work would be the sensation of the Venice Biennale, an international art-world showcase held every two years. Later "picot-sculptoramas" comically send up a discount store, a rodeo, the Moon landing, and Manhattan. They are all walk-through environments that teem with brightly colored and sometimes mechanically animated allusions to characters, events, and places of a particular locale or event. The gaudy colors, exaggerated features, and inventive satire of his Ruckus environments are characteristic also of the hundreds of drawings, prints, and small sculptures he has produced since the 1960s.

Grooms would research a theme or a subject thoroughly. "I like to make sort of documentaries," he explained to Time in 1965. "Something you can see as it happens—what people wear and do." His observations of a theme were transformed by his art into detailed and colorful entertainments. Since the early 1960s Grooms has specialized in highly engaging and comically naive style works in all media. They are crammed with amusing detail and chaotic incident. His sprawling mixed media constructions are de-ranged comic-book environments that hark back to his original backyard circus as a child. They also anticipated and enormously influenced many emerging artists since the 1970s, who have combined Grooms's loony and boldly painted style with a more urbane sophistication. Critics associate Grooms with the pop art that transformed American commercial and pop culture into works of art in their own right. For his part, Grooms has always seen himself as both an entertainer and a comic artist. His work, even when it deals with potentially satirical or lurid material, is that of showman who creates joyous and exhilarating toys and shows for art-world adults.

An overview of Grooms's work is Carter Ratcliff, Red Grooms (1984), and a comprehensive exhibition catalogue is J. E. Stein, John Ashbery, and J. K. Cutler, Red Grooms: A Retrospective. Also see "Grand Pop Moses," Time (9 Apr. 1965).

Patrick S. Smith