Red Grooms has always found inspiration in the circus

Guest post by Katie Brickner, Senior Editor of Scholastic Art Magazine

Red Grooms received a Scholastic Art & Writing Award in 1952, when he was a freshman in high school, for a colored pencil drawing of the circus. In October, I had the privilege of interviewing Grooms in his studio in New York City for Scholastic Art.

Red Grooms is one of those artists whose name appears in the history books. His legendary installation, Ruckus Manhattan, now packed away in storage, lives on in the hearts and memories of those who experienced it in person. Grooms called the work, which he constructed with a team of more than 20 artists, “a journey through a sculpture.” In 1976 more than 150,000 people experienced that journey. Now at 75, the art Grooms is making is on a smaller scale, but he is still working and regularly shows his art.

­­Grooms still works in the same studio he found when he moved to New York City in the 1950s. Visiting the space where Grooms conceived of Ruckus Manhattan, and other iconic works, was surreal. The walls of the outer sitting room display Groom’s personal art collection in salon style, with art of all shapes and sizes hanging from floor to ceiling. It is fascinating to see the artists who influence and inspire him. He doesn’t discriminate, collecting art by his contemporaries and young students still studying today. Grooms’ own sketches, sculptures, and paintings bring vibrancy and whimsy to the inner studio space. Also notable is the wall of bookcases filled with books from all periods in art history.

Grooms in his studio

Grooms is charming. He was shy at first, with a gentle hint of his Nashville youth peeking though. Eventually, with a few questions, Grooms became animated and was excited to share his experiences with me. The artist quickly offered that he has always been interested in show business, especially circuses and carnivals. This aesthetic is clear in his energetic and colorful art. Grooms is from a generation that valued things like traveling circuses, and the joy that accompanies such experiences has stayed with him, manifesting itself in his art.

The artist has managed to hold on to the magic of his childhood. Perhaps in defiance of the passage of time, he didn’t hesitate to explain that he doesn’t have a computer and doesn’t know how to use one. Instead, he looks to books and the people around him for inspiration. Grooms is quick to share a plethora of stories from a time when artists worked together to create Happenings, and found camaraderie in their collaborations. He mentions life-long friendships with Allan Kaprow, George Segal, and Alex Katz, all of whom join Grooms in the ranks of artists who have changed the way we think about contemporary art.

Red Grooms’ paintbrushes

When asked to discuss a specific painting or sculpture, Grooms became thoughtful, answering with care. And it is clear that this is the same care with which he approaches his art. He is currently working on a series of portraits of other artists standing in front of examples of their iconic works of art. He explains how important it is to capture each artist’s physical likeness and that of his or her work. It is abundantly clear that Grooms has no trouble with either task, and each portrait lights up with the subject’s character.

It was a joy and an honor to spend a day with Red Grooms. His work, his experiences, and his outlook are inspiring and elicit a sense of awe. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to meet him and to share this experience with you. To me, this man exemplifies how a Scholastic Award can change a life.

To read the interview, please visit: http://art.scholastic.com/issues/02_01_13/book#/8.

Photographs ©Ken Karp. Artwork: ©2012 Red Grooms/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
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