by Nancy Cason
Red Grooms is as animated and accessible as his art. Over the crackle of the speakerphone, he greeted me with the warmth and enthusiasm of a longtime friend. Although we’ve never met, his voice, softened with a trace of familiar Southern drawl, made it easy to imagine the boyish, redheaded artist who left Nashville in 1957 to take on New York—and, in doing so, put his distinctive stamp on American art. The images spread out around me—highlights of his vast artistic output in paintings, prints, films, sculpture, and mixed-media installations—attest to fifty-plus years of groundbreaking innovation. At age 75, Red Grooms has just installed his largest work ever and shows no sign of slowing down.
Red grooms opens up about Art, Love, and Life in the Big apple
Q. I understand you celebrated a big birthday in June. Was that an occasion for looking back?
A. I’m glad to have reached this age, and actually I feel young—until I get on the subway and people jump to their feet to give me a seat! I was telling my wife that I was looking forward to speaking with you, but then all of a sudden I realized there’s a responsibility, because you’re supposed to know something when you get to this age.
Q. Well, you’ve been described as one of the most imaginative and prolific artists working today. Can you explain that driving force behind your work?
A. I guess it’s partly the life around me, really. I get my inspiration from others, from things that excite me and have ever since I was quite young. I enjoyed very much movies and all kinds of theatrical events, such as circuses and carnivals and Ice Capades. Those kinds of shows showed me a different world, a world to aspire to.
Q. And New york provided just the stage?
A. Yes, absolutely. A good half or more of my work has been about New York City. I live in Lower Manhattan, in Chinatown really, and can just go outside when I need inspiration.
Everybody feels like a star here, and they are in a certain way, because everybody makes up the dynamic of the whole city. And since the city is famous—one of the great cities in the world—that makes for a lively group here.
Right now, the new 1 World Trade Center is going up right under my nose. I can see it from my easy chair. Two weeks ago it reached the height of something like twenty-one feet higher than the Empire State Building. It’s just staggering to watch the work that the construction workers do.
Q. You also witnessed the devastation of september 11 first hand. how has that tragedy changed your life?
A. I mark time by [events that happened] before 9/11 and after 9/11. That’s basically how I keep track of the time I’ve lived here. [Silence.] Humans have an amazing ability to either forget or abstract something like that, but I end up getting quite emotional when I start talking about it. I remember at the time it happened, I was aware that I didn’t think I would see such a tremendous event during my life. I didn’t expect to ever see anything like that.
Q. You’ve been at the center of the New york art scene for many years. What’s going on now that you find exciting?
I don’t know how many galleries there are in New York . . . but when you get out and walk around, you’ll see wonderful things that will blow you away. Chelsea is still at the center of things, but there is a new art scene down on the Lower East Side, near East Broadway. There are a lot of the galleries down there showing young artists primarily.
Q. I read a New York Times article in which thomas hoving commented: “red Grooms so perfectly captures New york City in his art that at times we may forget it is art we are experiencing and not the city itself.” has your work contributed to the perception people have about New york?
A. There have been times that people have said that. But when I did work that convinced people I knew something about New York, I didn’t actually know the reaction it would have. One piece in particular, The Subway [part of his much-loved sculpto-pictorama Ruckus Manhattan, 1975], had these rather wompy, grotesque kinds of people that represented the subway riders. They actually kind of shocked people, the way I did them, and it surprised me that they got this strong reaction.
Q. Speaking of strong reactions, your largest work ever—the home run celebration sculpture for the Florida Marlins’ new stadium—just debuted and has kicked up quite a ruckus in the sports world. [With each Marlins home run, the spectacular 75-foot-high, art deco-inspired sculpture in bright tropical colors comes to life, with jumping marlins, wing-flapping flamingos, soaring gulls, rolling ocean waves, flashing lights, and geysers of water.] have you seen it in action?
A. Yes, I have. It was a close game [referring to a recent televised game between the Marlins and the Mets], and right up at the very last out, Stanton, a big hitter for the Marlins, hit a home run. The ball almost hit my piece, and the [Mets] announcer finally let out his pent-up frustration. He described my work as “that ridiculous mechanical sculpture.” But I realized . . . it’s supposed to provoke the other team. It’s only the Marlins who get the celebration.
Q. You collaborated on the design of the Marlins piece with your wife, lysiane. Can you tell us more about that?
A. It was a mom-and-pop operation entirely. Lysiane is a trained architect, and she really helped with the proportions of the piece and the internal design factors. We basically built it and conceived it through models. You know, one of the announcers at the Marlins’ ballpark called me a conceptual artist, and I thought, how did they come up with that? That’s not me at all. And then I realized that this work is completely conceptual in the sense that it was totally done by models. We also worked with an engineering team, and the mechanics and everything are great. I couldn’t possibly have done this without a big team to help. But I’m actually responsible for how it looks, you know. That’s one reason why the artist has to take all the credit— because it may go wrong. [Chuckle] You don’t want anybody else to take the heat in case that happens.
Q. You and Lysiane spend summers in tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. That must be quite a change of pace from living in the city.
A. Yes, but we really love it. We wanted to be in places that were very different but very special, each one. Both of them are kind of extreme—one with hardly any people and one with just millions of people. I really wanted to live in the country, to have a total country immersion. And you know what? I am at a complete disadvantage. You know, country people have this terrific knowledge of stuff I don’t know anything about. I can’t tell one tree from another . . . I don’t know how to grow anything . . . or even how to drive a four-wheeler. It’s actually humorous, this disparity in life knowledge.
Q. Is there any one artist who inspires you at this point in your career?
A. Well, you know, artists don’t actually retire, and that’s an inspiration. In fact, some artists have terrific late careers. I was just reading about Picasso. He lived to be almost 92, I believe. When he was in his late eighties, about the time neo-expressionism was becoming the hot thing, he really let it all hang out with his series of musketeer paintings. He definitely had the inspiration to pull off a good one when he got older. ——
Red Grooms’s work is currently on display at Cheekwood botanical Gardens and Museum of Art in the exhibit Permanent Residents: Artist’s from Cheekwood’s Collection until september 22. cheekwood.org/Art/exhibitions.aspx