Grooms exhibit debuts at the YUAG

Red Grooms’ “Studio at the rue des Grands-Augustins,” painted between 1990 and 1996, makes visual reference to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Red Grooms’ “Studio at the rue des Grands-Augustins,” painted between 1990 and 1996, makes visual reference to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Photo by Carly Lovejoy.

Tucked away in a corner of the Yale University Art Gallery’s fourth floor is a witty foray into 20th-century art.

Organized by curator Lisa Hodermarsky, “Red Grooms: Larger Than Life” — which opened its doors last Friday — is a visually arresting mélange of color, form and the artist’s trademark humor. The exhibit features three wall-size murals and more than a dozen studies which span three decades of Nashville-born Grooms’ career. Though perhaps more often celebrated for his three-dimensional work, this single gallery exploration draws from a lesser-known segment of his portfolio. An artistic innovator with a taste for an eclectic and ever-changing range of media, Grooms has dabbled in experimental film, performance art (“Happenings”), installation and sculpture as well as painting, which forms the core of the YUAG’s exhibit.

The first of the exposition’s three “anchor” pieces is “Cedar Bar” (1986), which depicts the artist’s vision of the eponymous watering hole in its heyday, during which time it was a popular hangout among the Abstract Expressionists he so admired, Hodermarsky said. She added that Grooms’ is quite an accurate vision, down to such minutiae as the arrangement of the liquor bottles on the counter and detailing on the bar’s cash registers and stools.

In spite of this faithfulness of rendition, Grooms is able to “make the space his own,” Hodermarsky continued, incorporating many of his role models into scenarios that, while perhaps informed by reality, are in fact products of his typically satiric imagination. For instance, Grooms presents Pollock and de Kooning, well-known rivals, at each other’s throats — literally — though there is no proof that the sparring between the two actually occurred.

The second major work featured, “Studio at the rue des Grands-Augustins,” incorporates similar flights of fancy and pays homage to another of 20th-century art’s great masters, Pablo Picasso. Painted between 1990 and 1996, at the height of the genocide taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the image makes visual reference to Picasso’s Guernica, to the extent that it actually includes large chunks of the original, albeit reproduced and rearranged. In so doing, Hodermarsky said, Grooms is putting his reaction to these present-day atrocities in the context of Picasso’s powerful visual critique of the bombing of the Spanish village Guernica decades before.

The third and final of the exhibition’s kingpins is another Picasso tribute, entitled “Picasso Goes to Heaven” (1973), a tableau in which the artist’s contemporaries and forebears mingle with Renaissance-era luminaries on a backdrop of vivid vermillion, with the Cubist maestro himself, bare-chested and grinning, in the center.

“[It is very much a rendition of Grooms’] vision of what Picasso’s heaven might look like — and, in some sense, also what [his own] heaven might look like,” Hodermarsky said.

In addition to creating the three major murals that form the exhibit’s backbone, Grooms was also responsible for the painted curtains adorning the gallery’s entranceway and the decorative archway occupying one corner, themed “Paris-New York” to correspond with the paintings’ settings. These additions were designed exclusively for the exhibit, prompted in part by Hodermarsky’s belief in including artists when possible in the planning and execution of their own expositions, she said.

Hodermarsky said she hopes the exhibit will serve as a learning experience.

“Well, I hope that K-12 students — and Yale students as well — will be spurred on to reimmerse themselves in some bit of history they’ve forgotten,” Hodermarsky said.

Two spectators interviewed agreed that they found the context of Grooms’ work intriguing, if at times overwhelming.

“It’s really exciting for me to be able to see, in person, these famous works that I’ve seen reproduced so many times, whether online or in print,” Samantha Berenblum ’17 said.

The exhibit runs until March 9, 2014.

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