Jim Jarmusch has been creating collages since the eighties but it wasn’t until recently that it became a dedicated practice. “I got excited in the last five years to make more and more of them,” the director behind such films as Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, and Stranger than Paradise says over the phone from his home in the Catskills. Some Collages marks Jarmusch’s inaugural monograph and the first formal showing of his artwork, which he refers to as “little dreamscapes.” Composed of newspaper clippings layered on cardstock, the mini works are phantasmagorias of surrealistic ephemera; heads are cut out and disjointedly placed on foreign bodies, and identities are both transformed and rendered obsolete. Suited men have brown paper faces, Stanley Kubrick becomes a golfer, Bernie Sanders turns into a dog, and animal heads replace those of humans. “I love when I have an image and then all I do is put a different head on. I get very excited about how I changed something and made it into something new.” To coincide with the release of the book, Jarmusch will have an accompanying solo show at New York’s James Fuentes Gallery opening September 29 and running through October 31.
I love how your collages render time and space obsolete. You have different personalities from different periods interacting with each other. They’re actually quite filmic. Do see your collages as an extension of your work as a director, or if they're their own thing entirely?
I'm not really self-analytical. I follow my intuition and I try not to analyze why I do anything. But there is a distinct relationship between all the things I make, the collages, the films, the music, and the poems that I create. I gather elements and then make something out of it. So even if I'm writing a script, I'm not sure if I know what the storyline will be when I'm gathering elements, scraps of dialogue, ideas of themes. And I know some film critics think, “he never really does put the story together, does he?” (laughs). But that's okay because that is of secondary priority to me. When shooting a film, I always consider the shooting is all of us as a team, gathering the things from which we will make the film later.
I'm working on a book of poems and my strategy is that I have a long list of titles. I start with the title and then write a poem from it. These kinds of little strategies are the same with my collages. I gather a lot of material, so far, only newsprint, but I gather elements from which I want to make things and I don't really know what they're going to be. With the collages I have to turn off my brain and just follow my own amusement.
My biggest formal procedures are variations and repetitions of things and you see that in the collages. That's something I love, and why I love certain artists like Jasper Johns, or Warhol's use of repeating variations or Bach’s variations. These things really inspire me.
Yeah, I also found your collages have this Exquisite Corpse-like subconscious element to them, coupled with a nod to the absurdist collages of Dada artists like Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch.
Oh certainly, I love all those early Dada sort of collages, like Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and I love Joseph Cornell and El Lissitzky. As a teenager, it was Dadaism and then Surrealism that really blew my mind and opened me up to so many things, just as someone who appreciates human expression, not necessarily informing my own work, but yeah, I love all of those people's creations.
Did the absurdity of their work in any way validate the inner workings of your mind, in their outrageousness, that you can juxtapose these forms and that there is sense in nonsense?
Yes, because in a reductive way, my collages are little dreamscapes. If they're too pointed, I discard them or put them aside. I like the ones that are a little more abstract. So what you're saying is true, because I like them to have more of a dream logic more than any other kind of logic and that’s the heartbeat of Surrealism certainly, and the playfulness involved in Dadaism stays with me. One of my favorite guiding quotes from Oscar Wilde is ‘life is far too important to be taken seriously.'
I read you would make these collages on the road or on set. What was the most obscure place you found inspiration and made a collage?
The place doesn’t really matter because it’s ongoing. I made a lot of them a few years ago in Ohio visiting my mother who was fading. I would stay upstairs in her house and just be listening for her, so I made quite a few of them there. Right now I'm in my little recording studio/art room up in the Catskills, which is my teenage dream. I love making them here, but I've made them all over the place. I just can't make them in moving vehicles because the pieces are too tiny and I get one shot when I'm gluing something. So no planes or trains or cars. All my little tools and materials can fit in a kind of briefcase, so I take them around and then when I have a moment where I can be left alone I make them.
Did you collect the images over time? Would you be reading a newspaper, stop and cut out a photo and save it for later? Or was it more in real time where you'd see two images and then get to work?
It’s sort of both. After a point I would be taking newspapers out of the hands of friends or family. I’d say, “I’m sorry, I gotta take something out of here,” much to their annoyance. I still have drawers of uncut newspapers. I have a lot of cut heads and backgrounds that I've selected. I have a little library of possibilities. So sometimes I don't even need new newspapers, I just start looking through things I have, playing around with them and trying to find juxtapositions that interest or distract me.
Are you ever surprised by what you come up with?
I'm hopefully surprised each time and a few times I found myself laughing out loud, which is always a good thing. I’ll be looking through heads and I'll put one on there and think it’s ridiculous and I’ll leave it, but I don't really analyze it too much. I have to be drifting away and I like to listen to music if I can.
You've included politicians like Putin and Trump and cultural icons like Warhol and Prince, but you've also cast people you actually know in real life in the collages, like Nico.
I get really excited when I find people I know in the newspaper and I can take their head out. I still have a few heads of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer that I haven't used yet, but it's really fun when you do that. Sometimes I use a head and I don't even know who it is. Somebody recently said, ‘Oh, do you know, that's the former, like right wing prime minister of Australia?’ and I had no idea. I have one of Philip Glass playing golf and then I have another one of Stanley Kubrick playing golf. You don’t know them as golfers, so I kind of like that.
Do you ever send them to friends?
I sent one to Tom Waits some years ago, and Alison Mosshart from the Kills. She had sent me a little painting of hers, which I have right now over my art desk, so I sent her a little one recently. I like to send them out to friends but never with themselves in it. That would be a bit weird.
How do you choose which personalities to include or sometimes?
It’s more intuition than thinking about what I'm doing. If I'm thinking about what I'm doing, I don't like doing it anymore. It's sort of like music. When I made a film with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Neil said, “You know, man, when we're playing, we never think about it. We don't think about the music. If we think about it, we might as well just drop our instruments that walk off. You know, that's not what we're doing here. We're riding a train, we're feeling something.” Obviously that's more dramatic and has much stronger results than the things that I'm making, but I like to turn off certain parts of my brain that are analyzing and use other parts. I love when I have an image and then all I do is put a different head on and it’s looking in a different direction than the original. You do the tiniest thing and the whole meaning of the thing or how it affects your consciousness is totally changed.
Yeah, it's kind of like the butterfly effect of life too, the smallest thing makes the biggest difference in some capacity.
Yes. And as we're in this total climate breakdown of the planet and riding this capitalist suicide machine, I’m more and more interested in the deep stuff. So up here where I live in the woods, I'm interested in the details of nature. Those tiny things are really important. Even in the philosophical sense, of appreciating the details in things. I think it runs through my films, but I don’t self-analyze.
It reminds me of how the philosopher Walter Benjamin was so transfixed by the discarded and the overlooked. How he believed you can tell more about someone by what they throw away than you can by talking to them.
Exactly, and that's why I like newsprint because, what was of great importance is just thrown away. I love the quality of newsprint because it's so temporary. It's only supposed to last for a few days and then even as a substance it's not really stable.
For sure. And that's also what's so interesting to me about them is how they're so ephemeral, yet the events you cover are so big. Why show them now?
One person who works with me, Arielle de Saint Phalle, curated a few shows with me and asked if she could put a few collages in, which sold some years ago. She said, “this whole new series is really nice, why don't you make a book?” And I was like yeah, I don't know. We were locked down and remote, so started looking for different publishers and we found Anthology Editions who were the perfect people and she helped me with the selection of them, as well as with the show at James Feuntes. So I really have to say without Arielle, who’s also a co-editor of the book, the book or show probably wouldn't exist because I keep putting them in the drawer!
What is next for you that you are particularly impassioned about?
I'm making a another record now with Jozef Van Wissem where I put wild or odd electric guitar or effects behind loop-like structures that he creates. Carter Logan and I have another tour, we play live scores to the films of Man Ray. And then Carter and I have a band, SQÜRL, we’re preparing a new record. And then I'm writing a new script, gathering some poems together and making collages. I’m just trying to keep busy.