Who is Red Grooms? A Tennessee Treasure & International Sensation

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

Red Grooms is one of those artists you’ll never get out of your head once you’ve experienced his work. Just as quirky as his name, Red’s graphic pop art prints, 3-D lithographs, statues and mixed media images are bizarre, funny and wild. He’s been exhibited everywhere from the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens in Nashville to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His work is also featured in both private and public art collections worldwide. Seeing this artist’s work up close is a treat, and starting this month at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, Clarksville residents will get the chance to get up close to some of Red Grooms’ iconic art. 

Red Grooms with his work “Bookstore”
Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, 1978
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Born in Nashville in 1937, Red Grooms left home as a young man to pursue an art career.  Although he occasionally enjoys some time off in Tennessee, New York City has been his home since the 1950s. Red began exhibiting his work in the late 50s. His first show of record was at the experimental Sun Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1958. Red moved into the art world during the abstract expressionist trend of this time. Works of artists like Jackson Pollock are exciting and colorful, but Red wanted to express himself through figurative art. Red’s work is known for being cartoon-y and using bold colors. He paints to convey ideas that are important to him, but in a fun, tongue-in-cheek way. Goofy big-eyed characters are his trademark. Every one of his creations is unforgettable, and that’s why he has endured as an artist for 65 years. Red is also quite prolific and continues to create new exhibitions and installations.   

“New York Taxi”
Red Grooms, 1986
From the Caldwell Collection

Even though he moved from Tennessee at a young age, Red never really left Tennessee behind. His birth state has remained a source of inspiration and nostalgia in his art. From painting well-known Tennessee figures to surreptitiously using Goo Goo Cluster boxes for feet in a sculpture, Tennessee has never left Red’s consciousness. In the 90s, Red was afforded the opportunity to showcase his love for Tennessee when he was commissioned to design a carousel in downtown Nashville. This carousel, called the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, opened to the public in 1998 at Riverfront Park and features famous and historic Tennessee figures like Wilma Rudolph and Andrew Jackson. Since 2003, it has been under the care of the Tennessee State Museum, which hopes to reopen the carousel eventually in a new home on Bicentennial Mall.   

Wilma Rudolph, Chet Akins & Goo Goo Boy
Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel

Red Grooms does have a Clarksville connection. Former Customs House Museum director Ned Crouch and his wife Jacqueline are friends with avid art collectors Ben and Gertrude Caldwell.  The Caldwells have collected Red Grooms’ art for years and consider Red a good friend. Back in 1998, when Ned Crouch was still director, the Museum hosted a career-spanning exhibit of Red Grooms’ work. In fact, the exhibit was still up during the infamous January 1999 tornado that bulldozed the Leaf-Chronicle and the courthouse just across the street. Still standing after the wreckage was a banner depicting Red Grooms’ Elvis that was hanging above the doors of the 1898 Museum building, completely untouched.  

Peruse Red Grooms: Selected Works from the Caldwell Collection downstairs in Memory Lane starting July 19. The Caldwells have donated Red Grooms’ work to several Tennessee establishments, including the West Tennessee Regional Art Center. This exhibit is also made possible in cooperation with The Discovery Park of America


Red Grooms Biography – Red Grooms on ArtNet 
(313) Red Grooms, A Maximalist Extraordinaire with Dr. Judith Stein – YouTube 
Curious Nashville: A Beloved-But-Mothballed Carousel Has A Chance Of Coming Back | WPLN News 
Terri Jordan, Curator of Exhibits at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Featured Image

“Out of Gas Series”
Five of Six
Red Grooms, c. 1970’s
From the Caldwell Collection

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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