Ray Johnson: “Something nearly always leads to an apparently disparate other.”

Affinities, Interviews, News Section, Ray Johnson

July 31st, 2014


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


Human collage, mail art, and punning with the nothing master.



Almost twenty years after his death, Ray Johnson continues to be revealed as one of the most consequential figures in American contemporary art. The progenitor of correspondence art and an influential pioneer of pop art and conceptual art (though he eschewed all of these monikers), Johnson’s curiosity resulted in an immense body of work that spans collage, correspondence, performance, sculpture, drawing, painting, and book arts. For better or worse, he embodied that over-glorified and under-recognized role of “the artist’s artist.” Johnson’s dynamic life-art unfolded within a nexus of artists and media that read as a who’s who and what’s what of American art from the 1950s through 1970s, and yet he systematically refused or flouted all opportunities to popularize his work through mainstream art commerce.

Grace Glueck once wrote to me that Johnson sent letters to academics and journalists in the art world whose attention he wanted. Maybe, but it certainly wasn’t fame he was after. So I guess the question is, what kind of attention? From what I can tell, Johnson was highly selective about whom in the art establishment he tried to engage. He sent letters to academic figures who he thought could and hopefully would correspond with him the way he wanted—persons who might match his intellect and interests, and parry with his acerbic wit; persons who might be game to enter into an alternative kind of correspondence via the oblique and contiguous relationships of words, ideas, and images. Clive Phillpot was one such favorite correspondent and friend of Ray Johnson’s. Since Johnson’s death, Phillpot has become one of the foremost scholars of his work. It was an honor to be able to talk with Clive and plumb his unique and illuminating insight into Johnson’s art and person.


Elizabeth Zuba How did you meet Ray or first come to know his work?

Clive Phillpot In April 1966 I saw the inaugural issue of Mario Amaya’s new magazine, Art & Artists. There was an essay by Bill Wilson with an image that stayed in my mind—a deadpan photo of Ray in front of a Howard Johnson sign. I saw some of his work in London at a pop art exhibition, then in a one-man show featuring his “Potato Masher” works at the Angela Flowers Gallery in 1973. At that stage I did not really respond to the collages.

I moved to New York and probably came across Ray’s work here and there. Then in October 1980 John Russell wrote about me in a column in The New York Times, alongside a portrait photo. I think this, together with publicity from Franklin Furnace Archive, put me into Ray’s orbit. He sent me an envelope containing several pages stamped: Please add to and return to Ray Johnson. I responded and seem to have acquitted myself respectably since more mail followed. And the final piece of our connection came together when I actually met Ray while I was visiting the “Writing and Reading” exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in September 1981, which included his work. I spotted him among the vitrines and introduced myself.

EZ Was the article in the Times on your scholarship on artist’s books or your work at MoMA? Would you venture to surmise what guided Ray in his choices to pull someone into his orbit?

CP It was related to both in a way. In his column, Russell stated that I was the librarian of MoMA, but he was focusing on a show I had done for Franklin Furnace on artists’ magazines that accompanied earlier modern movements, including Surrealism and Dada. I think Ray picked up on these movements, on the museum, on Franklin Furnace, and the fact that I was talking about the “body language of movement magazines.” He would respond to stories about people in the press, in the movies, on television, and write to them out of the blue—as he did with me.

He would also write to people he found in phone books who had interesting names, or others who were also named Johnson. He would write to people with a certain status like Joan Mondale, or movie stars like Joan Crawford, often without any introduction. He also wrote to such people as Jacques Derrida, though I imagine that the 1988 letter addressed to Derrida in your book was never actually sent to him. In September 1991 Ray told me he had just sent his first letter to Derrida after agonizing for ages. But the biggest galaxy of correspondents collected and connected by Ray was the art world: artists, critics, curators, dealers, et cetera, and many of these correspondences were among the longest lasting.

EZ Did he say why he agonized over writing to Derrida? That seems very unlike Ray to think twice about writing to someone. It makes me muse on why Derrida may have been of particular importance to him, but perhaps you have more concrete insight?


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

CP Two things seem relevant. One of them is that, I believe, Ray became friendly with Derrida’s translator, Alan Bass (whose name, Ray said, made him a “sitting patsy”). The other is that he got hold of Derrida’s book The Post Card. He later told me he had finally sent his first letter to Derrida via Alan Bass and that he had heard back that Derrida was interested in corresponding. Ray was working on a piece about him in the summer of 1991, and soon after seems to have had the possibility of actually meeting the writer, but he said, “I’m shy about meeting him.” I don’t know if it ever took place.

EZ Can you tell us a little about your correspondence with Ray? A sense of the communication? Any particularly memorable exchanges?

CP I was in Moscow in August 1991 for a conference. After three uneventful days, President Gorbachev disappeared. For three days his whereabouts were unknown, because a coup had occurred. I sent a postcard to Ray (and others) from Red Square, saying that, though surrounded by tanks and military vehicles, I was okay. When I got back to the US and related my adventures to Ray, he sent me a bunny head containing my name—dropped out white on black, as usual—but with my name running vertically, which was not the usual way. When I asked him about this he reminded me that I had reproduced a bunny head of Karl Marx in the Philadelphia exhibition catalogue for “More Works By Ray Johnson” vertically, and had misunderstood that the head should have been horizontal, in reference to all the toppled statues (actually mostly of Lenin) in Eastern Europe. The fact that the Karl Marx head was horizontally augmented with Please send to Barnett Newman should have alerted me, but KARL MARX went the other way—and so did I. Thereafter Clive Phillpot bunny heads uniquely had the name running upwards. And just to add another wrinkle, the reference to Barnett Newman had, I think, something to do with “black marks.”

EZ Ha! So, “black marks” as in Newman’s vertical black marks (here toppled) and also Marx as in McCarthyism’s black(listed) Marx?

CP I have just remembered a source of the “black marks.” In 1992 Ray sent me an envelope of pages that included one like that reproduced in your book, also dominated by DE/AR in blue, stacked like a Robert Indiana, but with black overprinting. Also in the envelope was a page just bearing the letters TA/BM in green. This mystified me, but fortunately Ray had included a card which said, TA/BM = is thrown away black marks, which, I think, conflates two references to his work, one of them by the writer Marco Livingstone. There was also a reference to Chou En-Lai, but that’s another story. Your response to all this is exactly right. A whirlwind of associations out of one or two Johnsonian juxtapositions!

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