Few artists have worked in New York as long, as consistently, and as prolifically as Red Grooms. A native of Nashville, Grooms first came to New York in 1956 after studying briefly (and unsuccessfully) at the Art Institute of Chicago. After the move, he took classes at the New School and at Hans Hofmann’s Provincetown summer school, fell in with a post-beat crowd, helped to invent Happenings, made experimental movies, and was for a time identified as a Pop artist. He's brought his unique style—part cartoon-strip, part painterly exuberance, and all informed by an irreverent affection for street life—to paintings, prints, sculptures, constructions, and, perhaps most famously, walk-through environments (which he calls “sculpto-pictoramas”) like his 1975 masterpiece Ruckus Manhattan.
Now 70 years old, Grooms is still a laid-back, utterly self-deprecating Southerner, and a fund of wonderful stories. He spoke to ARTINFO a few days before his latest show opened last week at Marlborough New York, his dealers for 30 years.
Red, you have one of the most immediately recognizable styles of any artist I know. Your signature, “Red Grooms,” is almost a trademark.
I used to think it would be great to be like Bo Diddley. You’re not like a real person, you’re more like a comic-strip character. My name is kind of like that.
When did you first start calling yourself Red?
It was when I was a student with Mr. Hofmann. I arrived in Provincetown and got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant. I didn’t know anyone, but on the very first night I met Dominic Falcone [of Provincetown’s Sun Gallery]. He was the first person to call me Red. My name is Charles, and I’d been called Charlie, Chuck, Popsicle … never Red. But about two days later, it was my professional name.
You studied with Hofmann, but he never turned you into an abstract painter.
I tried abstraction in the ’50s. I thought it was quite sexy. I wanted to paint like Guston, like those wonderful paintings he was doing then with the vibrating image in the center, but I couldn’t figure out how he did it! I didn’t know when it was finished or even how to aim at a finish.
Instead you became what you call a “people painter.” Looking at the work in the new show, I’m reminded how often the people you portray are other artists.
Yes, it’s one of my biggest themes. My pleasure at copying other people’s work is the primary reason for me doing it. It really is fandom; I’m a fan of other artists. Somebody once said that I was trying to upgrade myself by using better artists’ work in my work. I thought, “Well it is a bit of an insult, but maybe it’s true.”
But there’s a whole tradition of artists portraying other artists. Picasso did it all the time.
Yeah he did, and very cleverly too. He did it really well because he did it in his style, which I don’t really try to do. I try to do it in their style, as best I can.
But they always come out as instantly recognizable Red Grooms pictures.
Well, I guess I do want them to be my pictures—that way I can rip somebody off and still have something of myself in there.
Where did the Red Grooms style come from?
Growing up in Nashville I didn’t have a good source of original work; there were absolutely no so-called fine artists. I wanted to be a commercial artist. That was the only alternative.
My parents got me into the Westport Famous Artists [correspondence] school for commercial art. There were 24 lessons, and I only attempted maybe five. They used to send your drawing back with corrections on tracing paper over it. They were so slick at it, but I just couldn’t do it. Even then I had that left-handed quality that is still there in my style.
Does the fact that you never met any artists when you were young partly explain why you became fascinated by them later in life?
I remember when I saw the Life magazine article about Jackson Pollock [“Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”, 1949]. I was totally swamped by it. I really liked Life magazine. They had great pictures in there, and they really seemed like they were on top of things—so if anything was in there it was really hot stuff. And I loved the idea of action painting—how it was kind of like theater. I got it right away. Also he looked great. And his lifestyle looked great.
Was that the beginning of your interest in other artists?
That’s what it was: I was very curious about other artists, about how they lived and what they were like. It’s like being an athlete—you’re inspired by other great athletes. I remember thinking that Picasso must have had a great life—without realizing how tough it is.
How do you find mixing with other artists now?
I haven’t actually known many artists closely. I haven’t been that good at keeping up relationships. I’m not the sort of person who goes to a bar and hangs out. And something like the Warhol scene, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near that.