A grotesque, bare-chested Pablo Picasso, clad in boxer shorts and sandals, dances a jig, as a dour Igor Stravinsky conducts a celestial orchestra above his head. Across the room, Jackson Pollock jabs a finger in Willem de Kooning’s mouth as the two grapple on neighboring barstools.
All of that, and more, happens in one room in New Haven starting Friday. That room hosts the three massive works that make up Red Grooms: Larger Than Life.
The exhibition opens Friday and runs through March 9 at the Yale University Art Gallery on Chapel Street.
You can find yourself spending a long time looking at just one of these paintings. There’s a lot to see.
The aptly named exhibit comes from bequests from Charles Benenson, a 1933 Yale College graduate and one of Grooms’ (and the gallery’s) most generous patrons. Red Grooms is a 76-year-old New York-based artist known for his art happenings as well as a sense of humor.
The three works now on display have been part of the gallery’s permanent collection since 2006, said curator Lisa Hodermarsky. Until the gallery’s recent renovation, there was nowhere to display them.
Each work depicts other artists. The largest, “Cedar Bar,” from 1983, is a 27-foot colored-pencil depiction of the famous Abstract Expressionist haunt in Greenwich Village in its postwar heyday. On the adjacent walls are 16 preparatory cartoons for the work, which Grooms gave to the gallery in 2007 in honor of Benenson.
As in much of his work, Grooms drew on both photographs and memory in recreating the bar and the artists who frequented it. The result is a mix of realistic detail, as in the paint splatter on Pollock’s shoes or the pyramidal stacks of liquor behind the bar, and vivid caricature.
All three works are rich in artistic allusions. Yet they contain enough visual intricacy, drama and playfulness to keep even the uninitiated absorbed for hours. Indeed, their sheer size, impossible to take in all at once, forces viewers to choose a narrative path through the images, which will inevitably require doubling back to catch details and connections missed the first time.
“Picasso Goes to Heaven” (pictured at the top of the story) which Grooms made in 1973 following Picasso’s death, is a riot of characters, colors, and visual styles, including homages to some of Picasso’s best-known phases and archetypes. You might recognize the ballerina pointing a gun at Picasso as his long-suffering wife, as Hodermarsky pointed out to me in a pre-opening visit to the exhibit. Or you might simply be drawn to the detail in Stravinsky’s checkered pants and wingtip shoes—only to be pulled in further as you notice behind him a paradise of naked angels drinking wine at some biblical French bistro.
“Studio at the Rue des Grands-Augustins” (1990–1996), which depicts Picasso at work on his anti-war masterpiece “Guernica,” likewise invites close inspection. Those familiar with “Guernica” will be fascinated by Grooms’ mix of faithful reproduction and modern variations, while a lay viewer can get lost tracing the chaotic, alarming action, which bleeds disturbingly into the foreground, as in a disembodied hand that seems to reach from the canvas for a paintbrush between Picasso’s legs.
Hodermarsky suggested that the title of the exhibition is a misnomer in one important sense.
“I think it’s as large as life,” she said. “For Red, I think he thinks that life is large, and it’s loud, and it’s lascivious sometimes, and it’s messy, and it’s beautiful. And I think that comes through in a lot of these works.”