The Canadian Art Database

Michael Morris

Ray Johnson: An Appreciation (1999)

[From the catalogue to the exhibition, Ray Johnson How Sad I am Today, at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, October 8 - December 19, 1999. Curated by Michael Morris and Sharla Sava.]
[ 2,709 words ]


Wild Nights
Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

the Winds
To a Heart in port

Done with the Compass

Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden

Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor
In Thee!

— Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts, ed Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard UP, 1955).

Why did I receive a mysterious mailing from Ray Johnson in 1968? Probably because I had painted a canvas with the word 'nothing' in the title which had appeared in Philip Lieder's article about Vancouver in Artforum, and that my first and last names start with the same initial, 'M'. Ray informed me that he had been doing 'nothings' while everyone else had been doing 'happenings' and that now he was organizing 'meetings' of the New York Correspondence School (NYCS). Intrigued, I responded with something that seemed appropriate at the time and before long found myself under Johnson's influence. The spell spun by Johnson's correspondence would become a subtext to the development of my own relationships and concerns that continue to the present.

But I digress, to return to the upheavals of the late 1960s, when this history begins, is to return to a time when 'everything' was questioned and came up 'wanting'. Popular culture aimed at a 'revolution' that would reinvent the way we relate to the world and nowhere was this more true than in the world of art. The pop art movement in America was drawing to a close. Marcel Duchamp's concept of the ready-made and the anti-art rhetoric of Dada were being re-evaluated as a strategy for creating the 'new'. At Yale, Jacques Derrida lectured on the multiplicity of interpretation of a single topic. Through layers of interpretation one was left with thought about thought itself. Herbert Marcuse's residence at the University of California at San Diego advanced the cause of the Frankfurt School's social critique. Minimalism was superseded with new horizons being opened by Conceptualism. It is at this time that Johnson expanded his private correspondence practice by announcing a series of 'meetings' and 'reports' sent through the post to a network of individuals, formalized as members of the New York Correspondence School. The elusive nature of Johnson's work has been well noted elsewhere; whenever you feel you've 'read' a work, the next time you come to it the work has managed to slip into an entirely new context with a completely new set of reference points. This holds true for the correspondence as much as for the collages. Johnson stated 'the New York Correspondence School has no history, only a present,' which is a pun on present as now, and present as gift. Johnson loved visual / verbal puns which abound in every aspect of his work, popping up with a BOO when one least expects it. So how does one come to terms with the private nature of correspondence and the public nature of the 'formal' collages?

Collage is a slow process requiring the accumulation of numerous fragments that can hang around the studio for years before they are used. Often the original reason for saving these fragments has been pre-empted by subsequent events and the original meaning has been transformed through juxtaposition, allowing various layers of meaning to apply. Chance and randomness remain part of the process of a collage coming into being. Correspondence implies communication and exchange. It usually accumulates over a period of time and can influence the ideas of both the sender and the receiver. The richness of the activity is in the human relationship. Seeing the correspondence along with the collages creates interventions in the thought processes that question meaning; by cross-referencing the two concerns one is privee to an extended series of interpretations. Similar approaches to free association can be seen in Daniel Spoerri's 'snare picture' assemblages, presented in his book An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (New York: Something Else Press, 1966) where he describes all the objects on a dinner table, thus producing a tableaux-piege, transforming the occasion of a dinner with friends into a mythological still life. Johnson's work also compliments George Brecht's investigations into paradox (see Vicious Circles and Infinity: an Anthology of Paradoxes, Patrick Hughes and George Brecht, New York: Penguin Books, 1979). These artists' work can shed light on the nature of Johnson's concerns as seen in his 'school,' which approximates the same time frame as the Fluxus movement and to which all three artists have affiliations. Johnson is also telling us that art as a discipline is meant to be included as a topic in daily discourse rather than remaining in the ivory tower of academia. The letters inform their recipients of the author's observations and perhaps even set these in motion as ideas, themes or intentions by using the 'add to and send on' process. Although the correspondence was often puzzling at first, on second reading it would become evident that if one continued it would be understood that he hid nothing, shared everything and involved one inexorably in his world.

Johnson remarked that you don't get the point until you've got a lot of it. The point could remain mysterious if one didn't choose to follow it — that was always an option. Appreciating the associations that evolve out of the juxtapositions in a collage takes time. One can approach the collages and correspondence as fragmented narrative. They parallel the fragments of information one constantly processes whether conscious of doing so or not. Johnson's work can be understood as hypertext; he instructs one to 'add to and send on'. He allows one to move in all directions making connections and discovering links that enable one to follow clues to further meaning. The themes in this exhibition are: nothingness, water, bodily fluids and death; references to these themes recur in the collages, the correspondence and the NYCS mailings.

The collages in this exhibition span four decades — from the pivotal collage Water is Precious (1958) to the 'untitled green box' found in Johnson's home after his death in 1995. The correspondence is mostly from the late 60s through to the 70s, between Johnson and his Canadian friends. Johnson only travelled outside the United States twice in his life, both occasions were to Canada. First, in 1969 to Vancouver, to participate in the UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition Concrete Poetry, which included a collection of his collages. Then, in 1973, to visit General Idea in Toronto, whose FILE Megazine showcased the correspondence network.

The period between 1968 and 1974 is significant for the New York Correspondence School. In 1968, Johnson leaves New York City after the attempt on Warhol's life by Valerie Solanis, author of the radical feminist S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). The same night as the attack on Warhol, Johnson was mugged leaving a New York subway. He later wrote to Michael Findley, his representative at the Richard L. Feigen Gallery, 'having lived in Manhattan for many years the rude switch-blade almost plunged into my back the same evening as the Warhol shooting prompted my moving from the City one hour away to an old farm-house with a Joseph Cornell attic half a mile away from a sound'. Although only one hour from New York, the move to a small house in Long Island, after almost a lifetime in the city gave Johnson a new kind of privacy — visitors were not encouraged.

Johnson often alluded to his friend and fellow collagist Joseph Cornell in both correspondence and in formal works. Cornell's reclusiveness was legendary and there is little doubt that he influenced Johnson's hermeticism. However, the point of departure for Johnson's work was most often triggered by a set of social circumstances. He made a point of visiting as well as keeping in touch through correspondence. Receiving something in the post from Johnson was an event in itself; a visit from him would have seemed like being present at a major performance.

This was an active time for the 'school', marked by a proliferation of meetings, mailings, formation of fan clubs, and general network activity that greatly increased interest in his formal collages. Johnson was prolific in all his undertakings and even his seemingly throw-away gestures could have the same relevance as his exquisitely made collages, which might be revised several times over a period of years. (Edvard Lieber (1956-84-94), uses elements of a Carlo Belloli poem included in the 1969 Concrete Poetry exhibition). Yet, paradoxically, Johnson was loath to exhibit the collages and would often cancel shows with apparently little reason.

Three examples from the mailings of this time illustrate how he transformed ordinary events into comment and critique. First, the mailing 'Send Slips to Lucy Lippard' was sent shortly after his stay in Vancouver, where he had heard an account of the critic dancing in her slip at a private party. The pun is a play on 'slips' with all the various interpretations: slip as underwear, slip as in fall, slip of the tongue, slip as mistake, slip as in slippery, etc., refer obliquely to Lippard omitting Johnson from her book Pop Art (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1966) and her subsequent discourse on conceptualism and the dematerialisation of art.

Secondly, the announcement requesting submissions for the NYCS exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art is subtexted by a rubber stamp on the edge of the invitation reading, 'Evaporations by Ray Johnson'. Introducing his central water motif as 'evaporation', being a state of transformation into 'nothingness', Johnson nods to the then-current discourse on the dematerialisation of art. Johnson solicited the show's contents from the members of the NYCS without curatorial intervention from its organiser, Marcia Tucker. Perhaps predictably, the Whitney experience did not prove to be the watershed Johnson might have expected, being far too quirky for mainstream critics to take seriously. To them he had committed a kind of career suicide, but for Johnson, his intervention into the museum world being misunderstood allowed him to escape being pinned down and categorised. One can only speculate on Johnson's intentions, but as a strategy, to be both in and out of the public arena simultaneously, he seems to have been saying that you can't understand the work without being involved and participating in the process. Johnson's uneasiness about having a price put on his works — in case it compromised his creativity — was in some way paradoxical. He was part of a group of artists, dealers, collectors and curators who had defined American art in the last half of the 20th Century and he had every opportunity to share in the enormous financial rewards poured on many of his contemporaries. To shun monetary success in a capitalist society is not an easy decision for an artist to make. It is even more difficult for society to appreciate the worth of something not measured in monetary terms.

A third example of Johnson's critique: in 1972 he placed an obituary for the NYCS in the New York Times and subsequently sent it out as a mailing:

Dear Deaths:
The New York Corraspondence [sic] School, described by critic Thomas Albright in 'Rolling Stone' as the 'oldest and most influential' died this afternoon before sunset on a beach where a large Canadian goose had settled down on it's [sic] Happy Hunting Ground, was sitting there obviously very tired and ill and I said to it 'Oh, you poor thing'. It mustered up whatever strength it had and waddled away from me. 'How beautiful!' I thought. 'How like a bird
about to die and yet having some courage to try to go on'. And then it lifted it's legs and wings and shit out some black shit it was such a large heavy bird it flapped it's wings and I studied the curve of the wings I thought Anne Wilson would like to see them. It just wanted to be alone to die without a human standing there talking to it. I felt so bad. So it flew off and soon I was aware I couldn't see it anymore it had gone. Maybe if I go back there tomorrow, the tide will have washed up it's feathery body.

The reference to the poor dead Canadian goose sadly 'washed up' on the beach shows Johnson's disappointment with the appropriations of his school. Mostly coming out of Canada, these appropriations varied in ambition and intent. The popularity of Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov's Image Bank, Glenn Lewis's 'New-York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver', Eric Metcalfe and Kate Craig's Banal Beauty Inc., plus the antics of Anna Banana, Ed Varney's Poem Co., John Jack Baylin's Bum Bank, and General Idea's FILE Megazine, had appropriated many of Johnson's ideas, especially his use of the postal system. This was all very well but the attention given this activity had resulted in several major articles appearing in the international press and two of these in particular had infuriated Johnson. A two-part article by Thomas Albright in Rolling Stone (1972) took up the cause of 'mail art' as a 'potentially revolutionary activity', crediting Johnson as its founder, and a cover story about 'mail art' by David Zack of Art in America (1973) also pinned a label on the activities of the NYCS. In Johnson's eyes, the correspondence school etiquette — elegantly playful, yet precise — had been violated. On a trip to Toronto with Eric Metcalfe (a.k.a. Dr. Brute) to visit General Idea, Johnson taped his mouth shut and remained speechless for the entire stay.

The school did not stay dead for long and after a series of excommunications that Johnson labelled 'Droppings', he announced that the NYCS did not die. In fact, the 'school' was undergoing a transformation to emerge almost immediately as Buddha University. Buddha University had little to do with conventional Buddhist teachings, but was nonetheless rigorous in its unorthodoxy. It is generally understood that after the 'split' with the NYCS, Buddha University evolved out of Johnson's correspondence with the Budapest artists Gyorgy Galantai and Julia Klaniczay. Budapest is a city split by the River Danube with Buda on the left bank and Pest on the right bank — the 'yin and yang' of which would not have been lost on Johnson. The upgrade from 'school' to 'university' marks a change in emphasis; gone are the seating plans and guest lists, there are fewer bunnies and quacking ducks, but while the same premise exists, the fantasies and obsessions being expressed were darker. Body parts and bodily functions are ever present, as in the repetition of dozens of little Buddhas urinating. Sexuality, which was always an energizing element of the work, is now associated with death, morbidity and melancholia. The humour is absurdist, as in his fetishism for underwear or the scatological and his obsession with urinating as a metaphor for the void and a fascination with 'nothingness'. The extensive series of silhouette portrait collages, which required the subjects to pose for the artist, or the numerous collages that incorporate birth and death dates of an individual in the work are all 'momento mori', conceived of long before the age of AIDS, perhaps even as far back as the exploitation of innocence so prevalent in the Hollywood child stars of his youth.

The sadness of Ray Johnson runs deep in the American grain, it is the same sadness we experience in playwrights like Tennessee Williams, or poets like Emily Dickinson. It is a paradoxical, bittersweet sadness, a sadness that has experienced ecstasy. Johnson spent a lifetime leaving clues both silly and profound — some are to questions, others to answers. Taken together they trace an extraordinary artist's journey that touches many lives without losing touch with his own integrity and compassion. Ray Johnson and the NYCS illuminate the backdrop of American art that we are fast leaving behind and it is always the immediate past that is most neglected. His passing leaves us with many lessons and much wisdom. Johnson's last work — the taking of his own life by drowning — was his ultimate illumination. In hindsight we can see that it was an event prepared over a lifetime; not something brought on by illness, age or depression. It was a willing embrace of his beloved void.

from the catalogue

Text: © Michael Morris. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
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