Bill Berkson on Ray Johnson at The Meeting for Ray Johnson

Affinities, Ray Johnson

November 25th, 2014


On Saturday, November 22, The Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco hosted “A Meeting for Ray Johnson.” These are Bill Berkson’s remarks. (Many thanks to Bill for letting us reproduce them here!)


Ray Johnson


I knew Ray Johnson only a little. I don’t think we ever exchanged two words. But I had a sense of him. Slight, bald, with peach fuzz up top, he looked a little the Art Baxter cartoon character “Henry,” whom Joe Brainard liked to draw.

Anyway, these things would come in the mail: envelope, folder 8 1/2 X 11 sheet, a bunch of little glyphs with the names of New York people—mostly art-world people—in a time when that world was just about to be too much.

“Will Bill Berkson be the Best-Dressed man at the Ray Johnson event at Kadist on November 22, 2014?”—or at some specified meeting of the New York Correspondence School circa 1966?

Things came in the mail. It was a great time for mail. I don’t know what I did with the things Ray Johnson sent—threw them in the wasetbasket probably, or if I held onto them, took them to Andreas Brown at the Gotham Book Mart for book money.

Kenneth Koch remarked of Frank O’Hara that he felt “that the silliest idea actually in his head was better than the most profound idea actually in somebody else’s head, which seems obvious once you know it, but how many poets have lived how many total years without ever finding it out?”

The 1960s was a great time for silliness.

You have to remember that “silly” has “soulful” somewhere at its root, etymologically speaking.

Ray Johnson creation of a character named ‘Greta Garbage” is a great piece of silliness.

When you think of it, everything that Andy Warhol and the Factory gang did was completely silly. Andy et alia sort shoved this big custard pie of silliness in the face of the art world, and the art world lapped it up. Now huge books are written about the phenomenon.

Juxtapose Kenneth’s delirious love of Frank’s hilarity with Larry Kearney’s answer when I asked what Jack Spicer was like: ‘He was the most serious man I ever met”—which crystallized why I had always felt wary of the Spicer —but, also because Spicer could be quite funny in his way (he wrote from Boston that New Yorkers lacked a sense of humor)—so you see how flexible and turnabout this identification of the silly in person, in art, in world, can be.

Ray Johnson was interested in bringing all these people together, the people he was conscious of and probably wondered about. The way he did it was to invent a kind of social fabric of his own weaving—loose, but he seems to found extraordinary ways to connect the dots.

In New York nowadays you couldn’t get anywhere near that sort of thing—it’s too unwieldy and the general curiosity about people isn’t there. But, informal as ever, we all do something like it here.


—Bill Berkson