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Checking In with James Grashow

Super-man; painted papier-mache on frame, [1968]; student project directed by James Grashow, instructor, High School of Music and Art, New York City Board of Education.
James Grashow, The Ocean, installation at Aldrich Museum, 1988; entire sculpture, every wave, rock, lifeboat and wood plank, is created from wood and linoleum block prints.
James Grashow, Sea Serpent, 2009, cardboard; installation at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA 

Super-man; painted papier-mache on frame, [1968]; student project directed by James Grashow, instructor, High School of Music and Art, New York City Board of Education.

Photo gallery (8 images)

Most photographs and slides we find in the American Craft Council archive brim with narrative, but with some, time has obscured the story. I came across one such image while cataloging slides from the expansive “Made With Paper” show from 1967. The show featured everything from geodesic paper domes by Buckminster Fuller to an elegant selection of paper hats (Pati Hibbard wrote about the unique opening). While many of these works present great stories, I was struck by an image credited to students of the High School of Music and Art working under the direction of James Grashow. When I was given the opportunity to find and write about stories from the archives, I remembered the “Super-Man” slide of a towering, wildly colored man, with an arm raised in ambiguous gesture and black polka-dotted tongue lolling.

For Grashow, working with cardboard was not a one-off experience, but the foundation for his work. Just 21 when he directed the student project, Grashow is now in the fifth decade of his exceptional career. His most recent piece, “Corrugated Fountain,” is the result of a heroic undertaking - an epic Bernini-esque fountain made of glue, tape, and cardboard. The piece deals with the ultimate transience of art; after a national tour of galleries, it was left outside at the Aldrich Art Center, where it was subject to rain and wind. Grashow wants viewers to consider the inevitable end of every work of art. When I first asked about the “Super-Man,” he described my question as a “voice from the past” and was elated by the coincidence. Students who had worked on that 1967 project attended his closing reception. When I spoke with him he elaborated on the story of the twenty-foot high sculpture he had helped the talented students create.

He first formed chicken-wire skeletons of various body parts and let the students pick them from a bag. A kind of sculptural exquisite corpse was formed as students worked independently from one another to make a leg, an arm, or part of the head. Together, they assembled the various body parts. In every aspect, Grashow felt that students had tapped into something more “primitive and raw” and then he had expected. Not only had they made individual choices that intuited each other, but Grashow was stuck by how closely the sculpture resembled others at the show, like the Albrijes, or the Mexican Judas figure. He told me that because “the kids were so young, so innocent, and so guileless, that they were unafraid to make a mistake” and had sewn a thread “from person to person, from culture to culture.”

Grashow’s career has been no less fantastic than that piece indicated, and his art evinces a love for creating. He told me that he has always been able to know who an artist is, “not by the images he creates or his subject, but by the material he uses.” A short video of Grashow working on his fountain makes clear that he is an authentic artist: As he enthusiastically dances with his materials, you can see the ritual of his cutting, gluing, and taping as an act of guileless creation. Uncovering this story from the archives reminds me another important lesson about life and art: though neither the artist or his work will exist in physical world forever, the story can revisit us without end.


Checking In features interviews with makers, curators, scholars, and former ACC staff about materials found in our institutional archives, digital collections, and within the ACC Library's artist files. 




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