‘The Cardboard Bernini,’ extraordinary film about art and life

“The Cardboard Bernini” is an extraordinary film about art and life that I’ve been trying to blog about for a year.


It’s subject, the artist Jimmy Grashow, is so fascinating that I want to write down practically every thing he says. I have no idea how filmmaker, Olympia Stone, edited him down to 76 minutes. The documentary is going to be on my local Bay Area PBS station this Monday at 8PM, at an even shorter length of 56 minutes. I’ll be watching it again, and I hope you do too.

The film covers Grashow’s 3 year project to make a sculptured fountain out of cardboard– inspired by Bernini’s Trevi fountain in Rome– that he plans to put out into the elements and let the rain wash away. Why and how Grashow destroys his own work is the subject of the film.

Right away, you see Grashow is a different kind of artist because of the material he uses. He describes it this way:

When I was a little kid, my parents would bring me these presents, for Christmas or Holidays or something, and I couldn’t wait to get rid of the present and start building with the cardboard box.


Another reason Grashow favors cardboard seems to involve risk.

If you pay for great paper or canvas or paints, you can’t make a mistake. Every inch is valuable. Cardboard is worthless. It is so grateful to be rescued from trash.  It’s just like you. We aspire to be something more, to be holy, to be grand, to be eternal, but we’re tied to mortality. Cardboard and people, we’re almost from the same DNA.


I think what he’s saying is that cardboard allows him to take the leaps he needs to.

If you make 20 little flower paintings, or if I were to go out to a field and paint tractors and do 20 tractor paintings, or I could make fish… There’s something unbelievably thrilling about standing out on a ledge and doing something heroic that nobody wants.

After Grashow went to art school and excelled in all kind of mediums, and achieved commercial success, he always returned to his childhood love of cardboard.

I understood that I couldn’t be a Sixteenth Century Florentine. I could never have the color sense of a guy who looked at olive trees and those beautiful terracotta roofs all day long. The Arno didn’t flow through Brooklyn. My aesthetic was totally predicated on what I saw around me. On the funny papers that I grew up with…All my sensibility was formed from 1950 Brooklyn.

Grashow’s fountain is an elaborate sculpture that includes the great Poseidon and his trident, horses, dolphins, and fish. He describes it this way.

The idea of this fountain is to build it. I try to make something eternal, something extraordinary, but in the end, the plan is to put it out someplace and let the rain and elements wash it away, like Afghan Buddhas, like everything has its time. All artists talk about process, they talk about the beginning, but no one talks about the full term process, to the end, to the destruction, to the dissolution of the piece. Everything dissolves in eternity. I’d like to speak to that.


So basically, what he’s doing is pushing this cardboard/ DNA idea to the next/ furthest level by watching its destruction, making that into art. And Stone’s film clearly shows, it is art. After watching Grashow build his masterpiece, an intricate level of detail involving everything from tiny fish scales to eyebrow hair, he puts it in an outdoor courtyard at a museum. Near the end of the film is a sped up sequence of the sculpture washing away. It’s absolutely gorgeous and sad and like nothing I’ve ever seen.

I’ve watched the film multiple times, and part of me always hopes that Grashow will decide not to sacrifice the fountain. Then, when he does, I get mad about it. Grashow’s wife, Guzzy, is frustrated with him too. “It’s upsetting,” she says. “It’s hard for me to embrace, working on this so much.” To which Grashow responds, “That’s the tragedy of life. That is exactly what life is. It’s so sad.”

(This scene in the film, by the way, totally reminds me of Louis C.K. Grashow has that same morbid death obsession humor.)

I get that it’s about mortality, and we’re all cardboard, but isn’t choosing to destroy your work, or allowing it to be destroyed, more like suicide than accepting death? Is it more about cowardly control than truly letting go?

But here’s the thing I’ve realized. Grashow does this project for himself, not for me, or you, or anyone watching. He’s standing on that ledge, doing something heroic, so he can go on to the next thing. When you see the film, you understand that part of Grashow’s desire to make this project is because his dealer, inexplicably, tied some of Grashow’s sculptures up to a tree in his back yard where they decayed in bad weather. Grashow only discovered the ruined art after his dealer died, when he went to his house to pay respects. When Grashow saw the fate of his pieces, he was heartbroken. For him, it was a confirmation of every bad feeling he’s ever head about himself and the value other ascribed to his work. But though his desire to re-enact the painful event may have been part of why he did this project, the piece became much more– everything he’s wanted to risk saying about life and death and art.

For that reason, after Grashow made this art, he felt like it might be his last work. He wasn’t sure if he had anything left to say. Afterwards, he felt lost. But then, something happened.

I was at services, thinking about what I’m going to do and the emptiness of life. So, I’m sitting in this auditorium, alone, with my head down, asking myself the questions, what am I going to do, who am I, what does it all mean anyway, all the amount of work that you do if you come up empty in the end anyway. And I look down on the floor in this gigantic auditorium. I had chosen a seat, and right at my foot was a pencil. A little pencil.

I can’t wait to see the next extraordinary thing Jimmy Grashow does.


“The Cardboard Bernini” will air December 9 at 8PM on KQED

Oder the film from Floating Stone Productions

 Read about “the Cardboard Bernini” in the New York Times