Over the past month, a half-dozen ultra-cleaners from our Collections department have been at work dusting and vacuuming objects on open mounts in the Museum’s quiet galleries, preparing for our public reopening on September 12. Red Grooms’ 2002 artwork The Shield, displayed in the crossroads of the Education Center at bedrock, has been among the recipients of this anticipatory housekeeping.
Less a wall-hung sculptural relief than a three-dimensional comic strip, the piece—at least upon initial encounter—may seem unexpected as a sympathetic response to the 9/11 terror attacks. It is not somber, elegiac, or consoling in purpose. Indeed, its bold colors and jumble of cartoon-like characters appear almost carnivalesque. In other words, it is archetypal Red Groomsian. The Shield’s installation within the commemorative setting of the South Tower footprint invites some clarification.
First, let’s consider its maker, a native of Nashville, Tennessee. Born in 1939, Charles Rogers “Red” Grooms became an elective New Yorker when he first moved north at age 20. After a brief stint at Chicago’s Art Institute, he headed east to Manhattan. Here, he met his consummate future subject as a working artist. After bouncing around various addresses in Chelsea, in 1987 he moved into the America Thread Building on West Broadway, a mile from the World Trade Center. In an oral history later recorded for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, he recalled the clear view of the North Tower from his southerly window, enjoyed in all seasons and weather.
A master of all forms of artmaking, Grooms is best known for his multimedia, pop-inflected interpretations of Gotham’s theatrical street life. In the 1970s, his career rocketed with a succession of immersive walk-in environments which fused fictive and authentically observed urban landmarks and actors. The artist described them as “sculpto-picturesques.” In a previous job, I was delighted and confounded by The Library, a site-specific “walk in” commissioned from Grooms for the Hudson River Museum’s working gift shop. As a curator, my impulses to protect and preserve were undermined by the daily contact of visitors browsing merchandise within Grooms’ kaleidoscope of sensory vinyl surfaces and faux bibliophile patrons. It was hard to police “no touching.” But it was harder not to surrender to the ensemble drama and tactile magic of Grooms’ installation.
Perhaps the most ambitious venture in this vein was the artist’s Ruckus Manhattan (1975), a 10,000-square-foot technicolor wonderwork featuring a condensed, sculptural romp through the cityscape, from Battery Park to Rockefeller Center. (Funding shortfalls curtailed plans for extending the experience as far north as the Cloisters.) Included as place-markers for lower Manhattan were two 30-foot tall surrogates of the Twin Towers, then newly arrived in the skyline. As a further crowd-pleaser, the artist added the figure of tightrope aerialist Philippe Petit. Writing about Ruckus Manhattan in the New York Times, architectural critic Ada Louis Huxtable opined that Grooms’ zany pair of skyscrapers—made from wood and soft vinyl respectively—were preferable to Minuro Yamasaki’s “bland” corporate originals. Eleven years after hijackers toppled those quarter-mile high structures, Superstorm Sandy destroyed Grooms’ more playful Towers when flooding infiltrated their storage space.
Like many who witnessed the events at the World Trade Center in real-time proximity on September 11, the artist was at first confused by what his senses were registering. Around 8:45 a.m. that morning, while sipping tea in the kitchen, he had felt the rumble of a low-flying plane overhead followed by “a screeching, scratchy terrible kind of noise.” Heading to his south-facing window, he saw smoke spewing from the North Tower. As he gaped at the hole punched into the building’s high floors, he was able to distinguish the silhouette of a commercial airliner. Terrorism was his instinctive conclusion. When a second hijacked plane hit into the South Tower, he and his wife evacuated to nearby Tribeca, sheltering in his lower-rise studio space while fearing more attacks, public pandemonium, and the prospect of their hometown becoming immobilized by the decree of martial law. The couple spent the day in high anxiety, hearing and seeing components of the disaster that were ever more inconceivable. In his 2015 oral history, he confessed to feeling “too overwhelmed” to work for months thereafter, enervated and creatively numbed by the stress of daily life inside the Frozen Zone.