ArtWeekend

The Unknowable Ray Johnson

When Ray Johnson killed himself at the age of 67, the air of mystery surrounding his personality, life, and art only thickened.

Three of Ray Johnson’s signature bunny drawings bearing the names of modern artists, including Johnson himself (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

An enigma must protect its secrets.

So it was that, even to those who knew him, the artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was something of a cipher. When he killed himself in January 1995, at the age of 67, by jumping off a bridge in the small town of Sag Harbor, at the eastern end of Long Island, the air of mystery that had surrounded his personality, life, and art thickened.

As Andrew Moore and John Walter make clear in their 2002 documentary film about Johnson’s life and accomplishments, How to Draw a Bunny, most of his friends and associates were stunned by the news that he had committed suicide. Although it certainly shook them up, they also recognized that very few among them had ever managed to cross a certain, well-maintained borderline of intimacy with the simultaneously engaged and coolly detached art-maker.

Soon thereafter, as details from a police investigation and other sources emerged, they also began to suspect that the seemingly ubiquitous but still unknowable Johnson had carefully staged his death in a manner that appeared to have made it the culminating, cleverest, most quizzical episode in a long and hard-to-classify artistic career. If, while he was alive, Ray Johnson had perfected his performance of the role of “Ray Johnson,” then why couldn’t — or wouldn’t — he have painstakingly stage-managed the final act of his life’s what-you-see-is-not-necessarily-what-you-get spectacle?

Cover of Matthew Marks Gallery’s new book about Ray Johnson, containing an essay by Brad Gooch (photo courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery)

Lately, more than two decades since Johnson’s death, both the scholarship and the curatorial activity plumbing his vast, multifaceted oeuvre have gathered considerable momentum. Now, admirers of his innovative, mixed-media “paintings,” collages, and mail art (genres that, in his work, often overlapped) may find some recent Johnson-focused news especially exciting.

Matthew Marks Gallery, in New York’s Chelsea district, for example, just presented Ray Johnson, a summertime mini-retrospective of the artist’s career. To accompany it, the gallery published Ray Johnson, an illustrated volume that documented that presentation and also serves as a stand-alone, compact introduction to the artist’s creative trajectory, aesthetic outlook, and life story. It features an insightful essay by the poet and author Brad Gooch, who is well known for his 1993 biography of the American poet and curator Frank O’Hara.

In a recent telephone interview, Gooch, who is now working on a biography of the artist Keith Haring, observed, “There was nothing somber about Ray Johnson’s art. It was clever, playful — sort of deceptively conceptual. He was interested in the work of the artist Joseph Cornell, who, like him, also employed collage and assemblage techniques. Considering Ray’s use of language in his work and the idiosyncratic, unclassifiable nature of his art, it might make more sense to think about it relation to the spirit of the New York School of poetry.”

Gooch was referring to the group of American poets of the 1960s that included, among others, O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and the recently deceased John Ashbery. Collectively, their writings were influenced by surrealist and abstract-expressionist art, and other modernist tendencies. Gooch added, “In Ray’s works you find a mix of the queer-campy, the jokey, the knowledgeable; they’re not pretentious but they have a considerable aura. There’s an intimate quality to his work.”

Ray Johnson, “Calm Center” (circa 1949-51), oil on board in artist-made frame, 28 5/8 x 28 5/8 x 3/4 inches (photo courtesy of Ray Johnson Estate and David Zwirner)

Some of those characteristics of Johnson’s collage- and drawing-based art are in evidence in the selection of his works featured in Josef and Anni and Ruth and Ray, the inaugural group exhibition now on view at David Zwirner’s latest New York venue — his third — which has just opened in an elegant townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

It is being presented in cooperation with Adler Beatty, a new art advisory company founded by Frances Beatty and her son, Alexander Adler. Beatty, the longtime head of Ray Johnson’s estate, had also focused on the artist’s oeuvre for many years in her previous work for Richard L. Feigen & Co., the gallery that, until recently, had been housed in the new quarters shared by her firm and Zwirner’s just-opened outpost.

This 26-piece survey, along with archival photos and artists’ letters, examines works made by Josef Albers and Anni Albers, as well as those of the California-born, Japanese-American Ruth Asawa and of Johnson, a prodigiously talented only child who was born and brought up in Detroit, Michigan, where he began his formal artistic training at a local technical high school.

Ray Johnson working on an unidentified painting with his work “Calm Center” on the wall behind him, circa 1948-52 (photographer unknown, photo courtesy of Ray Johnson Estate and David Zwirner)

Then, in 1945, young Ray made his way to Black Mountain College, in western North Carolina, where the Alberses had joined the faculty in 1933; Asawa would arrive there in 1946. Zwirner’s uptown exhibition focuses on the creative and personal dialogues that developed between the Alberses, as artist-instructors, and their younger, student colleagues, Asawa and Johnson.

On display are works created by all four artists while at Black Mountain and in the years that followed. While there, Johnson fell in with such peers as the sculptor Richard Lippold (1915-2002) and the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992), among others who would later earn places in American modernism’s canon.

In Johnson’s “Calm Center” (circa 1949-51, oil on board in an artist-made frame), checkerboard squares are filled with vertical, horizontal, or diagonal multicolored stripes, or with concentric rectangles, or with tiny, multicolored checkerboards themselves. The center square is black, making it, in comparison with its immediate neighbors, ostensibly empty — or immeasurably full in its own color-saturated, Zen-void-opposite way. The composition offers something of a peculiar nod to the rectilinear discipline of Josef Albers’ signature painting series, “Homage to the Square” (1950-1976).

Ray Johnson, “Untitled (Moticos with Red Ground)” (1958), collage on cardboard panel, 11 1/8 x 7 1/2 inches (photo courtesy of Ray Johnson Estate and David Zwirner)

So does Johnson’s “Untitled (Moticos with Red Ground)” (1958, collage on cardboard panel), a composition whose smooth, solid, blood-red top portion contrasts with its lower section, in which the artist has laid down horizontal strips of red-painted pages from newspapers or magazines to create a surface that is textured and dynamic. A square cut out of the center of the lower area exposes the collage’s white cardboard support and calls attention to its subtle, sculptural character.

(Johnson coined the word “moticos” in 1955 — it’s an anagram of “osmotic” — to refer to the small collage panels he produced from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s, or to texts he wrote during that period. His definition could be expansive, too. He once suggested, almost as if describing some kind of epiphany, that a view of a passing train might be seen as, or might reveal, a motico, and that, in effect, moticos could be found everywhere. He wrote, “I wish someone were here to point one out to me, because I know they exist.”)

Elsewhere in the Zwirner exhibition, in such vibrant collages (once owned by Ruth Asawa) as “Untitled (Motico, William D. Bayles),” “Untitled (Motico, Cowboy Two),” and “Untitled (Motico, Odiferous Wood)” (all dated 1955, all mixed-media works), Johnson’s wit and inventiveness find expression in simple, limited palettes; the animating play of geometric and random cut-paper forms against plain white grounds; and photographic elements that both stand out from and blend into the puzzle-like images.

Following his period at Black Mountain, where he had studied color and design with Josef Albers, painting with Robert Motherwell, and advertising art with Paul Rand, among other subjects, Johnson moved with Richard Lippold to New York in 1949. Their relationship, which would last several years, had become what Lippold, in How to Draw a Bunny, described as “intimate” and “loving.”

In time, Johnson would become friendly with Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, James Rosenquist, and other ground-breaking artists of the 1950s and 1960s; more recently, some curators and art historians have examined the apparent influence Johnson had on his colleagues, what with his pioneering use of showbiz-star photos and other pop-culture source material, including Lucky Strike cigarette logos, as well as everyday images or symbols. His imagination and influence are also manifest in his voracious remixing of just about any kind of paper or found object — dry cleaners’ shirt cardboards here, what looks like a wooden stool leg there, not to mention canceled postage stamps and a magazine photo of a serving of pollock filets (in honor of Jackson Pollock).

Ray Johnson, “14 Squares” (circa 1956), collage on cardboard panel, 20 1/4 x 15 inches (photo courtesy of Ray Johnson Estate and David Zwirner)

In retrospect, many of these exercises in borrowing and reassigning meaning to his repurposed materials — sometimes appearing as essays in ambiguity and often incorporating visual or verbal puns — may be seen as textbook examples of postmodernist appropriationist and recontextualizing gestures, long before similar self-conscious pomo “strategies” had a name.

Recently, I also learned that Johnson may be getting the monographic study his life and work have long deserved. Ellen Levy, the author of Criminal Ingenuity: Moore, Cornell, Ashbery, and the Struggle Between the Arts (Oxford University Press, 2011) and currently a visiting associate professor in Pratt Institute’s humanities and media studies department, is now working on a first-ever, critical biography of Johnson.

Last week Levy spoke with me about her research-in-progress. She observed, “In 1965, a New York Times writer dubbed Johnson ‘New York’s most famous unknown artist,’ and the sobriquet stuck. But Johnson’s paradoxical position vis-à-vis the art scene, at once inside, looking out, and outside, looking in, is not just a matter of biographical fact, but rather a central theme of his art itself.” That, she explained, is a facet of the artist’s work that fascinates her and is central to telling the story of his career. Levy added, “Johnson is, simply put, one of the great historians of the New York art world in its period of greatest growth and influence. A weird, antic, and corrosive sort of historian to be sure, one who feels himself being left behind by history even as he writes it.”

Frances Beatty, who oversees the late Ray Johnson’s estate, with one of the artist’s works incorporating a photo of his 1957 design for the cover of poet Arthur Rimbaud’s book, “Illuminations,” published by New Directions in the US (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Alexander Adler pointed out that, in 2014, Feigen’s gallery and Johnson’s estate worked with Karma, a New York gallery, to present an exhibition at the latter’s downtown-Manhattan venue of previously unseen works and to produce a lush, limited-edition book documenting them. Adler said that he has noticed a rising tide of attention from younger collectors and curators for Johnson’s unusual creations. “My mother and her team spent years sorting out and archiving Ray’s collages, mail art, and personal library. Now his work can be — and needs to be — recontextualized for new audiences. The resources exist for serious scholarship, and researchers are making serious inquiries.”

His mother, Frances Beatty, shared with me an anecdote she cites in How to Draw a Bunny, recalling, “When I was working with Feigen, for many years, we wanted to do a substantial Ray Johnson show, but Ray kept putting it off. It never happened.” Finally, she explained, “One day he called me and said, ‘I’m going to do something, and you’ll be able to have your show.’ He laughed a cheerful laugh.” A few days later, she received a call with the news of Johnson’s death — and, in subsequent years, indeed, Feigen’s gallery was able to mount the exhibitions that, given the artist’s reluctance to publicly present his work while he was alive, had been nearly impossible to produce.

“In many ways,” Beatty added, “Ray is still controlling the narratives about his life, his art, his legacy. Those of us who knew him, we can sense it.”

Just how enigmatic is that?

Josef and Anni and Ruth and Ray continues at David Zwirner (34 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 28, 2017.

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