BRATTLEBORO—What do two successful artists talk about when they get together?
Well, before they talk about art, they gossip about other people — just like everybody else.
But when Red Grooms and Stephen Hannock met for a conversation about art on Oct. 5 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, they had an audience of more than 100 hanging on every word.
The audience was crowded with local art notables such as Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason. Jim Giddings, whom Hannock credits with being his first art teacher, was there. Sitting in the first row was local artist and scenic designer Terry Sylvester, who drew Grooms and Hannock in her sketchbook as they talked.
Sylvester said that when she first went to New York to be an artist, it was Grooms who inspired her the most. In fact, she found out where he lived and wrote a fan letter to him that she slipped under his door. He never responded, but his work and the way he works with others to create his art have had a strong impact on her work and career ever since.
At the end of the talk, she showed Grooms her sketch and he autographed it for her.
The tall, lanky, soft-spoken Grooms, now 76, was born and raised in Nashville, and hasn’t lost his Southern accent even after spending decades in New York City.
He’s also one of the most vibrant, prolific, and witty artists of the 20th and early 21st centuries. A filmmaker, sculptor, painter, printmaker, filmmaker and showman, for half a century he has been crossing pop art with primitive/outsider art in a colorful and highly original way.
His work is featured in close to 40 museums and in many private collections, and his public sculptures can be seen all over the world. In 2003, Grooms was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Design. He lives and works in downtown New York City.
Even baseball fans who have never been in a gallery or museum may know him for “Home Run Sculpture,” a spectacularly garish installation featuring flying purple marlin and pink flamingos mounted on what looks like a huge jukebox with flashing lights.
(This sits just above the scoreboard of Marlins Park in downtown Miami. A huge marlin shoots 80-odd feet into the sky every time a Miami Marlin hits a home run.)
“I don’t know if you’ll see it next year or what condition it will be in,” Grooms joked. “They’re hitting home runs off it.”
For the past few months the museum has been bursting with life thanks to Grooms, who has filled the main room with his extraordinary 3-D paintings/sculptures/installations — called, in a word coined entirely for him — “sculpto-pictoramas” (imagine one of those pop-up birthday cards on acid and you’ll have some idea) — vivid with characters and scenes of the streets of New York City.
In “Red Grooms: What’s the Ruckus?” there are perfectly depicted scenes of Chinatown so lifelike you can smell the garbage cans — including one work where, if you look closely, you’ll see Grooms’ wife cutting his hair in a crowded Chinese barber shop.
There is a nearly full-scale Metropolitan Transit Authority bus that you can walk through and have your picture taken next to two of the sculptural characters riding on the M5 route (between Washington Heights and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal).
That metal hot dog vendor outside the museum with a metal dog stealing a string of metal hot dogs? That’s a Grooms sculpture.
There’s also a side room with witty depictions of the upper echelons of the art world.
“Ruckus” has been so successful that museum director Danny Lichtenfeld said it has tripled the number of museum visitors this summer — and particularly boosted visits by young people.
“For us and the audience, we can read a perfect storm,” Lichtenfeld said. “An important artist with accessible work that appeals to all ages.”
One centerpiece of the show is an astounding, soaring scene of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, complete with hordes of well-dressed New Yorkers jammed in front — and the requisite pigeons tucked into its Gothic niches. The conversation took place in front of the piece, called “Easter Parade.”
Grooms and Hannock, who are friends, are represented by the same gallery in New York. Hannock had a show of large paintings there in 2012.
“We first met at an art gallery,” Grooms said, “The way people were talking about you I thought I should know you, but I’d never heard of you.”
Hannock, a painter known for his atmospheric landscapes –– compositions of flooded rivers, nocturnes, and large vistas –– asked him about his early life, and Grooms said he started early, in high school, being a “clown” for his friends’ music groups.
“That got me into Happenings — and gave me an interest in theater,” he said. “I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. In Nashville it’s hard for a visual artist to compete with country music. Visual artists don’t have big award shows.”
They talked about the early days of Happenings — art performance events — which Grooms created during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Grooms acknowledged that Allan Kaprow first coined the term, which he appropriated for his own work.
He called artistic competition “the gladiatorial aspect of art-making.”
Hannock mentioned a life-sized carousel that Grooms did for his hometown, complete with corrupt politicians, jazz musicians, and the chigger, that Southern horror. The piece is in storage.
“I can’t get another gig for it because it’s all about Nashville,” Grooms said. “It’s kind of a sad story — but I’m used to being in storage.”
In terms of technique, the two artists discussed the difference between working with photographs and sketches. Hannock said photographs just show you a flat surface of an outdoor scene, while the eye sees “layer after layer of land and forms and rhythms. You can never get that with photography.”
“With a photograph, you have to later reinterpret from the photo, while the drawing is already reinterpreted. And drawing is the medium you’re going to be working in, even if it’s the roughest thing.”
Fielding a question from the audience, Grooms said he is usually working on about three projects at a time. He’s always working.
“You go on vacation and ideas build up,” he said. “Your nerves are unsettled. You take a mat knife and stab yourself in your hand you’re so nervous to get going. Then hopefully one idea comes to the fore and you build on that one.”
For someone whose work is so vivid, prolific and public, it was almost startling to hear Grooms say, “I feel it’s dangerous to commit to finishing a piece at a certain time. First, there’s the natural course of life and work. And then you never feel ready to show something. In my whole career, I’ve never felt ready.”