Ray Johnson: “A portrait of the artist as no-self”

News Section, Reviews

July 27th, 2014


(Review) Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994


Man of Letters: Ray Johnson Art in Motion


Originally July 26, 2014.


Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954-1995, recently released by Siglio Press, is edited by poet and translator Elizabeth Zuba, with an essay by poet and novelist Kevin Killian. Coinciding with its appearance is a reprint of The Paper Snake, a slim volume of Johnson’s writings originally published in 1965 by Something Else Press, which was founded by Johnson’s close friend and correspondent, poet Dick Higgins. The participation of three poets in bringing Johnson’s word-works into print is not coincidental, and while Not Nothing will make absorbing reading for those interested in mail art, Fluxus, Pop, Conceptualism, the legacies of Dada and Surrealism, the reception of Duchamp, or the downtown New York scene in the years spanned by Zuba’s selection, the two books will likewise be a pleasure for anyone beguiled by language-and-image as a field of play. For, while the increased availability of Johnson’s letters, notes, and statements subtilizes our understanding of this legendarily well-connected yet enigmatic artist, his flattened logorrheia is also just fun to read. Where else do Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol seem to collaborate on a lewd, somehow hobo-ish children’s book? How is it possible that a such a sizeable chunk of an artist’s archive should be so redolent of sensibility, yet so purged of confessional ego? Zuba writes in her introduction:

If you see language as something that is by and large not your own but rather an entity that mutates through you, then you also see the personal expression of, or dominion over, language as an illusion [….] Johnson’s letters reveal this conviction. And this approach to individual expression, indeed to identity, is critical to understanding his work—illusion, the elusive, the ephemeral and the void are the essential form and content of Johnson’s writings and mail art.

Framed by Zuba’s and Killian’s essays, Not Nothing comprises 208 plates, presented mostly in full bleed, often in color. A biographical timeline is provided, abridged from more extensive material available from the Ray Johnson Estate, along with a “Cast of Correspondents” identifying interlocutors whose names appear in the letters, postcards, notes, collages, drawings, written-over photographs, and flyers for the performance events that Johnson titled Nothings. The collection reads, in a weird way, like an epistolary novel—which is not to say that a plot coheres. “Any scrap is a scrap of information,” Johnson wrote in 1978. In 1972, he urged an addressee (in fact, it was Arturo Schwarz, the Duchamp scholar): “Please understand the nature of my work, it’s split-ness between what is a true attempt at statement and the echo of failure.” He allowed at one point, “It feels good to be called a poet-painter.” Such affirmations are as direct as this intricate manipulator of words and syntax gets. “One wearies for an actual line, something that isn’t a parody or pastiche of something else, for more than an ounce at a time of honest feeling,” admits Killian. I know what he means. Taken in isolation, bits of Johnsoniana risk a kind of gnomic inanity. They accumulate weight as snowflakes do, however—and this is another reason why it’s good that Not Nothing is long, and accompanied by The Paper Snake. (A few entries in the former are inserted in the latter as loose broadsides, as is a short essay by Frances F.L. Beatty, director of the Ray Johnson Estate.)

“Johnson reveled in abstracted places and dates, trapdoors of intention and permutations of symbols,” observes Zuba. “His biography is particularly hard to pin down and is considered a work-in-progress.” As viewers of the documentary How to Draw A Bunny (directed by John Walter and Andrew Moore in 2002) already know, Johnson is a riddle. Increasingly, however, it seems apparent that if one seeks to diagram the space between, for instance, Black Mountain College and the Factory—or, say, between the New York School and the art of social practice—that is, if one wants to consider how we got from 1954 to 2014 in thinking about word, image, audience, popular culture, the recycling of history, and the artist’s role as creator of coterie—then one could draw a Johnson bunny as a hub.

*   *   *

Ray Johnson was born on October 16, 1927, in Detroit, a Libra. He attended Black Mountain College from 1945 to 1948, studying with Josef Albers and meeting John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, and the sculptor Richard Lippold, who became, like Higgins, a lifelong friend—and who tells an interviewer in How to Draw A Bunny, “Now that I think of him after his death, I don’t think I really knew who he was. It’s very hard for me to say that. But who was this man? He kept so much of himself to himself.”

Johnson’s names for his mail-art practice include Flop Art, Snail Art, the New York Correspondance School (but then he scolded, “I do not like correspondence spelled correspondance”), Buddha University, the BLUE EYES CLUB, and the BRUE EYES CRUB. Collage-objects and events supported through his person-to-person network are known as moticos (an anagram of “osmotic”), and Nothings (i.e. non-Happenings). The merest sampling of his obsessions as illustrated in Not Nothing includes Rimbaud, James Dean, Jean Seberg, Shelley Duvall; Lucky Strike cigarettes; generic-brand peanut butter; circles (often pasted on), and squares (frequently cut out); silhouettes; Marcel Duchamp; the coincidence of Marilyn Monroe’s birth and death dates (1926-1962), and of her initials with those of Marianne Moore; Miss Moore’s tricorne hat (which the artist sought to draw, though the poet declined); doodles, among them the cockeyed rabbit, a three-eared and asymmetrically-tongued gargoyle, a goggle-eyed human, a penis-trunked elephant, a snake; and the artist’s own gap-toothed, illuminated face. (He seems to have understood that this oft-used self-portrait photograph looks uncannily like the headshot, which he also uses, of Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale.) His fascination with a Cagean Zen was, on the evidence of these writings, ornery, American, and unnervingly sincere.

*   *   *

Writing about Johnson necessitates the making of unwieldy lists, for the talismanic repetition of names—and the way in which repeating a name empties it out, leaving a semiotic silhouette—this piling-up while emptying-out was Johnson’s stock-in-trade. The parenthetical interruption seems relentlessly Johnsonian.

 *   *   *

Every writer about him repeats a sketch of his biography. One feels compelled to do it again anyway, as if retelling a favorite film or a dream, because the facts of his life and the facts of his art seem inseparable—even if “fact” becomes an inappropriate term. What Henri Pierre Roché said of Duchamp is true of Johnson: His best work was the use of his time.

Continue reading at Hyperallergic.