Red Grooms, Chuck Berry (1978), silkscreen with die-cut, 32″ x 26″; courtesy The National Academy
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The self-portrait by Red Grooms seen on the cover of the catalog accompanying Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work, an exhibition currently at the National Academy of Desig, exemplifies everything we like about him: his genial, aw-shucks enthusiasm, his homey, can-do gumption. Seen sharpening a pencil and sticking out his tongue, Mr. Grooms depicts himself working–or preparing to work, anyway–with all the concentration of a boy putting together a model airplane. An all-American boyishness is, in fact, Mr. Grooms’ gift. The world is his toy box, and his favorite toys are the city and pop culture–the former for its variety, the latter for its vulgarity, both for their vitality.
The work is never without good cheer, but it’s a good cheer that skitters and glances instead of builds or deepens. Over the long haul, Mr. Grooms’ breezy bumptiousness elicits not so much a dizzying engagement as a bemused tolerance–in other words, the oeuvre annoys. Only in the barely containable romance of Coney Island (1978) and (maybe) the homage to Chuck Berry does he expand upon the so-glad-to-be-here Groomsian shtick. The only time he denies his shtick is in Self-Portrait with Mickey Mouse (1976), a picture so persuasively straight-from-the-hip that one wishes this funny man were a little less funny a little more of the time.
© 2001 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 9, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.