THE NEW CRITERION, October 2018
On “Red Grooms: Handiwork, 1955–2018,” at Marlborough Contemporary, “Rackstraw Downes: Paintings & Drawings” at Betty Cuningham Gallery, “Graham Nickson: Cumulus, Monumental Trees and Transient Skies” at the New York Studio School, & the late Richard Timperio, gallerist at the legendary Sideshow in Williamsburg.
Funny what you remember from childhood, but I will never forget an exhibition of Red Grooms I attended when I was six. The show was called “Ruckus Manhattan.” It featured a reprise of an urban diorama that Grooms and the artist Mimi Gross had first exhibited in downtown New York City in the mid-1970s. Reworked and expanded in Grooms’s studio, “Son of Ruckus Manhattan,” as this installation sponsored by Creative Time came to be known, took over a storefront at Fifty-fourth Street and Sixth Avenue for a few months when I saw it in the winter of 1981–82. The cover charge was $2 for parents and $1 for me. I made sure to catch it as many times as I could.
Out of papier-mâché and other simple materials, Grooms had constructed an oversized subway car to look like some childhood dream. The walls and floors were warped, which seemed to simulate the precarious feeling of standing on a moving train. Grooms then filled the car with cartoonish figures, each one playing out some exaggerated urban story. To contemporary sensibilities, their wild physiognomies would undoubtedly cause offense—and, in fact, Grooms’s caricatures got him in trouble just a year later.
Step off the train, and “Ruckus Manhattan” presented bridges you could walk on and skewed riffs on city landmarks. This all led, as I remember it, to the back seat of an oversized checker cab. An old-fashioned meter, the kind with a metal handle, ticked off the fare at alarming speed. Then the animatronic driver swiveled his head, moved his arms, and gave his “Where to, Mac?” spiel.
Much art aspires to the carnivalesque. Grooms unabashedly created a carnival. If this was art, I wanted more of it. So I am somewhat surprised that my art life has not been filled with more Grooms. Like the Bermuda Triangle and the Paris-to-Dakar Rally, childhood preoccupations do not always translate into adulthood. But serious art has also moved away from its sojourn into Grooms’s style of low humor and immature enthusiasms, and that’s no fun.
The same avant-garde spirit that gave us Muppet theater and took an interest in childhood points of view also helped create Grooms. Born Charles Rogers Grooms in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937, Red earned his nickname when studying abstraction with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. He bounced around the Art Institute of Chicago and The New School for Social Research before starting to stage his own installations and “Happenings” at his Flatiron studio and alternative spaces in the East Village. Through these performances and his subsequent work, he pushed against the aging seriousness of Tenth Street abstraction.
True to style, “Red Grooms: Handiwork, 1955–2018,” an expansive hundred-work survey curated by Dan Nadel now at Marlborough, Grooms’s long-time gallery, opens with a laugh.1 A monitor by the entrance plays Grooms’s Shoot the Moon (1962), a delightful low-budget film shot by Rudy Burckhardt that pays homage to George Méliès’s 1902 landmark A Trip to the Moon.
The film helps position Grooms’s paintings and sculptures—and painted sculptures—as backdrops in a lifelong Happening, one in which we play enchanted roles. Grooms has long taken the signage of the carnival midway as his point of departure. A reverence for American folk traditions runs through his work. In the current exhibition, Grooms paints a banner to encourage visitors to step right up to the show. A Popeye-like strong man, In the Navy (2001), flexes his muscles in high relief. I love Bagels and Cream Cheese (2011) and other pseudo–street advertisements, where all sense of good taste gives way to simply tasting good. There are also slick takes on matinee idols, such as Dolores del Rio and Charles Boyer (1979), and a wide manner of painting styles. Grooms’s twelve-foot-tall painting of Dave Scott, the seventh astronaut to walk on the moon, is a tour de force.
And, oh boy. If you have a funny bone, be sure not to miss the back room of the first floor gallery. From Ruckus Manhattan, 42nd Street–Porno Bookstore (1976) is the one not-safe-for-work component of the original installation that was edited out of the more family-friendly 1981 version. Here, beyond the sculpture of some loitering leatherman, past gaudy curtains, is a reminder of the old Deuce. Grooms has painted the cover of every “magazine” in the smutty racks by giving them names as only he might. I was especially struck by “Cactus Club,” purportedly featuring things one should not do with a succulent.
Upstairs, the exhibition reveals the ultimate reason why Grooms has been so appealing. He is an exquisite draftsman. Here in works on paper, which are highlighted in the exhibition’s catalogue, we can see his great enthusiasm for city life and the many people who live it.
Rackstraw Downes is not so much a “realist” as he is a “locationist.” Beyond his remarkable technique, which seems to capture landscape in uncanny wide-angle, “fish-eye” detail, what may be most significant is what we do not see in his work: a painter sharing a personal perspective on what is often a mundane scene—of overgrown fences, air-conditioning ductwork, or dusty riverbeds. Now at Betty Cuningham Gallery, “Rackstraw Downes: Paintings & Drawings” features eleven new paintings, and related drawings, of various perspectives observed from very specific places, including an intersection near Manhattan’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and the artist’s own loft and studio.2
What unites Downes’s depictions of these anonymous places is his own particular and idiosyncratic relationship with them. There’s a lot of portraiture in these landscapes; you could never mistake one of his paintings for the work of anybody else.
Simply consider the way he constructs these scenes, which he composes on site without the aid of photography. Through several fascinating preparatory drawings on paper now at Cuningham, especially of the interchanges of the George Washington Bridge spiraling above Riverside Drive in Upper Manhattan, we can see Downes’s distillation of space through his evolving familiarity with place. The curve of the highway overpass comes into greater focus as he notes the subtle changes in appearance over time and season, which he marks with the hours and dates written in the margins. Unlike a snapshot, with its imperious single-point perspective, his compositions record the tracking of head and eye, mostly side to side, in the way we most naturally turn our heads in wide perspective rather than observing up and down.
Centered at a place of maximum visual interest, his compositions look for unifying forms that allow us to transit through complex spaces—ramps, fences, viaducts. The results may be unusual in the history of image-making. They nevertheless carry a familiarity in the shared way we experience space, newly observed from standing height.
In his selection of mundane locations—strange, again, as places to paint, but familiar as places we experience—Downes also shares an idiosyncratic sensibility towards landscape, and in particular the history of American landscape painting. Unlike the Hudson River School painters of beautified scenes, of a transcendent spiritualism conveyed through pristine depictions, Downes seeks out the quotidian in blemished and worked-over places.
The extremes of his anti-monumentalism can be absurd at times, wonderfully so, as in a series of paintings of Snug Harbor (not in this exhibition) that never look beyond the cramped ventilation ductwork snaking through an attic. Yet rather than lament the encroachment of man, Downes shows a reverence for the man-made and a fascination with its empirical intrigues. He labors over places that do things simply and without fanfare, such as the Sodium–Sulfur 4 Megawatt Battery System, Presidio, TX (2013) and the Vent Tower and Salt Shed (2017) along Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Rather than “landscapes,” he calls these “surroundings,” and his most recent work here features his most personal surrounds: his studio, recorded from multiple vantage points and tweaked through preparatory drawings; and an image of the Cuningham gallery itself, here presented as only Downes would choose to do it—from the narrow back-alley light shaft, stacked with air-conditioning condensers dripping onto a tiny weed growing by the drain.
Graham Nickson has dedicated his career to working against the grain. As a painter and watercolorist, he has sought to capture the beauty of land and sky without restraint, reveling in the gloam from points near and far. As the dean of the New York Studio School, he has challenged generations of artists to find their bliss through the craft of modern painting and sculpture. Both accomplishments are now on view in the school’s gallery in an exhibition titled “Cumulus, Monumental Trees and Transient Skies” that marks his thirtieth anniversary at the institution.3
Curated by The New Criterion’s critic Karen Wilkin and Rachel Rickert of NYSS, the show draws on the collection of the late philanthropist and New Criterion poet William Louis-Dreyfus, with forty works of clouds, trees, and skies, all clustered in series. The packed exhibition pushes Nickson’s chromatic sensibilities to the limit—at times to the point of over-amplification. The serial arrangement on one wall of fifteen watercolors of “Monumental Tree,” otherwise known as “Serena’s Tree,” presents a remarkable and united portrait of Nickson’s color range, capturing the same subject across times and seasons. A similar hang on another wall of various cloud studies fails to come together in the same way, perhaps due to the fact that the depicted locations vary.
Of course, the abundance of work speaks to the patronage of Louis-Dreyfus, a collector who quietly buoyed a generation of working artists. No gallery space could fully contain his extraordinary generosity. I hope this exhibition will encourage larger venues to try.
One could call Richard Timperio a gallerist, but such a term might signal a commercial interest, while Timperio had none. Last month, Timperio died at age seventy-one, leaving a hole in New York’s alternative art world that will never be filled in the way he came to occupy it. Since 2000, Timperio had run his gallery called Sideshow from the ground floor of his building on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His history of exhibitions predated the rise of the Williamsburg art scene and came to postdate its precipitous demise. He exhibited artists across generations, and his gallery became a home for many at pivotal moments in their careers, uniting the studio cultures of Soho and Tribeca with the East Village and the outer boroughs.
In this space I have written often about his shows, with standout exhibitions of Thornton Willis, James Little, Dana Gordon, Louise P. Sloane, Tom Evans, and Joan Thorn, among several others. His greatest impact may have been in his omnium gatherum surveys that opened every new year. Here the work of just about every artist you cared for found some square inch of space on the gallery wall. Timperio, a Color Field painter himself, gave these exhibitions outlaw names such as “At the Alamo” and “Sideshow Nation,” which suited his own cowboy style. I doubt much ever sold, but the exhibitions became communities unto themselves, and the openings were the most packed events in town. With a space that might have rented for a quarter-million dollars a year, Timperio could have cashed out long ago. We are fortunate he instead dedicated his life to dealing so many artists in.
1 “Red Grooms: Handiwork, 1955–2018,” opened at Marlborough Contemporary, New York, on September 6 and remains on view through October 27, 2018.
2 “Rackstraw Downes: Paintings & Drawings” opened at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, on September 5 and remains on view through October 14, 2018.
3 “Graham Nickson: Cumulus, Monumental Trees and Transient Skies” opened at the New York Studio School, New York, on September 4 and remains on view through October 21, 2018.