Ray Johnson: Far-fetched metonymies, alphabetic glyphs and prototweets

News Section, Reviews

August 26th, 2014


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


You’ve Got Mail


Originally published August 1, 2014


In the art world, Ray Johnson (1927 – 1995) has long been a cult figure, especially since 2002 when John Walter and Andrew Moore produced their documentary film How to Draw a Bunny – a touching account of Johnson’s lifelong effort to renew familiar art forms (painting, collage, performance art, graffiti). As a poet, on the other hand, Johnson is virtually unknown. Kevin Killian, in his essay included in Not Nothing, admits that he knew little about Ray Johnson before receiving this commission, confusing him with the poet Ronald Johnson, who, however different in sensibility, embodied similar queer values and used comparable erasure techniques. Both The Paper Snake, a facsimile of the Fluxus artist Dick Higgin’s inventive 1965 assemblage of ephemera received from Johnson, and Not Nothing, a generous and beautifully produced selection of the artist’s “mail art” and related writings, testify to a preoccupation with language that allies Johnson to the Black Mountain poets (he attended the college from 1945-48, studied with Josef Albers, and later John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Allan Kaprow), especially Robert Creeley, as well as to such later minimalists as Vito Acconci and Aram Saroyan.

Johnson’s early collage works which he called “moticos” – the word is an anagram of “osmotic,” referring to the liquid flow between two semi-permeable membranes – intersperse language games involving overtype (like the “TIDBIT” series, where one can always make out the word “tidbit” beneath any number of verbal-visual “covers”) with his signature glyphs – the Lucky Strike logo, the bunny head, the paper snake, the “bat-tub.” The moticos graced the walls of such transient galleries as Tender Buttons, on the Upper East Side, where Johnson was known to stage, for a select group of friends, his happenings called “Nothings” – Cagean events at which whatever the audience happened to do became the performance. The imagery of the moticos is sometimes cluttered, more Pop comic strip than Joseph Cornell, whom Johnson considered, along with Marcel Duchamp, his master. The artist, highly self-critical, discarded many: indeed, in 1954-55, he held a “cremation” in Cy Twombly’s fireplace. But, as these two books suggest, Johnson’s writing may, in the end, be more lasting than his visual images. The “moth ball” valentines and what seem like prototweets – “I am now / in my frog / legs frogs / leg period” or “I went to the sea and peed and kept peeing and a mermaid threw a big green turd at me” – are juxtaposed to mock catalogues and playlets that have retained their charm.


Image from Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, courtesy of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and the Estate of Ray Johnson


But it is Mail Art, with its strong ties to Conceptualism, that makes Johnson, its founding father, so interesting to a current generation of poets which is experimenting with variants such as Twitter poetry. There exist many anthologies of poetry-tweets, featuring such rhyming stanzas as “Take control, power of will. / Dig a hole, climb that hill. / Target a goal, patience nil. / Pay the toll, struggle still,” or “twaikus” such as “Beneath the morning sun / The city is painted gold / People move like bees through honey.” At a time when most conventionally printed poetry observes no rules except lineation, the 140-character Twitter limit may be prompting new poetic challenges.

Johnson himself did not live to witness the advent of email and the internet, much less social media. He used an ordinary typewriter, striking out and typing over errors as he went along, and enhanced his verbal messages with image fragments, graphics, drawings, black quasi alphabetic glyphs, and scraps of commercial packaging – whatever came to hand – before mailing the results to a select circle of friends and acquaintances. By the mid-1950s, Johnson had some 200 regular correspondents, who were urged to forward the messages to others: the “New York Correspondance School,” as it was called, aimed to popularize the New York School aesthetic by aligning it with the then ubiquitous correspondence schools (the forerunners of our own Distance Learning online courses) that offered courses in anything from electrical repair and stenography to life drawing. The “mail art” disseminated to Johnson’s Correspondance School (he insisted on spelling it with an “a,” perhaps in an allusion to Baudelaire’s correspondances), was then conceived as a democratic, egalitarian alternative to the mainstream gallery system: here anyone might (and did) take part in what was a participatory art movement. All that was needed was a US postage stamp.


Continue reading Times Literary Supplement review by Marjorie Perloff.