Jim Jarmusch likes to take heads off. He likes to swap the heads of world leaders with Picassos or Basquiat, or simply excise them entirely, leaving a head-shaped void. A man with a coyote head climbs into the back of a rather dejected car. Warhol’s head is a favorite motif: the twin Andys in sunglasses standing stoically in a tunnel; Warhol’s head grafted onto a government official walking a tarmac; a man slumped in a chair, one of the artist’s Brillo boxes fixed where his head should be.
Jarmusch is best known for writing and directing pleasantly bleak films like “Night on Earth” and “Down by Law”, in which laconic protagonists meander through the strangest corners of the world, meeting other travelers or simply the strange. Over the past 20 years he has also quietly produced collages like these, pieces of newsprint delicately layered on card stock that echo a similar worldview, blurring images to alternately create impassive compositions and revealing.
“I never intended to do anything with these,” said Jarmusch, whose chalk-white hair stubble and blackout shades are always a familiar presence on the downtown scene, in an interview this summer. “But I was like, well, why not share them?” See if they amuse someone.
Jarmusch says he was happy to keep the practice to himself, creating over 500 collages, most of which have not been seen publicly. But for a year, while he is at the home of the Catskills that he shares with his wife, the filmmaker Sara Driver, he has convinced himself, with the encouragement of Arielle de Saint Phalle, with whom he has worked for nearly 10 years, to organize and present this tension of his practice. The result is Jarmusch’s first monograph, “Some Collages,” published this month by Anthology Editions, which brings together more recent examples from the past seven years. “Newsprint Collages,” a solo show of the original collages, his official gallery debut, opens at James Fuentes on Wednesday.
And they’re actually a lot of fun, in a scary and absurd way. They recall “La Boutique Obscure”, the impressionist dream diary that the writer of the Oulipo Georges Perec kept between 1968 and 1972, hallucinating, a little terrifying, but also often funny. Jarmusch’s collages are manipulations of something originally presented as fact – a diversion from jagged, spliced photojournalism into surreal scenes that collapse time (a Victorian-era woman in a modern hospital room) , or illustrate a psychic fantasy (letting out a primitive cry while an audience applauds).
Jarmusch has no qualms about vivisecting species like Doctor Moreau on paper (a man with the head of a Pomeranian taken away in handcuffs). But one thing he doesn’t handle is the scale. Collages dismantle the visual information of newsprint but stay true to its original size, meaning many of them are tiny, some almost microscopic. It also means that the experience of looking at someone is a physically intimate one. The pictures force you to cran your neck to decipher them, or bring the page closer to your face, as if you were receiving a secret. As the objects go, “Some Collages” is a big macabre photo album. It’s small enough to be considered portable, giving it a utilitarian distribution, ready to be produced to guess something big or true about the news of the day. As Joseph Cornell wrote, “Collage = reality”.
“What’s interesting about them is that they reveal to me that my creative process is very similar, that I write a screenplay, that I shoot a film, that I make a piece of music, that I write a poem or I make a collage, ”Jarmusch said. . “I first collect the elements from which I will do the thing. For example, making a movie is just putting together the material you will be editing the movie from, you know? Collages reduce it to the most minimal form of this procedure.
Still, bonding has an attractive convenience. While a shoot requires sophisticated and heavy equipment, not to mention the cooperation of many people, collages only require solitude and a copy of the paper, a large-format mobile feast. “I mostly do this between the rigors of making a movie, when I need to be left alone, or maybe the people around me want me to leave them alone,” Jarmusch said. “I did a lot of it in the last few years before my mother died in Cleveland. I stayed with her in her house, went to another room and worked there. real world, so to speak.
Jarmusch keeps an old, flat metal file in his garage with dedicated drawers for backgrounds, saved cardboard, and “paper that attracts me,” newspapers he has not yet analyzed. “I have head files,” he added. He imposed strict rules on himself: newspapers only (no magazines), no sharp cutting tools (he favors ballpoint pens that have dried out, which “can cut roughly”). The effect is a halo of fibers, the tears and separations leaving a roughness that makes the images appear blurry, like in a dream. “I’m not sure why I even adhere to these things. It’s like an oblique strategy, ”he said, referring to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s card-based method for inspiring creativity.
Jarmusch’s collages are part of a rich history of art, which joins the global tradition of the art of appropriation, as sacred as it is unknown, of Kurt Schwitters, who has assembled delirious assemblages of trash, to compositions Dadaists of Hannah Hoch and Man Ray, to the clank of Ad Reinhardt. , modernist “Newsprint Collage”.
“Max Ernst, Picasso and Braque, in particular, bringing other textures into their work, which results in one of my all-time favorite artists, Jasper Johns,” Jarmusch said. “I love that little children can make them. You can make them so minimal. In some ways, John Baldessari’s are even more minimal than mine because he didn’t even bother replacing the faces but just put colored circles on them – some of the ones I find are quite beautiful.
He continues: “In a way, my favorite artists of the twentieth century are, philosophically speaking, Duchamp for the first half and Warhol for the second half. I have to say I always find it hilarious when people still don’t get it because Richard Prince reclaimed a photo, well, why wasn’t that photo worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before that? How come he gets all this money? “
Prior to entering filmmaking, Jarmusch intended to be a poet, studying with New York School poet David Shapiro (who also made collages) and Kenneth Koch, and pushing back his tenet of animation to their strategies. “One day Koch gave me a poem by Rilke and told me to bring your translation in two days. I said, ‘But Kenneth, I don’t know any German.’ And he just looked at me with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and said, ‘Exactly.’ And so the idea is to take something, anything, and make it a new thing.
Newsprint appeals to Jarmusch for its availability, but also its ephemeral. “I love that it is so fragile,” he said. “You know, the old joke from yesterday’s newspaper that you wrap the fish in or whatever, it’s something meant to be thrown away.” It reduces its own importance in one way or another.
It is believed that this story could end in one of Jarmusch’s collages, a neat closed loop. Does he find it ironic that he talks with The New York Times about the art he makes with copies of The New York Times? “It’s a little strange,” he said. “But I think it’s funny too. I love this newspaper thing. I love it in old movies where they run the presses and stuff.
These qualities also give the project an elegiac air. As local newspapers across the country go out of business or migrate to digital-only formats, Jarmusch’s collages become a document of a rapidly evaporating medium. “I only recently realized that, damn it, I’m using materials that are almost obsolete now,” he said. “There is something soothing to me about handling the paper, I don’t know how to explain it. Digital is too cold for me. I love it for a lot of things, my last films were shot with digital cameras and I’ve been editing on digital machines since 1996. I’m not a pure Luddite.
Jarmusch is interested in the sheer visual collision of collage, but its raw material inevitably clouds their innocence. Politicians infiltrate, accompanied by images of global conflicts, which can be interpreted as commentary. “I try not to think too much about the kind of juxtapositions I create,” Jarmusch said. “If they look too sharp or too cute or something, I’ll get rid of them.” Sometimes someone says, ‘Oh, do you realize this is the former right-wing Prime Minister of Australia? No, I don’t know who it was. Or other times I’ll just find a nice picture of Nico [the Velvet Underground singer]. I love Nico, I save his head. And then I find something where I think it would be good for Nico. They are a bit childish, the way I put them together. They are players.
Yet he also admits, “Some of them are a little scary or dark. Some of them, I hope, are funny. The New York School poets taught me that if there’s nothing funny about any of your stuff, then wow, what a pity for you. “
Jim Jarmusch: Collages on Newsprint
Until October 31, James Fuentes, 55 Delancey Street, Lower Manhattan; (212) 577 1201; jamesfuentes.com.