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The world of Grooms: foibles, inanities, and good fun

Since I've never been able to take the work of Red Grooms particularly seriously, my stopping off to see his current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery here was little more than the fulfillment of a professional obligation. Grooms, after all, is an immensely popular and successful artist, and to have ignored a showing of his most recent work would have been gross negligence indeed.

I found the gallery full of enthusiastic viewers enjoying Grooms's warmly zany take-offs on such things as football, the Old West, the cows, of Brittany, Edward Hopper, and, most especially, the foibles and inanities of New York city architecture and life. But then I'd come to expect crowds at any Grooms show; after all, hadn't his huge environmental work "Ruckus Manhattan" drawn more than 100,000 people during its stay at this same gallery in 1976?

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I picked my way among the clusters of delighted viewers, covered the exhibition's 60 reliefs, sculptures, paintings, and drawings as quickly as possible, and headed for the exit. But something drew me back, some nagging sense that I was missing something, and that I would continue to miss something until I really gave the work a chance.

I went back into the gallery and gave myself over to Grooms's vision of the world, in particular to such highly personal reconstructions of Manhattan life as his detailed "Looking Along Broadway Towards Grace Church," "Newstand," and the totally ontarget "No. 17" -- which depicts a decrepit storefront complete with taped windowpanes and overflowing garbage cans.

I listened to what some of the viewers had to say, and questioned a few about their reactions. "They're so happy and full of life," was the response from one lady who was throughly enjoying herself in front of a Manhattan piece in which cars, buses, trucks, people, storefronts, skyscrapers, traffic signs, etc., were all tumbled together in a wild hodge-podge reconstruction of a New York street.

"But what of the vulgarity," I asked, "The raucous color, the clumsy drawing, the childish obviousness of it all? I can see that it's great fun, but is it art?"

That drew only a shrug. she obviously couldn't have cared less about whether or not it was art. It wasm great fun, and the show was taking place in a prestigious gallery --and that was good enough for her.

After a while it almost became good enough for me as well. It is easy, entering Grooms's world, to transform the problems of the "real" world into fun, and games --and without in any way feeling that we are evading reality or fantasizing it. Grooms is no escapist, no creator of pretty and charming alternate worlds to our own, but is, rather, a vulgarian (in the original sense of the word), an artist who deals with every aspect of the world around him with the utmost frankness, honesty, and great good humor.

He comes as close to being our Bruegel or Rabelais as anyone, and if he lacks (or seems to lack) the level of art of these two great masters, well, we still have to take him as he is -- for he is the type of artist who has a hard time getting prettied up or accepting society's more exquisite manners.

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One gets the impression that his art reflects every aspect of himself, and that he doesn't pre-edit which of his feelings and experiences will be transformed into a piece of sculpture, a painting, or even into a film. He is capable of being almost unforgivably gross ("Goal Posts" and "Kick Off"), but also delightfully witty ("Walking the Dogs" and "Shoot-Out"), warmly satiric ("Western Eagle"), and even utterly charming as in his 1980 "Old Houses in Quimper" and "Cows on the road in Brittany." (The lastnamed proves to my complete satisfaction that cows are, indeed, happy creatures.)

He is also capable of delicate sketches and watercolors. His watercolor "self-Portrait in Brittany" is so direct and unselfconscious that it is hard to realize how well it works.

And, of course, he must take his sly digs at fellow artists Edward Hopper and Jasper Johns. Hopper in his take-off on that artist's well-known painting "Nighthawks" (which Grooms has updated to include dirty streets, garbage cans, and Hopper himself sitting at the counter of the all-night cafe. And Johns in his portrait of him entitled "Million Dollar Flag," in which Johns is shown before his painting which was sold for that record-breaking price to the Whitney Museum a few months ago.

It all adds up to an intriguing and (if your tastes run in that direction) fun-filled show. Even so I have my reservations. For all his wonderful zest for life and frank acceptance of his fellow man, Grooms is still a bit too indiscriminating about what he puts into his pieces and how he puts them there. This exhibition at Marlborough Gallery will run through May 5. Paul Wunderlich

An artist for whom I've had considerable respect in the past is currently showing some recent oils, drawings, lithographs, and sculpture at the Staempfli Gallery here. while they indicate no loss of technical facility, they do represent a considerable erosion of judgment and what can only be called good taste.

Paul Wunderlich was responsible for some of the most extraordinary prints coming out of Germany between 1958 and the mid-1960s. They were original, innovative, and highly acidic. Since then, however, he has become increasingly slick and gimmicky, with only an occasional flash of the old Wunderlich shining through. And these most recent works, many of them landscapes, are the emptiest , trickiest, and most disappointing of any of his works I have ever seen. Through May 2.

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