So you step into the Manhattan subway car, ready as usual for almost anything, and what do you find this time? You find a bag lady, as expected, only she’s bigger than you and crumbly looking and wearing a huge hat. You find a big, lumpy man carrying a dog in a plaid case and looking as if he might just smack you with it if you cross him, plus an elegant-looking old lady who is manfully—it is the only word—trying to ignore a bum with his head in her lap. Moreover, every one of these weirdos is all raggedy around the edges, their heads are way too big for their bodies, their arms seem to have been flown in from a factory specializing in some other creature, and not one of them is moving! Neither is the train, although that’s no surprise.
Welcome to the IRG, or Independent Red Grooms, line. The only mugging here is on the faces of the passengers, and these grotesques in their cartoon carriage are mock-lurching through an upstairs gallery of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. The subway sounds are piped in, and the folks, made of plaster and cheesecloth, are permanent travelers awaiting stations that will never arrive.
Red Grooms, 50, is a showman specializing in derisive yet good-natured parodies of people and the human landscape, and his wild and woolly interpretations of the subway, a rodeo and the city of Chicago make an ebullient exhibit on view until Oct. 18. Watching bug-eyed grownups and kids waiting in block-long lines to mill through his show, Grooms drawls delightedly, “My, these things seem to be stirring up a ruckus.”
That’s a play on words. The now-famous 1976 Subway is part of a group of works Grooms calls Ruckus Manhattan, which includes a dangerously listing Woolworth Building topped by a sprawling dragon and the Staten Island ferry bobbing in a sea of blue parachute fabric. Grooms created it with his then wife, artist Mimi Gross, and made it with a team of 25. In Ruckus Rodeo, a cowboy is being hurled heavenward by an orange bull while a giant cowgirl in gold-striped jacket and tight fuchsia pants stands tall on her horse. “This is an engaging and joyous event,” says the show’s curator, Barbara Haskell. “Grooms brings a sense of play rare in contemporary art.”
Grooms has been kicking up his heels since he was a kid, Charles Rogers Grooms, in Nashville. Even back then he wanted to be a cartoonist, but settled for doing a clown act for a blue-grass band, prancing onstage in a tutu. “I was the fall guy who always got knocked over,” he says. He studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago, then with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Mass., and in 1957 went to New York, where he put on antic happenings in his loft (in one, he somersaulted out of a “burning” cardboard building) and gradually split off from his oil-and-canvas friends. “Painters are painters,” he says. “They love to paint. They will paint on forever. But there was a point where I chose my own direction, for better or for worse.” This summer Grooms did much the same thing in private life. He married artist Lysiane Luong, 36 (he and Mimi, who divorced in 1986 after a 10-year separation, have a daughter, Saskia, now 16).
Unlike his lowly Subway passengers, Grooms is riding high and relishing it. “I have to enjoy this,” he says, with a grin, “before the real season starts and I am washed back to oblivion.”