The filmmaker has been quietly making small, eerie collages on newsprint for 20 years, with faces switched onto other bodies. Now they’re finally on view.
By Max Lakin
Sept. 28, 2021
Jim Jarmusch likes removing the heads. He likes to swap the heads of world leaders with Picassos or Basquiats, or simply excise them entirely, leaving a head-shaped void. A man with a coyote’s head rides in the back of a car, rather dejected. Warhol’s head is a favorite motif: twin Andys in sunglasses standing stoically in a tunnel; Warhol’s head grafted onto a state official striding a tarmac; a man slouched in a chair, one of the artist’s Brillo boxes fixed where his head should be.
Jarmusch is best known for writing and directing pleasingly downbeat films like “Night on Earth” and “Down by Law,” in which laconic protagonists meander through the weirder corners of the world, encountering fellow travelers, or simply the uncanny. For the past 20 years he’s also been quietly producing collages like these, notecard-size pieces of delicately layered newsprint on cardstock that echo a similar worldview, scrambling imagery to create alternatingly deadpan and revelatory compositions.
“I never intended to do anything with these,” Jarmusch, whose thatch of chalk white hair and blackout shades are still a familiar presence on the downtown scene, said in an interview this summer. “But I thought, well, why not share them? See if they amuse anyone.”
Jarmusch says he was content to keep this practice to himself, creating upward of 500 collages, most of which haven’t been publicly seen. But over the last year, while at the Catskills home he shares with his wife, the filmmaker Sara Driver, he was convinced, with the encouragement of Arielle de Saint Phalle, with whom he has worked for nearly 10 years, to organize and present this strain of his practice. The result is Jarmusch’s first monograph, “Some Collages,” published this month by Anthology Editions, which collects more recent examples made in the last seven years. “Newsprint Collages,” a solo show of the original collages, his formal gallery debut, opens at James Fuentes on Wednesday.
And they are in fact highly amusing, in an spookily absurdist manner. They recall “La Boutique Obscure,” the impressionistic dream diary the Oulipo writer Georges Perec kept between 1968 and 1972, hallucinatory, slightly terrifying, but also frequently funny. Jarmusch’s collages are manipulations of something originally presented as fact — a détournement of photojournalism serrated and spliced into surrealist scenes that collapse time (a Victorian-era woman in a modern hospital room), or illustrate some psychic fantasy (releasing a primal scream while an audience applauds).
Jarmusch has no qualms vivisecting species like a paper-based Doctor Moreau (a man with the head of a Pomeranian led away in handcuffs). But one thing he doesn’t tamper with is scale. The collages dismantle the newsprint’s visual information but remain faithful to its original size, which means many of them are minuscule, some near-microscopically so. It also means the experience of looking at one is physically intimate. The images force you to crane your neck to decipher them, or bring the page closer to your face, as if receiving a secret. As objects go, “Some Collages” is stout, a macabre photo album. It’s small enough to be considered portable, which gives it a utilitarian cast, ready to be produced to divine something important or true about the day’s news. As Joseph Cornell wrote, “Collage = reality.”
“The interesting thing about them is they reveal to me that my process of creating things is very similar, whether I’m writing a script or shooting a film or making a piece of music or writing a poem or making a collage,” Jarmusch said. “I gather the elements from which I will make the thing first. Like, shooting a film is just gathering the material from which you will edit the film, you know? The collages reduce it to the most minimal form of that procedure.”
Still, collage presents an attractive convenience. Whereas a film shoot necessitates sophisticated and heavy equipment, not to mention the cooperation of many people, the collages require only solitude and a copy of the paper, a movable feast of broadsheet. “Mostly I do it in between the rigors of making a film, when I need to be left alone, or maybe people around me want me to leave them alone,” Jarmusch said. “I made a lot of these over the last few years before my mother died, in Cleveland. I would stay with her in her house, and go into another room and work on them. It’s stepping aside the real world, so to speak.”
Jarmusch keeps an old metal flat file in his garage with drawers dedicated to backgrounds, saved cardboard and “paper I’m attracted to,” newspapers he’s yet to parse. “I have files of heads,” he added. He has a strict set of self-imposed rules: newspapers only (no magazines), no sharp cutting tools (he favors ballpoint pens that have gone dry, which “can cut in a crude way”). The effect is a fiber halo, the tears and separations leaving a roughness that makes the images appear to fuzz, as if in a dream. “I’m not quite 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 fit within a rich art history, which joins with the art world tradition of appropriation, as sacred as it is misunderstood, from Kurt Schwitters, who assembled delirious assemblages from trash, to Hannah Hoch’s and Man Ray’s Dadaist compositions, to Ad Reinhardt’s clattering, modernist “Newsprint Collage.”