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Prints and the evolution

photo
Dali Salad II by Red Grooms

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


Artist Red Grooms' mastery of printmaking - from simple linocuts to his provocative 3-D lithographs - is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Visiting museums as a family is always a good idea, taking into account the needs and limitations of your children, of course. If you haven't done that in awhile, consider a field trip to see "Red Grooms, Selections from the Graphic Works" opening Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts.

It's a great lesson in how art can be serious and fun. Grooms' work is entirely figurative, meaning a tree looks like a tree, and he has certainly worshipped at the altar of pop art, meaning there is plenty of cartoonish exaggeration.

But his work is neither overly literal nor caricature. He might turn his characters into "types" but they're not stereotyped; they remain people and he seems to like them all.

The riot of color and images will enchant younger kids, the social commentary underpinning the exuberance will intrigue teens. One cautionary note: There are some raunchy images, such as a series of small etchings of 19th century artists in suggestive poses. Steer youngsters around those or plan on questions.

About 130 prints are spread through four galleries and demonstrate Grooms' love and mastery of every form of printmaking. From the simple linocut he made as a student in 1956 (the image on the Weekend cover) to the complex, 3-D lithographs of the 1980s and 1990s, the artist has used the medium to observe the great carnival of life as did printmakers such as Hogarth and Daumier.

Grooms, 73, grew up in Nashville and had a happy, conventional childhood. Family and friends called him by his given name, Charles; he assumed the nickname Red in 1959 after his hair color.

He excelled in art and decided early on to pursue it as a career, encouraged by teachers and others in the Nashville arts community. He was part of the New York City arts scene in the late 1950s and 1960s, collaborating with fellow artists on Happenings and art films. He gained fame with his huge 3-D cityscapes, City of Chicago in 1968 and Ruckus Manhattan in 1975.

He never abandoned painting, but Grooms, a people-lover, gravitated to collaborative media. That affinity partially explains his attraction to printmaking, a partnership between an artist and master printer.

His prints cover a lot of thematic territory but the most compelling are his lithographs of street scenes and portraits of artists. Those done three-dimensionnally are stunning. Their pop-up-book construction, which makes them so charming, belies their complexity and sophistication, which makes them art.

Jackson in Action, Dali Salad II, De Kooning Breaks Through, South Sea Sonata (depicting Gaugin) and Picasso are loaded with wit and allusions. He builds a cubistlike bust of Pablo Picasso with paper, has Dali emerging from a mound of green with a look of surreal surprise, perches a studly Willem De Kooning on a bike with his Woman I, gives Jackson Pollock multiple arms waving dripping paint brushes over canvas, and plops Gauguin in a South Seas paradise, putting pen to paper while a nubile native looks on adoringly.

It's like going through a small diorama of the history of modern art.

His street scenes are more anonymous, although Subway, has, along with a motley assortment of fictional eccentrics, the late graffiti artist Keith Haring at work on an underground mural.

The 3-D prints will create the biggest stir, but his more traditional prints that look at urban life and everyday folks deserve study, too.

This exhibition is part of a collection belonging to Walter G. Knestrick, who met Grooms when they were 10. They took art classes together through high school, but Knestrick studied engineering instead of art and eventually became a successful contractor. When Grooms completed his first series of prints in 1971, his friend bought the entire portfolio. He now has more than 300 and the collection is both a valuable documentation of Grooms' career and a document of enduring friendship.

Their friendship even survived an incident when they were still in elementary school and both entered art in the Tennessee State Fair. '

'We still laugh today," Knestrick writes in the exhibition catalog, "remembering that I won a blue ribbon and Charles took second place."

Art Review

"Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Works" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg beginning Sunday through Jan. 5. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 adults with discounts for students and seniors. Admission on Sunday is free with donation suggested. Docent tours are scheduled regularly. For information, call (727) 896-2667 or go to www.fine-arts.org.

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