The title of Red Grooms’s installation at the Yale University Art Gallery is telling: Larger than Life. As soon as you step off the elevator and into the fourth floor, a makeshift Grooms archway complete with a hasty depiction of the modern, classic New York City life — bridge, building, Knicks, foreign taxi driver, and hipster walking his dogs— crowns your head and resets the rules of reality.
As you walk in, three gigantic artworks seem to extend beyond the walls themselves, double the height of a normal ceiling on either side of your vision, immersing you in people and colors. But it is a joyful, energetic immersion, where nothing is off limits to laugh at or laud — there was a man in his sixties next to me chuckling for a solid ten minutes at one point in the exhibit. Grooms himself is currently 76 years old, and he’s been an artist-satirist for over fifty years now. That’s a lot of time to laugh.
In the three immense wall spaces, the subjects of his drawings are stripped down to their iconic essences: 52 characters in total interacting with each other beyond the canvas. They are extremely recognizable figures, that is, if you have a working knowledge of 20th century artists — or access to Wikipedia. Regardless, Grooms counts with studies and preliminary sketches of the works that generate a map of sorts for the view. Really though, as long as you know of Picasso, there is life to be seen here in Grooms’s big-scale detail.
The largest work is “Cedar Bar” (1986), in which Grooms imagines an isolated world where celebrities of the New York art world interact over spilled drinks, smoke, heels, flats, hats, stools, subtle Stamos and Rothko intrigue, and the Cedar Bar itself. It’s all about the details. Jackson Pollock is shown in his paint-splattered shoes drunkenly wrestling — knee to the groin — Willem de Kooning, a fellow abstract impressionist. To the left of the fighting pair their wives casually smoke together while Aristodimos Kaldis casually flirts with them to no avail. At the same time, it’s the bigger picture: the five huge sheets of colored pencil-and-crayon creation that lend this work an appropriately defined setting for these “larger than life” icons. No one is particularly beautiful; caricatures dominate appearances and interactions, and only the bartender and a hidden Ad Reinhardt confronts us square on. The foreground and background’s shallow spaces pulled me in even more, physically drawing me in to see people’s faces, reminding me that the bar is not a place of emotional depth.
Turning around to admire the sheer height of the final two pieces, I almost had to sit back down and get my bearings. The cartoonish meditations on the life and death of Picasso contain double the amount of frenetic intrigue in “Cedar Bar” and half the logic. “Studio at the rue des Grands-Augustins” (1990-1996) depicts Picasso working in the studio on “Guernica,” and “Picasso Goes to Heaven” (1973) has a little more post-mortem humor. Only after a few minutes of scouring the wall, physically hopping closer and then farther from the work — much to the concern and amusement of the security guard — did I notice the atomic sign in the “light bulb” of Grooms’s interpretation of “Guernica,” an allusion to nuclear warfare. Grooms also adds impressionist cigarette smoke, a tiny globe, and hints of modernism to further beam us into his bursting world.
Drama dominates all aspects of the canvas as Grooms blurs lines blur and invades his art with Picasso’s monochrome monsters. I left the exhibit feeling privileged to have witnessed dead Picasso in red, checkered boxers giving me a thumbs-up from the afterlife, and the color and life force in Red Grooms’s exultant works.