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The Arts

An artistic ruckus

First retrospective of Red Grooms’s work opens at BMAC

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is at 10 Vernon St., Brattleboro. For hours and other information, call 802-257-0124 or visit www.brattleboromuseum.com.

BRATTLEBORO—A new exhibit of the works of Red Grooms is the most expensive that the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) has ever mounted.

Expense does not necessarily mean quality, but this show promises to be something special.

“Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?” — a major new exhibit by the venerable Pop artist — includes rare early work and large sculptures, and is Grooms’ first exhibit in New England in 17 years – and his first-ever in Vermont.

Opening alongside the Grooms exhibit are “Dynamic Invention: American Abstract Artists at 75,” a portfolio of 48 digital prints by members of the longstanding abstract artists’ organization; “Between Dark and Night: New Pastels by Mallory Lake,” featuring lush, film noir-inspired work by the Brattleboro-based artist; and “Collective Memories of Place,” a site-specific outdoor installation by Terry Slade.

All four exhibits will remain on view through Oct. 20.

Red Grooms delivers

“Ruckus” spans the artist’s long career and features several of his signature, large-scale, interactive sculptures. The show includes some of Grooms’s largest works, including his life-sized “Hot Dog Vendor” outside the museum’s front entrance; a 10-foot-tall “Jumbo the Elephant”; and a 1995 mixed-media creation, “The Bus,” which has traveled outside New York only once before.

Accompanying these large-scale pieces are nearly 30 other pieces Grooms created between 1950 and 2012, including portraits of the artists Picasso, Renoir, Giorgio Morandi, Robert Rauschenberg, and Louise Nevelson, among others; his 1968 film “Tappy Toes”; and several early works on loan to BMAC from a private collector, their first time in public exhibition.

Red Grooms, born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1937, moved to New York City in the 1950s. There he immersed himself in the arts scene and became one of the Pop movement’s seminal artists.

According to www.rogallery.com, an established art dealer and gallery located in the New York City area, “For nearly 50 years, Grooms has combined color, vibrancy, and a generous dose of self-deprecating humor to produce art in all media that provokes and delights. He pokes fun at the icons of American politics, entertainment, the art world, while paying homage to his subjects at the same time. No artist since [French printmaker, caricaturist, painter, and sculptor] Honoré Daumier has had a greater understanding of humor or a more direct connection to his audience. In return, Grooms has earned the public’s unqualified admiration and appreciation.”

BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams said she arranged the exhibit to explore what she calls “the big three” topics found in the artist’s work: the circus, the city, and the art world.

According to Williams, Grooms was fascinated with circuses ever since he was a small child in the South. When the circus came through town, he would sneak out early from service at his Baptist church to see it parade by.

“That performative element so integral to circus runs much of his work. Looking at his art, you can see that he is still that kid who wanted to run away and join the circus. ‘Jumbo’ is just one of the pieces which honors this fascination,” Williams says.

“The city is really New York City, with all its hustle and bustle. Grooms’s famous [and humorous] ‘sculpto-pictoramas’ and experiential walk-through sculptures are indebted to this. BMAC is including the New York Transit bus, which people who come to the exhibit will get a chance actually to walk through,” Williams says.

Then there’s the art world.

“Grooms has always been intrigued by his relation to artists, and throughout his career he has made reference to the works of many other, and often quite different, kinds of artists. BMAC is highlighting the portraits of famous artists he has made from the 1950s to the present. Grooms’s very newest work will also be in our show,” Williams says.

“In recent years, his portraits have moved into a mature phase. Here he really shows his masterful craft in his sophisticated use of the color palette. These works are much more subtle and gentle than people usually think of in a Grooms [piece]. I think these portraits will change many people’s conception of him as an artist,” Williams predicts.

Williams started out envisioning the Grooms exhibit as relatively modest, “but somehow it morphed into this powerhouse show.” Williams says she was visiting Grooms’ daughter, Saskia Grooms, who lives locally with her husband and two daughters, to discuss BMAC Vermont Collects, which features works culled from the private collections of area residents.

“After I saw Saskia’s collection of her father’s art, I asked her if the museum could showcase some of them,” Williams says.

Williams thought she might round off the show with a few of Grooms’s slightly larger pieces.

Instead, Grooms gave her major pieces.

“I contacted Red and he began talking about ‘things to animate the room.’ ‘Dear,’ he would say to me in that delightful southern drawl of his, ‘you must include this and you must include that in your show.’”

“I went to New York to talk turkey with him, and as he went though my catalogues, he kept proclaiming, ‘You can have that, it’s in archive; that one is in the warehouse; that one is in my studio; I’ve been saving that one for Saskia.’

“Before long the list of things we simply had to include grew to be very large. And as [BMAC Director] Danny [Lichtenfeld] and I are graduates of Tufts University, [renowned for its veterinary college], we both agreed that we definitely had to have Jumbo.”

Although Lichtenfeld admits that “Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?” is the most expensive exhibit ever assembled by the museum, he adds, “At a certain point in the planning, it became clear that both Red and New York’s Marlborough Gallery, which represents him, were willing to help us mount a truly significant exhibit of this important artist’s work, which would not have been complete without several of the very large sculptures.”

Getting those sculptures out of storage, up to Brattleboro, and installed at the museum is a costly proposition, said Lichtenfeld.

“But it’s worth it, because people are going to love them,” he said.

Williams agrees. “This exhibit is going to blow a hole in our budget, but it is exactly the kind of thing that fulfills BMAC’s mission: to present contemporary art and ideas in ways that inspire, educate, and engage audiences of all ages. When the shipping figures came in, they were even worse than I thought. But I said to Danny, ‘We can’t get out of this show now: grandpa Red Grooms is excited to come and his grandkids are excited about seeing him.’ When Danny went to the board, they took a deep breath, but said to go ahead because this is what the museum is here to achieve.”

Although Williams said that her professional colleges “are frankly jealous that I have such a supportive board,” she is quick to add that “they got that way because I never ask for anything outrageous. I am a practical New Englander and I have a background in the theater, which teaches one the art of being frugal and how to get as much for your money as as is humanly possible. We are doing this show for a third of the price of what anyone could do elsewhere.”

Three other new exhibits running with “Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?” run the gamut from pure abstraction to film-noir-inspired pastels:

• “Dynamic Invention: American Abstract Artists at 75,” 48 digital prints, each by a different artist, created as a portfolio to mark the 75th anniversary of American Abstract Artists (AAA), an artist-run organization founded in 1936 in New York City to promote and foster understanding of abstract and non-objective art.

• “Between Dark and Night: New Pastels by Mallory Lake,” 12 masterful works created by the Brattleboro-based artist over the past 18 months. Steam trains, foggy nights, and the golden glow of monumental Beaux-Arts interiors from the great rail stations of the past.

• Terry Slade’s “Collective Memories of Place,” a site-specific installation outside the museum inspired by the museum’s history as Brattleboro’s train station. According to the artist it’s “intended to stimulate conversation about our relationship with our surroundings and the impact human existence has on the planet.”

Moreover, in the museum’s ticket gallery, Susan Calabria, BMAC’s education curator, has created an interactive exploration of color, encouraging visitors to reconsider their perception of color and its associations with language, food, and art history.

BMAC is presenting a number of related events in the coming months, including a public conversation between Grooms and artist Stephen Hannock; guided exhibit tours by Williams; screenings of the film-noir classics “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953) and “Detour” (1945); and a lecture on Pop Art by Susan Powers of the Hood Museum.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #210 (Wednesday, July 3, 2013).

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