Like many eccentric people of my generation I have a folder of artful, profoundly prankish souvenirs from the late Ray Johnson. Too bad I made no log of his frequent phone calls, when they happened or what was said back and forth. (Imagine the size of Johnson’s telephone bills! If only he had kept his monthly statements listing the numbers he called and the minutes he invested. Was there anyone connected to art who did not hear from him regularly?) While I was aware already as a student in the sixties of Johnson’s existence as a pioneering contemporary artist whose small collages were illustrated in every survey of Pop art, it was not until 1977 while I taught art history at Johns Hopkins that I first received one of the amazing artist’s multitudinous mailings. The cover letter seductively acknowledged my article just published in Art in America about women without heads appearing in works by Marcel Duchamp. Among the assortment of other sheets in the same initial mailing were two folded 17 x 11” photocopies of works from the ongoing series of silhouette portrait collages that Johnson had begun in 1976, both including reproductions of the headless (and so antithetical to portraiture) female featured in Duchamp’s Étant donnés. As I would learn, Johnson characteristically incorporated such favorite images over and again in different collage compositions throughout the course of decades, suggesting in the way of Wagnerian leitmotifs that otherwise varied collages sharing some particular image were partly interrelated in his obsessively creative mind. Betraying his sympathy for the great nineteenth-century Symbolists like Gauguin and Munch who quoted details from their own previous works the same way, Johnson’s capacity for allusion by repetition was greatly abetted by the advent around 1958 of the office photocopy machine that could endlessly replicate any source image small enough to fit folded into an envelope. No less important, I would come to realize that the muted black tones of the photocopies, ubiquitous in his mail art no less than in his more substantial collage works, implied a baseline nocturnal mood. But I never seriously heeded the pervasive obsession in his works with death, so obvious ever since Johnson took his own life in 1995. (For anyone still unfamiliar with John Walter’s 2002 eye-opening documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, put this pamphlet down right away and watch the DVD.)
Back to 1977: of course, I liked the idea that a famous artist kept up with my arcane investigations. In his initial letter Johnson asked whether I was aware of his own works incorporating the headless Étant donnés figure. Or whether I knew about the vandals who decapitated Edvard Erichsen’s 1913 mermaid sculpture installed at the Copenhagen waterfront in honor of Hans Christian Anderson’s story. (Finnish by heritage, Ray was well informed about Scandinavian art.) Taking his bait with pleasure, I hurried to call the telephone number he provided and so received an unforgettable lesson in anything goes art history. Unable to keep up with Johnson’s imaginative leaps and encyclopedic erudition, I missed more in his art than I ever yet saw. Already aware that bunnies were kid’s stuff, my three-year-old son burst into tears (“I am not a bunny head!”) not long before Easter 1994 when the mail brought a Johnson mail “portrait” of him. It never occurred to me to connect Johnson’s bunny mania to the trademark gentleman’s magazine with fold-out revelations, any more than to the hares used as performance art props by Joseph Beuys, or to the famous discussion of double images in E. H. Gombrich’s 1960 classic, Art and Illusion, referring to Wittgenstein’s commentary on a drawing of a rabbit’s head that looks like a duck’s. But in an incredible and ongoing series of publications Johnson’s fanatical friend William Wilson has described many such labyrinthine threads of interconnecting and superimposed meanings. Johnson’s works call for annotations, like those prompted by the writings of James Joyce. (In the late 1950s Johnson famously made a proto-Pop “portrait” collage of the abstruse Irish writer as a cigarette advertisement he-man.) What is most needed now where Johnson studies are concerned, however, are publications with lots of comparative illustrations showing works by other artists so that the promiscuous range of his visual references can be appreciated on the same level as his literary ones.
I finally met the artist in person when I moved back to New York in 1980 and after a few years he arranged for me to sit for one of the silhouette profiles that he used as the basis for many of his mostly black and white collages of the period. When he had the twenty-six Stuckey profile collages “finished” he brought them all to my Chinatown loft and spread them around like units of a mysterious alphabet. Always one for situational ground rules, Johnson had explained in advance that this would be my one and only viewing opportunity, after which he intended to cannibalize bits of these “portraits” as stuff for other collages under development as his imagination insatiably fed upon itself. From start to stop the process for my “portraits” coincided roughly with the retrospective of his art presented at the Nassau County Museum of Art in 1984 when I first had the opportunity to get an overview of Johnson’s art. While his works are now the subject of exhibitions all around the world, during his lifetime Johnson managed to derail many efforts to show his work. But he seemingly adored curator Phyllis Stigliano, who arranged to borrow from a variety of impressive institutional and private lenders, attesting to how widely collected Johnson was as an artist, notwithstanding his own self-effacing outlook. Contrary to the ever more inflated size widespread in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s art, nothing in this show was over thirty inches high. The issue of intimate scale aside, the exhibition made it quite clear that Johnson was unsurpassed as a collage artist throughout this thirty-year period. Lucy Lippard put it especially well in 1999: “made by the most tenderly time-consuming methods,” Johnson’s collages are “overflowing with wit, charm and enigma.” A longstanding Johnson fan, Lippard excused herself in 1973 for leaving Johnson out of her famous account of de-materialized art from 1966-1972. According to Madeline Gins, Johnson was furious. In truth, Johnson was far more than a collage artist, as we learned at the 1984 opening night, on which occasion one of the guests was Frances Beatty, who has subsequently taken charge of the artist’s estate. Johnson’s old friend, Timothy Baum recalled how the artist spent the evening outside the museum rather than inside. For those who noticed (and I did not) it was a performance. Suggesting his discomfort as an artist with the idea of being the center of attention, suggesting even contempt for the concepts of recognition and status, Johnson’s behavior was just one more sign that he was contemplating his own permanent self-removal.
Utilizing scraps displaced from various possibly unrelated printed papers as parts of amalgamated images, strangely multifarious, collage as a mode diagrams and frames the capacity of imagination to experience at once any number of different times and places, people, things and feelings in all sorts of ways as a potluck stream of consciousness. More than any kind of new technology collage is what is essentially modern about twentieth-century art. And yet with its impure intermixture of means, collage continues to be marginalized as an exception in museum collections organized along the lines of old-fashioned mediums or in displays predicated on large (and so, supposedly important) works. With the exception of caricature and comic strip art, collage is the static art form best suited to humor and play, still antithetical to many people’s standards for truly great art. The ambivalent status of collage could only make it more appealing to Johnson who enjoyed every chance to make light of sacred culture cows.
For an artist who would decide to specialize in collage, Johnson came of age at an auspicious moment. After schooling at the ultra-progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in 1948 he settled in Manhattan where presumably he attended the first solo exhibition of Black Mountain instructor Willem de Kooning presented that same year at the Egan Gallery. Both as process art and as fluid black and white compositions, many of Johnson’s collages of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s recall de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s that so appealed to Johnson’s influential neighbor, John Cage, because they had no center of interest. These nocturnal works show traces of de Kooning’s dynamic studio practice of cutting up his own drawings and then merging the remnants from different ones, so to incorporate (and preserve) previous ideas in constantly evolving hybrid images. In 1949 Johnson likely saw the three extraordinary gallery exhibitions staged by Joseph Cornell, whose orchestrations of humble old-fashioned childhood ephemera were object lessons in how a truly inspired artist gifted with an abundance of imagination could work exclusively in collage and assemblage. Cornell’s symbolist tendency to include similar elements repeatedly in many different works made over the course of years gave license for Johnson to do the same for the rest of his life. I can only assume that Johnson eventually saw some of Cornell’s collage letters. (When Johnson in 1968 moved away from Manhattan to Long Island he gained in physical proximity to de Kooning in Springs and Cornell in Flushing, far more than he lost by distancing himself from the ever more hectic downtown art scene.) Besides the opportunities to study works by de Kooning or Cornell, New York offered the young Johnson the ultimate chance to develop his connoisseurship during the collage rich survey exhibition of classic Dada art organized by Duchamp for the Sidney Janis Gallery in the spring of 1953. No wonder that Johnson, sophisticated with such experiences, destroyed so many early works from dissatisfaction. The dancer Carolyn Brown in her autobiography tells how she received a request from Johnson in 1965 to borrow a small piece of a large 1952 painting that he had already cut up and distributed piecemeal to friends in the mid-1950s. (In 1965 he was evaluating the chances of reuniting the pieces.) Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns, to choose from artists Johnson knew in the 1950s, were hardly less self-critical with respect to their own early works. Learning that Johnson incinerated substandard works in Twombly’s fireplace, Johnson’s ultra-supportive new friend William Wilson began in 1956 to save every work and every scrap of Johnson-related material that he could, an ongoing devotion.
The collage emphasis aside, no New York event would have more lasting influence on Johnson’s art than the in-depth retrospective presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 of the works of Norwegian symbolist, Edvard Munch. The mask-like faces in Munch’s urban crowd scenes, the spermatic and embryonic marginalia in his Madonna lithograph, and most of all his hallmark image of moonlight as a phallic shaft reflected on dark waters, have all haunted Johnson’s works ever since. (As if in response to the fact that Richard Lippold was working on an ambitious Sun sculpture when he and Johnson became lovers, the younger artist specialized in moon art.) Among living European artists, it was the works of Jean Dubuffet (resident in New York in the early 1950s) teeming with graffiti faces and jigsaw puzzle piece shapes that exerted the most lasting impact on Johnson. When he adopted a monkish look by shaving his balding head, Johnson began slightly to resemble Dubuffet in appearance (and to resemble van Gogh in the 1888 Self-Portrait famously gifted to Gauguin). Look-alikes are everywhere in Johnson’s art. The famous Carjat photograph of Rimbaud that Johnson used as the basis for the cover illustration to the 1957 New Directions edition of Illuminations looks to me rather like the Pop poet portrayed in Elvis Presley #2, made at the same time. Of course, in relationship to the older Lippold, Johnson in the 1950s himself played Rimbaud to a more established Verlaine. Johnson presumably read the 1961 biography of Rimbaud by Enid Starkie, which stressed the source materials that inspired the young Symbolist. As if making a case for Johnson’s insightful brand of appropriation, Starkie concluded: “genius might be said to be the faculty for clever theft.”
An exhibition earlier this year at Andrew Roth in New York featured the mail sent by Johnson to Carolyn and Earle Brown already in the mid-1950s. The many enclosures were rendered with considerably more refinement than the photocopied mail art that the prolific Johnson sent off widely beginning in the early 1960s. No matter what the contents of his postings, however, Johnson’s concern for mail was evident already in the 1940s in illustrated letters that he carefully preserved. One precociously self-aware mailing to his parents includes a watercolor of a boy with Johnson’s features listening to the buzz of a cross-pollinating bee. Tailored provocatively to his gossipy personal relationships with the recipients, in the 1950s Johnson’s letters prompted him to integrate text and image incessantly and he soon became a virtuoso, rivaling and surpassing his associates Rauschenberg and Twombly, no less addicted to text-image art. Considering the amount of time Johnson devoted to his letters with their references to various art personalities and issues, it hardly comes as a surprise that Johnson included the famously letter-mad Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo among the seventeen historic figures he planned to celebrate around 1970 in “Famous People Memorial collage-paintings.” Whereas van Gogh wrote the bulk of his letters to a single confidant, however, Johnson as an only child developed a sprawling brotherhood and sisterhood of correspondents. Parallels between Johnson and van Gogh are striking in hindsight: both artists were compulsively and widely interested in art and literature, both preferred to move away to small towns on the periphery of the art world and, of course, both took their own lives. From today’s perspective it seems incredible that Johnson’s library did not contain any edition of van Gogh’s letters. (But then it is incredible that van Gogh, as if unaware, never mentioned the published correspondence of Delacroix.)
How about a collected edition of Johnson’s countless letters?! Although it would be seemingly impossible to track down all of them, in imagination such a compilation would be no less a literary treasure than a visual feast. In its small way, The Paper Snake, Johnson’s 1965 book based upon his mailings to fellow Fluxus artist, Dick Higgins, gives a good idea of what such a huge undertaking could yield. Johnson’s collected correspondence would probably begin with the letters written home to Detroit from Black Mountain, among them an October 29, 1945, letter in which the 18-year-old confided: “I plan on getting a job as a mail man when I come home for Christmas vacation.” The bulk of the letters would be an antic journalistic record of Johnson’s remarkable art world, spanning at least three generations of cutting edge artists, dancers, musicians, critics, curators, dealers, collectors and art groupies. As for Johnson’s non-mail art, there has long been talk of a catalogue raisonné, with Stigliano volunteering to undertake the task already in the 1980s, when it was still impossible to imagine the scope of his output as a whole. Of necessity such a publication will be one of the strangest oeuvre catalogues ever. Whereas his performances and activities could be described in conventional chronological order, for the most part his collages will need to be described as works in progress over a lifetime. Unlike the works of any previous artist, these collages are often inscribed with three or more different dates, as Johnson made modifications, adding bits of his own earlier works (and so erasing evidence of their existence for future cataloguers). Cross-references will abound of necessity, just as they do in his works with all their starts and stops. Whatever the rules of the game turn out to be, however, this eventual overview should establish Johnson’s achievement s among the richest bodies of art from the second half of the last century.
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