In homage to Bernini, James Grashow has made a Baroque fountain, inspired particularly by Rome’s Trevi Fountain. But where the Trevi Fountain is made of stone, sturdy and likely to be permanent, Grashow’s fountain is made of cardboard, decidedly fragile and temporary. And where the Roman sea god has a baroque swagger, and sits precariously above his fin-winged horses, who have a nervous energy, not to say vivifying excitement, Grashow’s somewhat more somber sea god is securely enthroned on a pedestal, his body static and poised, his feet carefully placed, unlike those of the Roman sea god, which dangle above the fountain below him, as though about to step into its water.
But Grashow’s installation has some wonderful details, worthy of Bernini. The tails and scales of his fishes, the curves of his waves, the mane and legs of his sea horses, the hair of his human if mythical figures, perhaps above all the beard of the sea god, have a lively eloquence. Grashow is a master of the long line, rhythmically curving in on itself, but grandly moving beyond the figure it adorns, even as the ornament adds its life to the figure, adds to its animation with decorative intensity. The long, curved, unstoppable line spouts from the mouth of dolphin, standing alone like a geometrical gesture, an abstract image of fated motion, epitomizing the eternal rhythm and flow of the sea. Also, Grashow’s figures may lack the robust, restless, uncanny strength of Bernini’s -- they seem like hollow puppets rather than viscerally heroic -- but they thrust forward (the smiling dolphins seem to leap with joy), with a certain relentless dynamic, verging on delirium. There is a maenad-like intensity to Grashow’s naked sea nymphs, their youth, slenderness, and fin-wings contrasting with the old, muscular, wingless body of the naked sea god. Their mouths are open wide in what seems like a war whoop, as they break in the wild seahorses -- powerful waves -- they ride bareback.
As though to balance their exuberance, Grashow introduces two Rodinesque thinkers, one resting his chin on a hand, the other holding a knee with a hand, both pensively bent over, as though contemplating the inevitability of it all, and as though pessimistically expecting the rush of the sea to end. Two big fish heads growl at us with their threatening mouths, two huge tails are visible among the waves, which curl as they surge forward, marching towards their doom as they break on the distant shore. The male thinkers -- they have something of Michelangelo’s tomb portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel -- turn to the side, away from us, while everything else, from the figures to the waves, rushes towards us, threatening to trample and overwhelm us. The sea god is above it all, but he too confronts us, even as he contemplates us from the distance of his static majesty. The sober male thinkers are a negative note, the adolescent sea nymphs suggest sexual awakening, and the dolphins are full of sensual delight, from their knowing smiles to their odalisque-like bodies. The sea nymphs and dolphins charge at us, the male figures, including the sea god, are at rest and restrained, suggesting the melancholy that follows copulation, as Aristotle said, that is, the passivity that follows the hyperactivity necessary for orgasm. We are watching an orgy in the making, a Dionysian event tinged with Apollonian foreboding.
It’s wonderful to know that the past is still alive, if not in the best shape. For Grashow’s “cardboard Bernini” will sooner or later fall apart -- some of the tape holding the planes of cardboard together seemed loose, as though inviting the audience to inaugurate the process by pulling them apart, effortlessly -- and collapse. It’s a jerrybuilt construction destined from the junk heap, as Grashow himself says. “Ashes to ashes, mush to mush,” Grashow says: he wants to place the cardboard Bernini outdoors, where, subject to the elements, it will eventually turn to mush. There is a personal reason behind Grashow’s death wish toward his art -- it has to do with the fact that a dealer once left one of his cardboard constructions outdoors, where, battered by the weather, it turned to mush, humiliating and traumatizing Grashow, no doubt because it suggested the dealer’s indifference to his art (he seems to be compulsively repeating the trauma, as though trying to purge his hurt feelings, clearly unsuccessfully) -- but it seems peculiarly modern. Everything melts in modernity, Marx famously said. More pointedly, new art is not made to last, which is why there is an endless re-cycling of the idea of the new in modernity -- especially in postmodernity -- and a constant procession of new works and movements, each getting credibility more because it seems new, or at least a new twist on an old idea, than because it has something seriously meaningful to say, some vision that freshens our consciousness of life and art, as Bernini’s sculptures still do.
Grashow’s cardboard Bernini is a morbidly modern reprise of Bernini’s vision of an ancient sea god who once had meaning and power, the symbol of a sea that was mythically enchanted because it was worshipped as the source of life, that was fated because it was one of the four fundamental elements, and as such timeless, and thus a subject matter worthy of being artistically exalted in seemingly timeless stone. Since Picasso’s flimsy Guitar (1912) -- made of cardboard, string and wire -- modern sculpture has often been made of flimsy material. Picasso’s work has been restored because it was falling apart. So have some of Eva Hesse’s fiberglass sculptures, suggesting the built-in obsolescence of modern art -- of all modern products. They’re not made too last forever -- that would undermine Capitalism -- but to wear out quickly. They’re short-lived, like Grashow’s sculptures and unlike Bernini’s sculptures, which are long-lived.
Several of Jackson Pollock’s paintings have had to be restored, because the paint was flicking off the canvas. Collage is perhaps the outstanding example of the use of flimsy materials in modern art. Junk sculpture readily becomes junk again in the blink of an eye, just as Duchamp’s assisted readymades readily revert to their unassisted state of ordinariness -- banality. Thus the short unhappy life of many modern so-called masterpieces, made in a not very masterful way, unlike Bernini’s sculptures. They have been preserved because of their art historical significance, but that is a lesser significance than Bernini’s sculptures have, which I venture to say are even more art historically significant, all the more so because they build on tradition, and, perhaps more crucially, because they deal with important ideas. Grashow’s cardboard Bernini is a chip off the old modernist block, worthy of comparison with Tinguely’s self-destroying sculptures, except that Grashow’s sculptures take more time to self-destruct. Both suggest the futility -- pointlessness, inconsequence, ineffectuality -- of artistic creativity in the modern world. Both are pessimistic parodies of art, selling art short because they believe it has no long-term value. With both, making it new has become an old joke, and openly self-defeating and suicidal, as the modern world seems to be, increasingly.
James Grashow, "Corrugated Fountain," Mar. 3-Apr. 23, 2011, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.