Ray Johnson's Art World is on view at Richard L. Feigen & Co. through January 16.
Saturday, January 10, 11-5
ALWAYS ON HIS OWN TERMS
Ray Johnson Defies Categories 20 Years After His Death
By Randy Kennedy, The New York Times
January 8, 2015
Twenty years ago next week, the artist Ray Johnson jumped off a low
bridge in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and backstroked placidly out to sea. Two
teenage girls saw him plunge into the frigid water and tried to alert
the police, but when they found the station closed they went to see a
movie instead, a detail many of Mr. Johnson’s friends said would have
Why he took his life at the age of 67 — when he was healthy, had money
in the bank for the first time and was one of the most revered
underground artists of the last half of the 20th century — is a question
none of those friends have been able to answer. (The poet Diane di
Prima wrote angrily: “I can’t imagine what you thought you were
doing/what was the point of jumping off that bridge/after so many years
of playing it cool.”) But in many ways Mr. Johnson conducted his death
exactly as he had conducted his life and his work — enigmatically,
defiantly on his own terms and with an intense privacy that somehow
coexisted with a compulsively public persona.
Mr. Johnson heralded several art movements, almost simultaneously. He
was making work that looked like Pop in the 1950s, years before his
friend and sometime rival Andy Warhol did. He was a performance artist
before there was a term for such a thing. He mined ground later occupied
by Conceptual art (whose pretensions he loved to razz: “Oh dat consept
art,” says a figure in one of his collages.) And he was the father of
mail art, spreading his collages and Delphic text works through a vast
web of fellow artists, friends and complete strangers, making him a
one-man social-media platform for a pre-Internet age.
But every time mainstream recognition approached, Mr. Johnson — who
lived as frugally as a monk and played the art world’s holy fool —
seemed to dance away. Courted in the 1990s by the pinnacle of commercial
acceptance, the Gagosian Gallery, he turned even that courtship into
farce by demanding a million dollars each for collages then selling in
the four-figure range; they’ve since advanced only into five figures.
“He was a guerrilla fighter against materialism and fame, and in a sense
he’s still fighting today,” said Frances F. L. Beatty, president of
Richard L. Feigen & Co., the gallery that represents Mr. Johnson’s
But the art world may be finally starting to conquer Mr. Johnson’s will
to resist it. A spate of books, exhibitions and museum acquisitions has
come along in recent months, as his work has been discovered, yet again,
by a generation of younger artists, like Matt Connors, Hanna Liden,
Adam McEwen and Harmony Korine. This time, as money and power loom ever
more powerfully in art circles, it seems to be Mr. Johnson’s role as a
heroic-comic Bartleby that makes him particularly attractive to younger
artists. But the shape-shifting ways in which he operated outside art’s
normal channels — through the post office, street performances and
artist’s books — also resonate for 21st-century artists whose work fits
uneasily into the conventions of museums and galleries.
Continue reading the main story
Performa, the performance-art biennial, is organizing a tribute to Mr.
Johnson for its 2015 iteration, which takes place in November. One
aspect will be the dissemination — through ads, mailings and websites —
of Johnson material, like a silhouette of his profile that he mailed out
during his lifetime and asked people to alter and send on. The idea,
said RoseLee Goldberg, Performa’s founder and director, is to stimulate a
similar kind of free-form exchange now, online, on paper, and through
other means, with Mr. Johnson as presiding spirit.
“We want to start it very early, so it will have time to grow extra arms and legs and heads,” she said.
As correspondent and collagist, Mr. Johnson was manically prolific. Even
now, bins, binders and file folders full of unseen and largely
unstudied material reside in closets — and an unused bathroom — at the
East 69th Street townhouse of the Feigen gallery, “the Ali Baba’s cave
of Ray’s archive,” as Ms. Beatty calls it. (Some of that work is on
display in a show at the gallery through Jan. 16, “Ray Johnson’s Art
Waiting recently for a visit from curators from the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, who were interested in seeing some Johnson works for
acquisition, Ms. Beatty flipped on a closet light to show
floor-to-ceiling stacks of light-blue archival boxes.
“You could happily, as far as I’m concerned, spend the rest of your life
right in here,” she said. (A small army of doctoral students and
scholars is indeed at work now sorting through his vast output.)
Raised in a working-class family in Detroit, Mr. Johnson hit the ground
running as an artist before he was out of his teens. In 1945, he ended
up at Black Mountain College, the Modernist hothouse near Asheville,
N.C., where he studied with Joseph Albers and Robert Motherwell and
began friendships with John Cage, Jasper Johns and the sculptor Richard
Lippold, with whom he was romantically involved for many years.
After moving to New York and working as a studio assistant to the
painter Ad Reinhardt, he began making works that he called “moticos” —
possibly an anagram of the word “osmotic” — filled to overflowing with
the pop-culture imagery from magazines, advertising and television that
was starting to saturate society. Elvis Presley and James Dean surfaced
repeatedly, like twin deities, and Mr. Johnson often took this work to
the streets, displaying it on sidewalks and in Grand Central Terminal to
generally perplexed passers-by.
“Some people just didn’t get it, and other people like me thought he was
an absolute genius,” said the painter James Rosenquist, with whom Mr.
Johnson corresponded for years, often asking him to forward mailed
artworks on to Willem de Kooning.
“Sometimes I did what he asked and sometimes I just couldn’t part with
them,” Mr. Rosenquist said, adding: “I really miss him because I
accumulate all these strange things that I’d like to mail him, but I
can’t because he’s not there.”
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Influenced by ideas of chance and Zen Buddhism, Mr. Johnson came to
develop a hieroglyphic-like language in which image and word melted into
each other, a language so complex it cried out not for curators but
William S. Wilson, one of Mr. Johnson’s closest friends and a leading
scholar of his work, recalled the almost religious gravity with which
Mr. Johnson viewed not only making art but also putting it into the
world. Mr. Wilson once drove Mr. Johnson to see the publisher Harry
Abrams, who was interested in buying work. Mr. Johnson emerged from Mr.
Abrams’s office in a fury with his briefcase of collages, Mr. Wilson
said, “and flung himself on my lap crying because Abrams had asked him
to throw in a 13th collage for free if he bought a dozen, as if Ray was
Of course, such a stance meant that developing a market for Mr.
Johnson’s work during his lifetime was next to impossible, and in many
ways his critical stature still suffers because of this. “He kind of
landed by default in the book and ephemera world, and to a large extent
that’s really where his work has been living,” said Brendan Dugan, owner
of the NoHo bookstore and gallery Karma, which organized an exhibition
of late Johnson work last fall.
Mr. Dugan said he had been drawn to Mr. Johnson in part because of his
avid following among younger, punk-influenced artists but also those
whose work seems to have little affinity with Mr. Johnson’s, like Mr.
Connors, an abstract painter who is featured in “The Forever Now:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” on view now at the Museum
of Modern Art.
In an email, Mr. Connors said: “I am always very excited by artists who
create their own very specific codes, languages and grammars. He’s
speaking his own language and talking to and about specific people, but
he also loves to share it with you.” The effect is “kind of like a queer
and gossipy downtown Joseph Beuys.”
For the show at Karma, Mr. Dugan was allowed to pore over reams of paper
works in the Feigen archive, made by Mr. Johnson mostly in the last
decade of his life, “and what I saw was a total discovery to me, because
a lot of it was very raw and very punk,” he said. “Here was this guy in
his 60s, and he’s still up to it, to the very end, pulling in new
material from the culture and making this very weird stuff that feels
very contemporary now.”
Ms. Beatty, who struggled for years to get Mr. Johnson to agree to a
major exhibition at the Feigen gallery, remembered that he called her
three days before he died. “And he said, ‘Listen, Frances, I’m planning
to do something big and after that, you’ll finally be able to do your
show.’ And I had no idea what he was talking about, but I thought maybe
he was actually giving in, after playing cat and mouse for so long.
“Well, of course, little did I know, and that’s how it always was with
Ray — how little did we know,” Ms. Beatty said, adding, “It was a
lived-for-art life, 100 percent, all the way to the end.”
Benvenuto nella visione di questo Blog di Arte Contemporanea dell' ARCHIVIO OPHEN VIRTUAL ART MUSEUM, un archivio privato Italiano creato da Giovanni Bonanno nel 1989 in provincia di Como. Attualmente si trova a Salerno.
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