Cedar Bar

"Cedar Bar" by Red Grooms. (Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery / September 25, 2013)

Red Grooms is the kind of artist you'd like to drink a beer with and, thanks to "Larger Than Life," a lively new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, you can do just that. Figuratively speaking, of course. Indeed, as you walk into the gallery where Grooms' three mural-sized artworks are installed, you find yourself heading directly toward a bar. Pull up a stool. It's always happy hour in Red Grooms' world.

The work in question, "Cedar Bar" (1986), takes up an entire wall of the gallery. The jumbo size is required to capture all the energy, competiveness, humor, pain and pathos of the New York art scene that Grooms encountered when he arrived in Manhattan, from Nashville, in 1957, at age 20. The models are the Cedar Tavern, located at 24 University Place, and all the usual bohemian suspects who frequented the place. Everyone who was anyone in the arts and literary worlds hung out there. It was here where Jack Kerouac and the Beats rubbed elbows with Larry Rivers and the action painters and abstract expressionists and even critics like Clement Greenberg and Dore Ashton bent elbows with the people they wrote about.

The images — drawn, remarkably, in colored pencil and crayon (no paint) on five interlocking sheets of canvas — are garish and wild but affectionate, comical without mocking, like a group hug of the eccentrics who surrounded Grooms in New York back then. Pollock and de Kooning are strangling each other on neighboring bar stools, Norman Bluhm and John Chamberlain are wrestling on the floor, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner are complaining about their husbands, Barnett Newman is hitting on Ruth Kligman, Franz Kline is yanking Harold Rosenberg's necktie, John Hultberg is passed out, and everyone is smoking. Wait a minute, the bartenders look familiar... they're Grooms himself, in two different self-portraits.

"The urban legend had it that de Kooning and Pollock were at each other's throats, but they were actually on good terms," said Elisabeth Hodermarsky, curator of prints, drawings and photographs. "It's an incredible snapshot of that period, the perfect time to arrive. Everybody in the art world was in New York then."

The relaxed chaos of the drawing is deceptive. It resulted from many sketches and portraits and studies, some of which are mounted nearby, augmenting the mural.

On the walls opposite, on either side of a door leading into the "1970s Photorealism" exhibition, which is well worth a separate visit, are two more large scale Grooms works: "Picasso Goes to Heaven" (1973), and "Studio at the Rue des Grands-Augustins" (1990-96).

In typically playful style, Grooms created his own "Identification Chart for Picasso Goes to Heaven." Though it's obvious he loves Picasso, his depiction is cartoonish and wild. Picasso is up there in heaven with Braque, Cezanne, Dora Maar, Stravinsky, Apollinaire, Matisse and they all appear to be having a hell of a good time. Grooms never finished the work because the deadline for an exhibition arrived and he sent it on its way, vowing to complete it afterwards. Forty years later, it is still unfinished, which only adds to its ramshackle appeal.

Nearby is "Studio at the Rue des Grands-Augustins," Grooms' version of Picasso's watershed "Guernica," created during the height of the atrocities in Bosnia and Somalia. Grooms is more subdued in spirit and coloration here. The work has a more solid appearance, too, made from six separate canvases fused together, a triptych times two, of sorts.

"Grooms is reimagining how it felt in Guernica in 1937 with his own contemporary events," said Hodermarsky. "It looks like 'Guernica' but the key pieces are switched around. For me, it is much more frightening than Picasso's Guernica, more mechanized and horrific."

The three murals make it clear that Grooms is steeped in art history, particularly in the work of satirists like Daumier, Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray. In places, he recalls George Grosz's depictions of Weimar Germany, but without the anger or bitterness.

"Grooms transcends labels," said Hodermarsky. "He's not pop art because he has warmth and humor. He takes it down a notch from outright satire. He's paying affectionate homage to that world while also gently poking fun at it."

In a final, personalized touch for the Yale show, Grooms created archways through which you enter and exit the show. As you exit, you can practically hear a drunken chorus of artists singing "For he's a jolly good fellow..."

Red Grooms: Larger Than Life

On view until March 9, 2014. Yale University Art Gallery, 111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu