My 2012 film, “The Cardboard Bernini”, examines the work and life of acclaimed artist James Grashow as he builds a giant cardboard fountain inspired by the work of the famous baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
James Grashow is an artist whose work has always focused on the themes of man, nature and mortality. He has built—among many other things—enormous 15-foot tall fighting men, an anthropomorphized city, and an ocean--using paper mache, fabric, chicken wire and cardboard. The scale of his work varies: while he constructs huge installations, he also makes tiny “houseplants” that feature intricately carved homes and buildings instead of flowers in exuberant bouquets.
In his 50-plus year career, Grashow has also achieved renown as a masterful woodcutter. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he created iconic album covers for the bands Jethro Tull and The Yardbirds. In addition, he has made brilliant prints for the New York Times Op Ed page and virtually every well-known periodical and publication in the United States.
I have a close personal connection to Jimmy Grashow: my father, Allan Stone, was his art dealer for close to 50 years. I grew up in a home surrounded by many of Jimmy’s huge paper mache sculptures. As a child, Jimmy’s work terrified me. I crept past his “Murder Mache” installation: men fighting in different positions, strangling each other’s necks, tongues sticking out, ties askew-- on the way to my bedroom at night. During the day, when the men were less likely to come alive, I played with my friends under their legs. For these reasons, Jimmy’s artwork has always occupied a visceral place in my mind: fascinating, fun, and scary.
In 2006, my father died suddenly. Jimmy came by our home to pay his respects, and stumbled across some of his giant paper mache fighting men that had been put outside due to lack of space. They were disintegrating. Although it was deeply painful and shocking for Jimmy to see his work like that, it was also surprisingly beautiful. I couldn’t help but photograph them. Jimmy felt that for the first time, he was seeing the full arc of his artistic enterprise before him—including its end.
Feeling that he hadn’t been honest with himself about the entire scope of his process, and the inevitable decay of works made in paper and cardboard, he challenged himself to own the “back end,” by creating a work with the intention of allowing it to disintegrate. Jimmy decided that he would make a magnificent “Grashow Bernini,” and he wouldn’t skimp on any of the particulars-- it would be as richly detailed as any of his other creations intended for gallery exhibition and sale. His Bernini-inspired vision included Poseidon, a pair of nymphs with trumpets on horses, hero figures, seashells, dolphins and waves. Work on the fountain began in 2007, and was completed four years later, in 2010. I have been following him from the start.
One of the sources of tension and uncertainty in the film comes from Jimmy’s wife of 42 years, Guzzy. She cries when she learns that Jimmy is going to intentionally destroy his own work—after all, his studio is in their home, and she sees the intensive effort that goes into his art every day. She talks about how, although they talk about everything, she just cannot discuss this project with him—it’s too final. Towards the end of the film, she confesses her fear that a piece of Jimmy will dissolve along with his cardboard fountain. Viewers get a glimpse into their marriage, and what it is like to live with a working artist. As Guzzy says “You had to get used to feast or famine.” The very fact that Jimmy can build the fountain at all is a testament to Guzzy’s support—both emotional and financial.
Jimmy called his sculpture the “Corrugated Fountain,” and it premiered indoors on June 11, 2010 at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, to great acclaim. The art critic Donald Kuspit wrote in Artnet “We are watching an orgy in the making, a Dionysian event tinged with Apollonian foreboding.” After exhibiting the fountain in New York City and Pittsburgh, Jimmy finally installed his cardboard masterpiece outdoors at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, CT on April 1, 2012. It was there for a total of six weeks. During this final installation, Jimmy talks about how he was as nervous as when his children went out on their first date. He frets about the wind blowing it over, or vandals destroying it. Guzzy points out, ironically, that even though Jimmy’s whole point all along has been to let the sculpture dissolve, during this final moment of reckoning, he was having a great deal of difficulty letting it go.
I set up a time-lapse camera outdoors at the museum to record the decline of the fountain. After six weeks, Jimmy took his degraded cardboard fountain to the dumpster: “Ashes to ashes, mush to mush.” The cardboard had turned leaf-like: many pieces looked like garbage, while others held onto their former beauty—the papery outline of a horse’s face, for example. In the end, even the placing of the dissolved fountain into the dumpster became an opportunity for Jimmy to create art. He cannot help but make the dumpster into an opportunity for beauty.
Viewers will get an intimate glimpse of an artist at work on what he considers might possibly be his “final epic.” We follow Jimmy as he asks what is the point of art and creation? What is the connection between creation and destruction? And, ultimately, how do we find meaning in our lives when we are faced with mortality?