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July 1998

An interview with Red Grooms regarding his current project, the "Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel", for Nashville. This feature article was developed exclusively for the International Sculpture Center Website.

  Red Grooms: An Interview

by Ilka Scobie

Photos by Luigi Cazzaniga and Tom Burckhardt

Red Grooms, born in Nashville, Tennessee, came to New York in 1957 when he began exhibiting his art work. Since then, New York has been his home.

Best known as a sculptor for his fantastic walk through environments, Grooms is also a prolific painter, printmaker, pioneering performance artist and film maker. Developer of the sculpto-pictorama, his 1993 Grand Central Terminal Show is still remembered by thousands as a peak artistic experience. Other environments include an Agricultural Building for the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, the beloved Ruckus Manhattan (replete with subway car and Brooklyn Bridge) and a Ruckus Rodeo commissioned by The Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art. Mixed media pieces highlight portraits of contemporary and classic artists, ranging from Toulouse-Lautrec to Francis Bacon. Hollywood greats, historical figures, even Chuck Berry have been immortalized in the exuberant Grooms style. Intertwining sculpture with painting, his work transcends both traditional portraiture and caricature.
Groom's irrepressible love of humanity is a pervasive factor in his art. A constant innovator, he explores cut-outs, collage and assemblage while expanding two-dimensional forms and flattening out three-dimensional ones. He is always experimenting - from the solid bronze casting of "Lumberjack" made to look like rough hewn wood, to the mechanical fabrication of his latest piece, the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel.
Chock full of color and extravaganza, Grooms work continues to be delightfully accessible to diverse audiences. He combines a Yankee independent know-how with a European sensibility. He has been a crucial player in redefining modern art. Red Grooms' unique alchemy of genius, humor and compassion truly makes him an artist for the new millennium.

Ilka Scobie: What have you been up to?

Red Grooms: I've been working for the past three years on a full scale carousel, the "Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel", for Nashville. We're scheduled to have that put into a pavilion in August. It will be downtown in Cumberland River Riverfront Park. It's a 44-foot diameter carousel with 35 individual unique figures that represent historical and living people from Nashville

.Scobie: Any horses?

Grooms: There won't be horses that you ride on, but there's a background central decorative column of a steeplechase held every year, called the Iroquois Street Steeplechase. We will also have fourteen sculpted horseheads that will represent famous horses from Middle Tennessee. This car is called the "Tennessee Foxtrot Car".

I've been working with a company in Brooklyn called Fabricon. And Marvin Silvor, the director has been great to work with. Right now they're setting the machine up and its filling the entire factory space. My assistant Tom Burckhardt has been terrific. He's been doing all the carving directly in styrofoam blocks. I did a design and then built an inch to a foot model. We raised the funds, through our own fundraisers in Nashville, privately and corporately

How do you have such connections in Nashville?

Grooms: It's my hometown. My mother, Wilhelmina Grooms and my brothers, Roger and Spencer are living there and have their families there.

Will the Carousel stay forever?

Grooms: The City Council gave us a forty year lease on the public property. It's a parking lot, but we'll take some portion of it to put up the carousel pavilion.

What's the Carousel made of?

Grooms: The figures are sculpted in styrofoam, then cracks are filled with spackle and the whole shape is painted with foam coat which is white. Then Jorge Rodrigues, the master mold maker at Fabricon makes a rubber mold.

The procedure is the following: First a seam well is made of plastacine around half of the styrofoam figure. Vaseline is applied to the exposed half of the figure above the seam well. Then ten progressive layers of rubber are applied. each layer must cure for 24 hours. Burlap is put into the last layer of rubber. Afterwards a hard shell of fiberglass is laid on the burlap. The figure is flipped over and the process is repeated on the other side beginning with the rubber. After the proper curing time the molds are pulled off the styrofoam. Mold release is applied to the negative surface of the molds and fiberglass is poured in. Then the separate parts are bolted together. After a days curing time the positive figure can be released from the molds.

At this point Davo does clean up of the seams with grinding tools and fills holes before the completed figure is spray painted with laquer primer. I get the primed fiberglass figure back in my Manhattan studio and do a full color paint job using Rosco super-saturated latex scenic colors.

I still remember your Grand Central show. That probably reached more people then most other recent exhibitions.

Grooms: Yes! The show ran for 6 months and had an attendence of 110,00 people. Five years later people are often saying to me, "I saw your show at the train station."

Do you visualize using the new computer technologies in your work?

Grooms: I don't think I've got the abilities, although I did a cover for Parnassus magazine last year using my wife Lysiane's computer.

Which computer did you use?

Grooms: Micron. Lysiane is much more computer literate than I. In fact she's becoming a whiz. She helped me alot with the cover. We got the Micron because our accountant told us it would be great for accounting and inventory. But boy, right away it is fun to play around with the Paintbox program.


So you envision working more with computers.

Grooms: Maybe so. I don't know. I did this project for my last show at Marlboro Gallery in '95. I had always done these 3D things that you could walk through. They were always done off the seat of my pants without blueprints or course. But I always dreamed of having very concrete engineering plans, something like that. When we did "The Bus" I had several assistants who were very computer-oriented, especially one, Tzufen Liao. Tzufen and the others made this tremendous technical book that was so far advanced over anything I ever had before. I think if you showed it to anyone now they'd be frightened to death because it looks so complicated. But it was fun to get so factually correct.

If it wasn't for Lysiane, I don't think I'd ever have bought a computer. But I'd like to able to use computers more for art. For spatial things. When it comes to working in deep space I could use all the help Ican get.

Do you see yourself primarily as a sculptor or an artist of other media?

Grooms: The other media would be the paint media, I suppose. I've tried to figure that out myself but I've always mixed the two up. I think if I had to, especially as I'm getting older, I'm leaning more on my painting abilities because sculpture's been so physical to do. Yet, I'm doing the Carousel right now and it's my largest work. I have my young guys to help me.

How many guys and gals do you really have?

Grooms: When you were last here I had three: Kyle wilton, Bill Wendel and Tzufen Liao. Then Tom Burkhardt rejoined my studio. But after my '95 show I had to downsize and cut back to just Tom. Anu Schwartz has also been working here for a year and helping me in all aspects of the Carousel. I've been upstairs painting Carousel figures for two years while Tom was down in the basement carving the figures out of styrofoam.

Is Tom a sculptor?

Grooms: Actually, he is a really good sculptor but in his own work he concentrates on painting, and he's brilliant. He just had a show at Esso Gallery over on Christie Street. I'll show you the catalogue.

What is the most significant element of your work that has brought you such success.

Grooms: I think it's a sort of comic strip feel for city life. People seem to see enough of themselves and their fellow citizens to buy into it. I was lucky to have my debut show (72nd St) at Tibor de Nagy. In 1963 Pop Art was really hot. My stuff seemed close enough to Pop so collectors were interested. Then in 1968 I did my first walk through sculpture, what I later jokingly called "Sculpto Pictoramas" for the Frumkin Gallery in Chicago. I took on the city of Chicago as my subject. It was a big hit with the public because it had those comic elements in a quasi architectual scale.

What advice would you give young sculptors?

Grooms: Get as well versed with materials and tools and the various techniques as possible. Casting, fabricating, enlargement from models to large scale, fiberglass, resins. Working as sculptors assistant or for a foundry could be a good way to do this in a fairly short time. Then get a studio and get to work.

Well, one thing I always say, is take advantage and do everything you can at any age you're at. I know what I missed. You know how they always talk about "the good old days", and I always imagined the camaraderie and hanging out at bars with people. Probably to do as much of that as possible.

Did you do a lot of that?

Grooms: No, not enough.

I remember people used to say when I was in my early twenties, you're supposed to be like a humble student and take your time and slowly mature into some greatness. That's not true at all, you better just go for it at any moment, full out, I think. Go for it completely ... don't wait around for anything.

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