by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15
We all know the story. The story of the distraught, desperate outsider trying to squeeze their way into the upper-echelon of society. In most cases, while lending to an outward notion of success, these attempted class jumps usually lead to the character’s downfall (cough, cough Jay Gatsby). This “Gatsby-effect”, as I will call it can be seen in Red Grooms’ silkscreen print, titled “Mango Mango”, found right here at the museum. This print is aimed to employ an image of a popular scene found in elitist culture, and through irony, emphasizes the superficial and frenetic nature of the upper class, or rather, the foolish facade many accept in the pursuit of prestige. In truth, being on the “inside” certainly has it’s perks, but at what cost? What can be said about a culture that places desire continually above need? Maybe I’m not asking the right questions here, but I’d like to think that Grooms saw the world in regard to such queries.
Created in 1973, with its bright colors and lively snapshot of movement, “Mango Mango” is just one example of Grooms’ artistic style, which is deeply rooted in American culture. As in many of his art pieces, in “Mango Mango” Grooms creates both a realistic depiction and a social commentary on the urban world around him. This is evident in the print’s exaggerated, yet equally subtle, depiction of the high life. The modern, urban vibe that has defined America runs through Grooms’ work, as does the artist’s bold appreciation of the failures observed in big city America. In this way, Grooms can also be classified as a Dada artist, speaking out against the faults to industrialization and modernity. As a classified Dada artist himself, Marcel Duchamp once said, “It is the spectators who make the pictures.” This may seem like a no brainer, but looking at something and watching something are two different animals; Grooms definitely watched the world.
There are various features in the print that suggest Grooms’ criticism of the two figures presented. Grooms mocks the figures, who, appear to be at a swanky nightclub, dressing to the nines. The male wears what appears to be a fancy suit, but if you look close enough, he is wearing a blue-collared shirt underneath, symbolizing his true social standing. The feature of the couple that is emphasized the most is their expression, which suggests an air of indifference to their surroundings. Based on the rather blunt statements Grooms himself gave, art historians believe that the couple’s expressions symbolize how the upper class disconnects themselves from the world around them, all in an attempt to hold on to their false sense of importance and popularity, both of which are fleeting. Grooms is further criticizing those who try to copy the upper class in their dress and attitude, choosing to live a life of superficiality. While this general message of Grooms is quite satirical in nature, by illustrating it through a cartoon, we also see that the artist is amused by this idea.
Based on the time in which “Mango Mango” was created, contextually, I can see why Grooms sought to emphasize this issue. If we think about it, only a decade before did the Mad Men era arise, tempting American society with things it didn’t really need, and industrialization gave way to cheaper goods and also an opportunity for the individual to indulge in leisure. Objectively speaking, anyone was (and really still is) able to feel rich. As I end this post, I want to leave you all with a quote that you probably have heard in passing a few times in your life, and I think of it not only because it comes from the last book I read, but also because it relates in a way to what Grooms was criticizing through “Mango Mango”, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”