Cornering Ray Johnson
By Mark Bloch
NEW YORK CITY, NOVEMBER 9, 2004-- Ray Johnson's death was a beautiful and premeditated cutting edge performance piece on the one hand and a tragic, lonely, "normal" suicide on the other. He knew that to go out as he did would put an irresistible, poetic spin on every event in his already fascinating life, giving it new focus and meaning. He died as he lived: alone, yet on a playful but shadowy stage of his own making. Because he carefully constructed his life around his art, with the art eventually usurping the life, he chose suicide by drowning because it was the most artistic, perfect alternative for a life peppered with references to water and death from the very beginning. It coincided with his Taoist sensibility which holds emptiness and the doing of "nothing" as its highest aspiration. His well-known Correspondence School may have been a defense mechanism that protected him from a fear of other people; an aversion to intimacy, which he consciously and exquisitely chose to extend even across the threshold of death to keep himself forever safe and in control. Nearly ten years after his death it's still working. He will remain as mysterious and as distant one hundred years from now as he is today; and as he was two decades ago when I first met him.
The first time I ever saw a work by Ray Johnson was in 1978 or so. What I would now call a "Ray Johnson bunny head" used a cartoon bubble to utter the words "Bianca Jagger is my favorite Fluxus artist." Though I knew absolutely nothing of Ray or his work, and very little of Fluxus, I was familiar with Mick Jagger's ex-wife and I "got" the absurdity in the little piece, finding it hilarious and memorable for some reason. Since then I have repeated it often, sometimes substituting other absurd names to identify MY favorite Fluxus artist of the moment. It was only recently that I realized that it was a joke about Yoko Ono. It is one of the many time-release jokes that Ray has tickled me with since his passing.
I finally met Ray Johnson four or five years later at a party at the lower Manhattan home of the painter Carlo Pittore, who was the lynchpin of the New York mail art scene in those days. Carlo was always putting together little soirees and there was a special buzz in the air because we heard Ray might attend. His appearances were legendary. You could never predict what event he would actually grace with his presence or when he'd abruptly leave. But he did attend this one.
Upon arriving, Ray immediately cornered me (He claimed later that it was me that cornered him.) and began probing me about my impersonations of him. He had heard, correctly, that, having discovered his work, I began to purposely mislead people, telling them through the mail that I was him, that I had changed my name to Ray Jones and was now operating as the "God Jones Surf Club" in Laguna Beach, California, where I lived at the time. This delighted Ray. While many people have seen Ray's dark side when they used his name or his work without his permission, he always seemed charmed when I did it. I did so on many more occasions over the next decade and a half, and to my knowledge he was never annoyed.
My impersonations of Ray and his subsequent "cornering" of me at a mail art party created a strong foundation for our friendship. On more than one occasion, he sent me invitations to swanky New York art events, instructing me to "attend and impersonate" him. Once I was thrown out of the notorious club the Limelight for dropping Ray Johnson flyers off of a balcony onto the dance floor at a Marcel Duchamp-related gathering.
I was one of the many people Ray called on the phone. Our conversations were unique stream-of-consciousness events that I now miss dearly. They would often begin with a somewhat practical question such as "Did you get this thing from the guy in Switzerland?" or "Mark, did you see Dionne Warwick on Arsenio last night? Her nostrils looked like two giant holes drilled into her skull." From there, our banter would escalate. Name dropping and word play swirled to the magnificent heights of a new nameless art form as we unabashedly punned and one upped each other through the copper wire of the telephone line, he with the precision of a smart bomb, me, a sawed off shot gun.
Sometimes he would refer to our common Midwest heritage, mentioning such things as "wobbly drawings I do in my car" while driving through the Buckeye state; or that he "stopped in Mineral Springs, Ohio" on the way back from Detroit and made a young hotel clerk hang her head in shame from his relentless probing of her about the curious name of the town "with these fabulous sunsets" caused by air pollution. Other times we spoke about our shared love of Eastern philosophy. We both saw ourselves as Taoists, but he was much better at it than I will ever be. He had worked at the Orientalia Bookstore in the 1950s and found it wonderful that I had been a clerk at Samuel Weiser and Son. Both stores served up the latest as well as the most ancient in religion, spirituality and mysticism.
We also each enjoyed a voracious appetite for anything Duchampian. We were avid consumers of the details of Marcel Duchamp"s life and work and the many published documentations that were emerging during the 80s and 90s. We joked many a time about the "Etant Donnes," the installation piece Duchamp secretly constructed long after he had claimed to quit art, only to leave it to be discovered after his death. Once I off-handedly asked Ray what sort of surprise we might discover after his demise and he shot back playfully without missing a beat, "Don't think I'm not working on it." It turned out to be another one of his many poignant bulls eyes-- seemingly unimportant comments that he called "throw away gestures" that were anything but.
Seeing his return address in my mailbox was always a welcome sight. Ray always used new envelopes recycled from this or that corporation, with the logo and address scratched out with a flourish in crayon, pen or thick black magic marker. As for the contents of these missives, they were as varied and cryptic as our phone calls. It is now well known that Ray "addressed" each of his correspondents in a tailor-made manner. In my case, there were often unexplained references to the 1950s socialite Elsa Maxwell or the actor Dana Andrews whom he occasionally referred to as "Andrews Dana." He also sent things via photographer Steve Random in Massachusetts or some other far away mail artist with the admonishment "Add to, send to Mark Bloch." Many of his letters to me were on the backs of photocopies of articles about him from old newspapers or magazines. They could be as recent as last week or 40 years old. He never sent me the same one twice so he must have been keeping track of them somehow. I often felt that he was slowly revealing his biography to me, as filtered through the media, with his systematic use of these articles.
That is why I have slowly been writing a biography of Ray Johnson. No book about the details of his life has yet been written. I feel it is important to do one now because he is, without a doubt, an important figure in art history who will only become more of a giant. He is, in my opinion, one of the most important artists of the century but, like Duchamp, his star will rise to its peak many years after his death. I predict that Johnson will emerge in the 21st century as the most important artist since Duchamp, who dominated the second half of the twentieth century after Picasso"s influence on the first. Yes, Ray was a master collagist and for that he deserves and has a unique place in art history. His relationship to the art market is also fascinating and worthy of intense investigation. His entire career can be seen as an institutional critique. He cut up his work and sent it through the mail as a gift, establishing a network that continues today. He confounded collectors and dealers by refusing to enter and withdrawing work from shows while he carried his collages in cardboard boxes to exhibit according to his own mystical rules dictated by his associations with the viewer. Finally, the early pre-Pop art works are not only beautiful but important simply because he was among the very first artists to ever work with somebody else's photo of a celebrity as the subject of the art. While fascinating, there is more to Ray Johnson's impact than that. Ray created the largest collaborative collage in the history of this planet. Any young (or older) person today who is doing mail art, who is creating "zines," self-publishing, or even involved with cyberspace is unknowingly influenced by Ray Johnson. His work with correspondence highlighted the process of art as the art as opposed to the art object. This long-lasting influence is only just beginning to take hold. The mail art network is comprised of thousands of artists in over 50 countries who are still involved with correspondence some fifty years after Ray began his New York Correspondence School. No art movement has lasted longer or spread further. In terms of sheer numbers who are following a path that he laid out, his influence is huge.
But Ray Johnson also is also important as an innovator in several other art forms for which he is largely uncredited. In Lucy Lippard's 1966 book Six Years, The Dematerialization of the Art Object, for example, Ray Johnson is mentioned but relegated to a couple of sentences in the Introduction. In retrospect, he clearly merits more discussion in this first major survey of conceptual art but Ray and his work defied categories. He was always the living embodiment of what was referred to by his colleague, the late Dick Higgins, as "Intermedia: " art that falls through the cracks because it lies between disciplines. Johnson was a pioneer in Performance Art and Happenings, Fluxus and even installations before they had a name. He even experimented with sculpture and photography before he died.
I have been wondering when the world will notice that Ray was very serious about making photos with disposable cameras during the last year or two of his life. He did it diligently and with the purposefulness that he brought to his collages and his correspondence art. In fact, he didn't see those two activities as being separate and the same could be said of his photos. Playing with notions of surface and depth, he would take "throw away" pictures of two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional settings, including pointy black and white triangular vectors positioned atop a tombstone or a wide shot of a pair of bunny heads leaning against one of many graves in the frame, accenting his obsession with death. In one snapshot he had cut a hole in a bunny head and awkwardly poked his own face through.
He also created 3-dimensional objects festooned with carefully-rendered 2-dimensional bunny heads on their surface. It reminded me of the "n-dimensional analysis" that Duchamp's work has received, comparing the 2-d "Large Glass" with the 3-d "Etant Donnes," that we discussed so often. Scholarly comparisons were not lost on the attentive Mr. Johnson. Yet while items such as bunny-altered softballs and boxes or a bunny-worthy buoy dedicated to Joseph Beuys were discovered after Ray's death, they were as intellectually stimulating as the rest of his work but, more importantly, they just looked cool. Ray Johnson is important because he was among the smartest, hippest, artists to ever live. That's why he has become a cult figure to thousands of mail artists across the globe and why I feel compelled to reveal everything I have painstakingly learned about him. I started trying to understand his career path when he was alive, and as I said, he sent me little bits and pieces of it. But he rarely answered my queries directly. Cornering Ray Johnson was hard work. Now that he is out of the way, I try to complete the picture. But as I do, he becomes ever more important because new facets of his oeuvre and complex life continue to emerge. I suspect the best is yet to come.
Ray connected me with several interesting characters over the years. He hooked me up with Hermine, a tiny woman who subscribed to Soldier of Fortune magazine, breeded rare plants, wore a samaurai top-knot on her head and was tattooed from head to toe way before it was fashionable. He took me to visit Robert Delford Brown and his wife Rhett at "The Great Building Crack-Up" because it was the home of their self-styled Church of the Exquisite Panic and that resonated with my nickname of Pan, (which originally stood for Postal Art Network). Finally, truly indicative of his modus operandi, Ray once called me Mr. Wok on my answering machine. When I inquired why, he uncharacteristically clarified it straightaway: "Because it rhymes with Bloch and is a kind of pan," he told me. Such triangulations were what made Ray tick and I was always honored to be a part of his gyroscopic puzzles.
On a few occasions we met in person, always controlled by him. Once he showed up at a designated street corner swinging a long rope as a prop. Another time he invited me for a private showing of his retrospective at a Long Island art museum. When I arrived, I learned he had also invited Elaine de Kooning, the famous painter and wife of Willem de Kooning, the legendary Abstract Expressionist, both of whom Ray had studied with at Black Mountain College in the 1940s. Interfacing with Ray always came with surprises as well as undetected nooks and crannies that still reveal themselves years later.
My last non-postal interaction with Ray was a short telephone call in December, 1994. A few months earlier I had stopped at his house to pay him an unexpected visit on the way home from my honeymoon. Ray never admitted if he heard me knocking, but if he did, he didn't answer the door. It was a hot summer day and he claimed the air conditioner may have drowned out the sound. My wife snapped a photo of me on his back porch which I later mailed to him. From that he created a cardboard silhouette of me and photographed it in the exact same sport where I once stood. When I enlarged the photo and sent it back to him, he again made a photograph, this time with the color copy on the back porch and labeled "The Incredible Shrinking Man." When I told him that I hadn't seen that film he mentioned that it was about a man who "eventually fades off into the cosmos." Our final interactions were still revolving around this postal interaction but now he was on to new, seemingly-related topics. "I'm taking photos of jimson weed" he told me in that last call, "I am the world's foremost authority on jimson weed." This information, while fascinating, didn't make much sense to me at the time. Perhaps I could sort it out later, perhaps not. With Ray it didn't matter, or so I thought. Yet, that time as always, more would be revealed.
We'd call each other up on the phone about twice a month. Sometimes less, but usually more. He would call and ask for a mail artist's phone number or addresses. Or to see if I'd gotten this or that catalogue or letter. I'd call him just to chat or to joke or to ask if he'd seen some book or article about Duchamp. I tried not to let him know when I was probing to figure out his exact professional standing and place in the art pantheon but he didn't miss much, whether it was me or anyone else trying to get away with something unnoticed. Had I known then what I know now, I'd have realized the absurdity of my attempt to quiz him in a professional context and in the particular manner that I did. His cat-and-mouse game with the art world and the ubiquitous questions about it that he must have fielded from within as well as without, were far more sophisticated than I ever will be able to comprehend.
Still, I think we were kindred spirits when it came to talking about the international mail art network which was taking itself quite seriously at the time. We were both very interested but we also mocked it a bit. As he told me one day "Mail Art is an industry." I think it's true. It got a bit too large for it's own good at some point in the 80's. Or maybe just too self-righteous for its own good. But Ray I both enjoyed a joke so we would joke about mail art. We also would make "cracks" endlessly about Marcel Duchamp and his last project, the Etant Donnes, and its bawdy, pornographic content masquerading as posthumous art.
We often talked about television. We both enjoyed working with the TV on in the background so we would end up watching the same shows- not on purpose. But often it would be- "Hey, did you see" so and so? and of course, both of us had. So we would talk about a show or a film or an actor or a scene or whatever. I remember he enjoyed a Fashion series they had on PBS. And we also both sat mesmerized by the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle. There was a wonderful cast of characters there to "work with." A guy named Doggett spoke late one night in a segment that neither Ray or I could believe. We compared notes the next morning. There was also a memorable black woman I enjoyed watching very much. I remember Ray said in one of his throw-away statements, "Float her down the Nile!" and I then made a piece of art about her as a Nefertiti-like statue and mailed him a copy.
That is how our conversations went. They were very free-form, very lighthearted and fun. We made puerile jokes about all sorts of intellectual subjects and found profound synchronicities in stupid made-for-TV movies.
Ray loved to make fun of Arsenio Hall, the inane talk show host. He seemed to personify the constant stream of mindless entertainment we were both equally repulsed and fascinated by. I miss talking to Ray today. But I got my share of memorable pop cultural moments with the master. He once asked me if I wanted to hear his impersonation of Arsenio. Before I could answer he let loose a ridiculous, staccato cackle loudly into the phone.
I used to write down a lot of the things Ray said in our calls. It started out that I would just jot down something he said- a name he dropped or some biographical tidbit. Someone or something I'd never heard of to look up afterwards. But as time went on I began to write down everything he said. I can write quite fast from over 20 years of journal-writing so I'd make notes and piece them together after we hung up. Now that he's dead I am so glad I did that.
I still look through some of the things he said and find whole new worlds to explore. He was always recommending books to read. I am glad now I can go back and read them. Or look up people he mentioned. I've met a lot of them since his death quite by accident. I run into people and we talk about Ray and then I go home and look them up in my Ray database and sure enough, there they are. He mentioned everyone! I like to theorize that he was a bridge between people and now that he's dead- having jumped off a bridge- we are left to make the connections ourselves. At the same time, there are so many things I wish I could ask him now. I asked him shortly before he died if I could do a video interview with him and he seemed excited by the idea. I'm sorry we never did it. But as his good friend Bill Wilson said, the fact that I wrote down notes our calls meant that I did interview him.
I think Ray and I understood each other on some delightful level that was different from the way he communicated with say, Wilson, or anyone else. Ray and I communicated in a special, spectral non-verbal verbal Taoist talk show code. I enjoyed sending him mail art. He'd send me a lot too. I'd like to gather it all up at some point. I have a lot of it collected here but there are still many envelopes from him in my archive that I have yet to find.
I really think he decided on his death many years ago so when I gather his letters together, I look for clues. I have interviewed his friends. I have met more people since his death than I did before--and there were many then! I like to have them around because we all miss Ray as a friend and a mentor.
He helped me a lot. He introduced me to lots of wonderful people. He used to constantly be filling in little gaps in my knowledge. Huge gaps, really. Ray was the type of person I could call up and ask any question of. He'd gladly respond if he was in the right mood. If he was not in the right mood he'd say "I don't know," "Nothing," "Who cares?" or reply with a riddle. But the answers he gave always lead me in the right direction.
Most of our conversations were like long free-associating poems that started almost somewhere and ended nearly nowhere. They'd begin with an excuse to call and then meander all over the place, taking weird turns with every pun and obscure reference. We both liked puns and we both enjoyed TV and pop culture. He loved the TV show Twin Peaks and so did I. He told me once he thought it was the best show ever on TV. If you really want to know what our friendship was like, watch that show. It sort of flopped along like that.
Like all good fairy tales and like all great art, his story touches everyone who experiences it in a way that is unique to them. Ray Johnson tailored his work to the person he was with at any given moment. He sent his correspondence to a person based on them and his interaction with them just as his social interactions with people reflected his laser sharp focus on a Zen-like experience/being of the here and now.
That was his task and he did it with awe-inspiring precision and style. My task is to try to convey the unique character of my relationship with him and how I feel it can benefit those of you who did not experience it for yourself. His was a unique vision with a modus operandi that I fear will be lost to future generations unless it is given the treatment that Ray worked so hard to avoid. He defied notions of categorization, classification, labeling and even closure. One way to pass it on without destroying his ultra-delicate balance is to share with you how his friendship with me, the artwork he shared with me and the information I have learned about him since his passing was all directly evolved from the forever unexplainable chemistry between us. Acknowledging that, without categorization, classification, labeling or closure is to honor our friendship as a fluid part of a fluid pair of lives on a fluid planet in a fluid universe, unique and independent of any relationship I had with anyone else or that he did, I presume. Thus is any correspondence between Ray and another person a metaphor for the mysterious and ineffable interaction between all of us.
As an artist, my particular focus is on pop culture at large and fame in particular and how it relates to the plight of the starving artist, and the myth of the undiscovered genius surfing through the process of being discovered. Our interaction certainly reflected this or danced around it. So I still find myself attempting to corner Ray Johnson. I want to understand his place in pop culture, his love-hate relationship with fame, and his purposeful interference with the roles of insiders and outsiders, starving artists and undiscovered geniuses, work that always flew below the radar poised on the brink of mass appeal. Untangling such contradictions makes my role that of a detective, trying to piece together the details of an elusive, mysterious man's life, just as I have tried to piece together my own and just as we all try to connect our perceptions to the fleeting reality of each other. My task is and was no more and no less than what we all do each and every day all day, but it was my good fortune that put me on a collision course with the human wake up call peeking out from the corner that was Ray Johnson.