Red Grooms has had the same studio in lower Manhattan for almost 40 years, at the intersection of Tribeca and Chinatown. The main room is a big, square, skylit space, with platforms and easels on which he paints his large-scale canvases, and work tables with components of works in progress strewn across them. It’s a workshop, simple as that, where currently he’s hand-painting resin reliefs of Coney Island in its gaudy heyday. But in front of it there’s a more comfortable space perfect for sitting and talking, and a little kitchen, and displays of Grooms’s own work and work by other artists. One of these, a tiny drawing by Chris Ofili, caught our eye.
Grooms and Ofili are very different individuals, but they share a personal and stylistic empathy. Each was an outsider in the art center where he made his name: one the Tennessee boy who found himself in the maelstrom of post-Beat, pre-pop Manhattan, the other born to a Nigerian family in Manchester, England, and elevated to YBA celebrity. And they each have an instinctive interest in urban culture and how that culture is translated into all sorts of graphic shorthand. “I like what he does,” Grooms told ARTINFO. “He had these very nice little drawings of a guy with different Afros, so I bought one.”
But the drawing represents much more to Grooms than a pleasant work by a kindred spirit. When the older artist bought his Ofili at a show called “Afrobiotics” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in 1999 for the asking price of $1,000, he was also expressing solidarity with a fellow artist under attack. “I bought it when he was infamous in New York because of the elephant dung,” Grooms said, recalling when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani cut off city funding for the Brooklyn Museum in response to the “Sensation” exhibition after singling out Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1999) and its infamous balls of elephant dung. “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!” Giuliani famously railed.
For Grooms, the incident thrust Ofili into a heroic role. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is the biggest sensation since Duchamps Nude Descending A Staircase!’ And I figured I’d like to have a piece by this guy.”