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RAY JOHNSON

by Judith Hoffberg




“Antonio Gaudi's Fingernails,"
mixed media on board,
15 1/2 x 15 1/2", 1973.















“Untitled (Hand Flamenco
Dancers," mixed media on board,
17 1/2 x 12 1/4", 1958-72.
(Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood) Funny our vocabulary has shifted so much in the past 10 years not only because of new technology but in fact because of social mores. I remember when "hero worship" was so common and the fame of Hollywood stars was based on devotion and idolization. But in this age of Celebrity, the person who really lived a life of celebration of the Celebrity was Ray Johnson, who literally made it his life's work to fete the accomplishments of "stars" whether they were in the celestial Hollywood or in the Art Scene.

Although Johnson was known as "everybody's friend," the friendship was largely anonymously made through the mail, either because Johnson saw a name in a book and decided to write to the person, or because the "celebrity" enticed him enough to tweak that fame through collages made with cardboard, Elmer's glue, found objects, Xeroxed images, photographs (in pieces), magazine clippings, abstract shapes, cartoons, poetry, exclamations, and so much more, some worked over a period of years after sanding and scraping, painting and writing. He became the mail artists' mail artist, sending works of art through the mail that celebrated the lives of people he had read about, saw in the movies, or in fact wished to communicate with in his own special way. But his greatest contributions are his collages, seminal works of art which were never seen in most museums or galleries due to the artist's own reluctance.

For the first time since his supposed suicide in 1995 we are treated to a first viewing in Los Angeles of Johnson's collages. What the collages reflect is an urbane, literate and highly intelligent artist who knew what he was doing with every work of art he created. His early collages from 1950 - 1970 were clear, clean celebrations of such icons as James Dean (James Dean in the Rain, c. 1953/59), foreseeing the Pop Art parade of stars such as the Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley of Andy Warhol, who became a friend of Ray's in the flesh. Whereas Warhol took a very objective, hands-off role, Johnson marked the images up and personalized them, e.g. James Dean's figure is covered with black scarlike shapes, a kind of violence which ended his life.

One of the insignias of Johnson's collages are applied forms which became building blocks, tiny rectangles of thick, sanded cardboard joined in a mosaic-like technique. Another element were commercial ready-mades such as Lucky Strike labels, phallic snakes and the infamous bunny heads that Johnson used as his signature. As the years went by, he piled up these applied forms, making the later collages very dense, congested, even ornate, becoming anthologies (each one of them) of ideas, reactions, motifs and signifiers. But it is the early ones in this show that show sparseness and clarity. For instance, Ed Ruscha Dollar Bill (1970) is a portrait of Ruscha with paint, print and a dollar bill. Chuck Close with Swan Moticos, by contrast, has been worked over from 1981 through 1990, and is a mixed media collage on masonite.

Johnson was known to have recycled his own collages, chopping them up and using them in other collages, which is why so many of them bear multiple dates that reflect the long series of recyclings. Sometimes they have no date at all. All are basically "untitled" with clarifications from the imagery we see in them. William Burroughs with Montgomery Clift certainly is a juxtaposition made in the mind of Ray Johnson, but it demonstrates the cuttings, collaging, recycling from 1976 through 1992. More than likely it was dedicated to Clift. The juxtaposition grew as Johnson got into the cult of Burroughs so that the date is, believe it or not, 1976/81/91/92!

Johnson was also known as the founder of the New York School of Correspondance Art, a mock institution in which he sent out what he called "mail art" for nearly 40 years. From the 1950s until his death he would send his work, unsolicited, to people all over the world, asking them to "add on to" and return it to him, or send it on to someone else. These were photocopied drawings, assemblages of found images, some made specifically for the recipient, others designed to be passed on like a chain letter to third parties. Some of the works in this exhibition include postcards. Mickey with Polynesian Natives, or Cupid with Canadian Mountie Postcard recycle the postcard into fascinating collages.

Johnson created his own world and his own audiences, distrusting institutions of all kinds--except the United States Post Office. But the secret world which he created for his"friends" and himself has much more universal and generous instincts, ironically one which is now being inculcated and appreciated years after his death. This is a must exhibition, one which will delight the eye and the mind, and make you realize that Ray Johnson, a true original, was an artist who connected with all through all kinds of correspondence, mainly of postcards and collages.