In recent years, the artist James Grashow of Redding has become widely known as the sculptor who creates large-scale works from that humblest of materials: cardboard.
His zoo of cardboard animals was exhibited at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999. The monkeys from that zoo so multiplied that a troop of 100 populated the De Cordova Sculpture Park outside Boston in 2006.
In 2013, Grashow was dubbed “The Cardboard Bernini” by a documentary film maker who followed the construction — and preordained collapse — of his most colossal work to date. It was a “Corrugated Fountain,” complete with sea god and dolphin-drawn chariot, modeled after the stone fountains of Rome and Florence.
A comment on art, ambition and mortality all in one, the destined-for-the-dumpster Fountain was seen as a triumph. So how is it that Grashow, the Cardboard Bernini, has earned a place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s big, first ever exhibit of rock and roll instruments?
Turns out that Grashow earlier in his career made a name for himself doing wood cuts and engravings for album covers and for major publications, including Rolling Stone magazine. By coincidence, one of his most memorable album covers, and one that will be shown at the Met, in the Mezzanine Gallery, is having its 50th anniversary.
Grashow made it in 1969 for the English band Jethro Tull, which was on the brink of stardom and he was just establishing himself as a freelance illustrator in New York.
“It was the beginning,” Grashow says. “A woman who knew I did wood cuts knew Terry Ellis (the band manager and director of the Tull record label). They called me up. I was just married. Ian Anderson, the leader singer, came to our 3-1/2 room apartment in his red leather pants. They sent a limousine. I had never been in a limousine before. They took me to New Haven, to a club concert.”
Grashow now isn’t sure which club it was. But the art he did for the album, “Stand Up,” the group’s break out second, entered rock and roll lore. The cover depicted the three band members, sitting with their arms clasped around drawn-up knees. By mistake, Grashow gave Anderson a barely visible 11th finger.
“To this day, I get maybe two emails a month asking me about it,” Grashow says. In February, the British music magazine Prog devoted its cover to “Stand Up” and ran an interview with Grashow.
“I was just cutting away and didn’t notice,” he told the magazine. “I can imagine people sitting around, getting stoned, counting the fingers and wondering what the significance of the 11th finger was. It was just an accident.”
His Tull album was notable for another reason. Its sleeves opened out, revealing a pop-up image of the band. He made that, too. In his studio, he takes a frayed original copy from a shelf of albums to show how it looked. Some cardboard monkeys swing from the rafters. He laughs that he now makes some monkeys to be cast in permanent bronze. Giant cardboard dancers on rollers meant for a museum control the floor space.Read Full Article
On a table near the studio entrance, taped in protective cardboard, are the prints awaiting delivery to the Met exhibit. Besides the Tull cover, there are covers for the Yardbirds Live, Deep Purple, Ramsey Lewis and Catfish, a British blues band. From Rolling Stone magazine are images of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, and Elvis Presley.
When the manager of the Met mezzanine gallery came to look at his collection, she told Grashow she’d take everything he laid out for her as well as 17 of his cardboard monkeys. The gallery is a space where prints and other items are for sale. Grashow says he was both thrilled and traumatized to be asked to contribute work; thrilled because it’s the Met, traumatized because most of the original wood blocks had to be restored.
He explains that the Jethro Tull album and some other album covers are engravings done on a cross-section of wood, while the Rolling Stone images tend to be wood cuts, done on planks sawn length-wise. Either way, all the primary images are created in reverse. Grashow, who calls himself Jimmy and is self-deprecating, sounds almost apologetic when he says he has a natural aptitude for working backwards because he is dyslexic.
“When I took woodcutting class (at the Pratt Institute) everybody else for some reason, their tools all jammed. Nothing was fluid. For me, I was genetically born to do it. Everything cut beautifully for me. So I always knew I had this talent. I supported my sculpture habit with woodcuts,” Grashow says.
Making large sculptures is more physical, more muscular than making wood cuts. “Wood cuts are much more contemplative,” he says, likening the process to the weaving said to be done by Gandhi. “He’d settle himself. You’re making decisions line to line.”
Given that description, it’s easy to imagine the groove Grashow was in working on the 11-fingered Jethro Tull album cover.
As pleased as he is to be part of the Met show, he says he can’t avoid worrying about how the work will be displayed and also how it looks in hindsight.
“It’s difficult reviewing yourself and your life,” he says. “There are pieces I love. I love the Jethro Tull. I love the Live Yardbirds. But you become an artist not by the individual piece, but by the process.
“In the beginning you look for Rembrandt, but you wind up looking for yourself … There are times when you cut, where everything is perfect, where the wood is perfect and you look at what you did, and you remember that, ‘Oh my God, that was a great day.’ You remember that’s the day I hit the grand slam.”
Grashow moved to Redding with his wife Lesley more 40 years ago. He remains busy with commissions. His “Corrugated Fountain” was not, as he worried out loud toward the end of the documentary, his “final epic.”
The Met exhibit, “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” opens runs until Oct. 1.
Culture writer Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.