A Panel Discussion on Ray Johnson

Transcribed from live radio broadcast on the Pacifica Network's Artbreaking, on WBAI-FM in New York hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.

Shortly after the death of Ray Johnson, WBAI-FM art critic Charlie Finch and Artforum Executive Publisher Knight Landesman assembled a panel to talk about Johnson's art and legacy. The panel: Chuck Close, artist; Jill Johnston, critic; Richard Feigen, dealer, Mark Bloch, multi-media and mail artist.

Charlie Finch: You're listening to WBAI-FM 99.5 on your dial. Commercial-free, listener-sponsored radio. Welcome to Artbreaking, the Thursday afternoon arts magazine. Knight, why don't you introduce our guests live in the studio.

Knight Landesman: I have a lot of guests that I'm thrilled are here. In the Artforum upcoming we have a bunch of recollections of Ray Johnson from six people who knew him. We have two of them in the studio today and we also have two other people who knew Ray very well. So I'd like to talk about Ray and what his art was about and what his life was about. I'll ask our guests to tell us who Ray Johnson was because they can do it much better than I will.

I'm pleased to have in the studio today the marvellous painter Chuck Close, Jill Johnston, Richard Feigen, Mark Bloch and our host Charlie Finch, who knew Ray a little bit in relationship to this show.

Charlie Finch: Ray was a fan, I'm happy to say. Later on we'll be able to hear some messages. Mark Bloch has brought some tape.

Knight Landesman: Great! So we'll actually be able to hear the voice of Ray. Why Ray Johnson? Who was Ray Johnson for you? Let's go around the table and have everyone talk about who Ray was for them. Was he important? Who is he? Lets start with Chuck.

Chuck Close: Ray was a much more important artist than was generally recognized by the art world. He was an idiosyncratic figure. I think he was very inventive in bringing his work, through his collages, and things that he's known for, actually, predating Pop Art with the use of pop subject matter before Lichtenstein and Warhol. But, probably, he is best known to the general public as the inventor of the Correspondence School and of mail art.

Knight Landesman: How would you describe mail art? Was it something than an artist would make and send to other people?

Chuck Close: Well, alot of it was generated by Ray. That is, he sent things out and he sort of orchestrated a path for each of these things. He would send something to me and say 'add to and send to so and so' and you were supposed to send it on. We didn't always do it because sometimes we liked the stuff so much. We wanted to keep it. But eventually, it would make its circuitous way to wherever Ray had decided it should go.

Knight Landesman: When did he start to do mail art?

Chuck Close: I'm not sure exactly when he did start. In the 60s I think.

Mark Bloch: Well he founded his New York Correspondance School in 1962 though it offically started in 1968. But I noticed there was a correspondence with his friend Arthur Secuda who is a working artist, still. That was as early as 1943, where he was decorating his envelopes and playing around with the mail.

Knight Landesman: That's Mark Bloch speaking. A multi media artist who works with performance, computers, and video and also does mail art. How did you first know Ray and tell us about your relationship with him.

Mark Bloch: Ray is a very legendary person and he was only a legend to me when I was living in Southern Califoirnia in the late 70s. I was involved with mail art. I didn't know that he still did mail so I just started playing around, saying that I was Ray Johnson and I had changed my name to Ray Jones. And I started this thing called the God Jones Surf Club and all these spin-offs on Ray. If you knew Ray you would know that this delighted him and he sought me out tryed to find out who I was and what I was doing and and why. So that when I moved to New York in 1982 we began a correspondence. Eventually I met him at a party. He cornered me and just started asking lots of questions and we've been friends every since-- on the phone and in the mail.

Knight Landesman: Richard Feigen has been a dealer in New York for many years and also in Chicago. When did you first meet Ray?

Richard Feigen: I became aware of Ray's work probably at the end of the 50s. I was still in Chicago and I was very much involved with Surrealism at the time. I don't remember when I actually met Ray for the first time but I do remember seeing some of his collages. I wasn't as aware of his role or place as a kind of cult figure. Artist friends of mine told me that when they arrived in New York, there was this strange fellow down on the Lower East Side selling these little collages. He was here before anyone got here. And I reacted really visually.

Knight Landesman: You just liked what you saw?

Richard Feigen: My first reaction to something is I get very inquisitive. I want the thing. I saw these early Shirley Temple things and just wanted to own them. Later on all this sort of information about Ray accreted. I opened my New York gallery in 63. I can't remember when I started representing him. I know I find records of shows we had in, I think, '66 but alot of that stuff has been lost. But when I met him I realized that his personality was very much on the same wavelength as another artist whom I was very much involved with and who I admired-- Joseph Cornell. These two guys were on the same planet, but it wasn't this planet! I remember not long after I started to represent Ray, he wanted me to hire an airplane and drop 100 pounds of link sausages over Riker's Island. Things like that. His personality came after the work though. I still own my Ray Johnsons, and I don't want to give them up. They're extraordinarily beautiful things. And as mysterious and weird and poetic as they are, I think he was a seminal figure. I always did and it was hopeless in thirty-odd years to try and get him known. Because only the artists seemed to know who he was.

Knight Landesman: Did you continually represent him over those 30 years? Did you feel you were his art dealer?

Richard Feigen: Yes. And when I had my public gallery close in 1973 I opened up a more private space here. We still had a gallery in Chicago and still showed his work. But Ray didn't have a gallery as such. You had to work with Ray on his own terms. For instance, in recent years in Chicago we've been trying to have a show of his work. We've been trying to get him better known. Ray wanted to have a show with nothing in it!

Then I finally put my Chicago director on the case. I loved Ray, but it was an all-day, full time thing with Ray. You didn't just have a short conversation. You didn't really resolve it. He was very much like Cornell. That's why l was so, in a way, startled when he called me a few days before he died and asked me if I was interested in buying his James Dean collage which is a very famous work in Ray Johnson Land. Ray never wanted to sell anything! Looking back I don't know what he was trying to tell me.

Chuck Close: He didn't need the money, for he had considerable savings.

Richard Feigen: He was just like Joseph Cornell, who had annual reports stacked up on the porch of his home on Utopia Parkway. Both of them were very similar.

Knight Landesman: Did they know each other Cornell and Ray?

Mark Bloch: Ray went out to Cornell's on Utopia Parkway and I wish I could remember the story he told me but I don't. I only know Ray repeated over and over that Cornell spent the whole time sitting on the radiator, sobbing!

Knight Landesman: So people can understand why we're speaking about Ray in the past tense, on January 13, 1995, Ray Johnson jumped from a highway bridge into Sag Harbor Cove on Long Island and was seen backstroking away from land. His body was found the following afternoon having washed ashore nearby. All the people who knew him were very touched by him.

Knight Landesman: Jill Johnston, the emminent critic, can you tell us about your relationship with Ray?

Jill Johnston: I didn't have much of a relationship. Of course I knew Ray, everybody did in the 60s. I don't remember when I met him or even if I did meet him. As Richard said, Ray was kind of an alien. I was at a Fluxus-type performance. He was a very Fluxuxs type of artist then. I asked somebody why he never was a Fluxus artist and they said he just couldn't join anything. He was always a loner. But it was a small auditorium full of people, and I remember Ray running around the outside of the audience with Albert Fine. Just running around and creating his own event.

Knight Landesman: A kind of ecstatic joke...

Jill Johnston: I don't know that it was ecstatic. It was disruptive. One noticed. That's what I remember. I didn't correspond with Ray because he scared me. I found him extremely intense. I considered him an integral part of our scene-- one of the crazier ones. I heard from him before he died. I believe he commited suicide. Many people, apparently, had various kinds of messages from him before he died. His message to me was, ''Jill, Ronald Feldman sold the 'I'd Love to Turn You On' work, which has my hand lettering of your words in it to a charming California art dealer or something." Then I looked up the piece to see what words of mine he had appropriated, that he had hand written in 1969. My piece was called 'Casting for 69', it was published in the Village Voice, January 9, 1969. The first line of my piece was, "My story begins with some unfamiliar handwriting on an envelope." and of course, Ray copied that. He copied the first 452 words in a collage that he made. I found in this piece this line of mine which Ray had appropriated: "Then, at some age or other, for lack of any good reason to go on living, he commited suicide." At the end of these 452 words I had written 'You 've got to have something to be dismembered by.' Anybody who's into psychic phenomenon and stuff... Ive been thinking about it. That kind of resonated.

Mark Bloch: Yeah, I don't know if its psychic. I think it's a literal use of what you wrote to come back and haunt us, as it were. Alot of the things that I've been finding in my own correspondence with Ray and in collecting stuff from other people... and I'd like to talk to each of you about it, also... These clues are everywhere. There's lots of references to death, of course, and evertything else.

Knight Landesman: I'm curious if Chuck and Richard feel this way. Did you have premonitions that Ray would end his life in that way?

Richard Feigen: I didn't have any premonitions. But in retrospect all these clues are turning up and they did get more intense toward the end. One of these I just old you. He asked me if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage. Well he never wanted to sell anything. He never talked about that. I didn't take it as a clue. A few days later it looked like one. My colleague Francis Beattly had a call from Ray and I don't remember what it was but it indicated that he did have this in mind. So it seems obvious to me that he orchestrated this thing.

Jill Johnston: For what purpose?

Richard Feigen: I think its part of a whole effort, like a whole performance. I don't know. I don't think pragmatically to get himself better known, though it certainly has done that.

Jill Johnston: You don't think there was an emotional component at all in this?

Richard Feigen: Put it this way: I don't think Toby Spiselman, who was very close to him, knows. Or Bill Wilson. I really don't think anyone was that close to Ray. I don't think you can really know what was going on in his head but you can begin to piece it together retrospectively. By the way, I do want to say this: I found Ray as I say, on another planet. But I always found him a very gentle, benign personality.

Chuck Close: He looked scarier than he was.

Jill Johnston: That's right yeah.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, you weren't scared of him, right?

Chuck Close: No. (laughs)

Richard Feigen: No, because he had a shaved head? No!! He was very benign. He got frightened when Andy Warhol, his friend, got shot. He ran out to Locust Valley, Long Island for the rest of his life. He ran away.

Chuck Close: He moved out of the city and never came back.

Richard Feigen: He was harmless.

Chuck Close: He looked like a biker.

Richard Feigen: Yeah, I mean, he wore those black leather suits. Things like that. But he was a completely benign character.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, did you have premonitions of his death?

Chuck Close: As a matter of fact, I have a little trouble with gleaning clues now in retrospect. I think you can prove that aImost anyone died on purpose. If you want to sift through, you can find some references to death or whatever. Of course, he was obsessed with Natalie Wood's drowning. There is something about returning to the water, I suppose, that one could look for. I spoke to him several days before he dled, and we spoke regularly on the phone. As a matter of fact, Ray sounded very optimistic about the future and was talking about having shows. He had just put a new roof on his house.

Jill Johnston: Do you disagree with Richard that he orchestrated this?

Chuck Close: I also believe that he was very close to Toby Spiselman... it's just inconceivable to me. Although I do think that he committed suicide, I don't think it was as planned out, and a performance piece. Because I just don't think that he would do that to Toby and do that to people that he cared so much for.

Richard Feigen: I asked Toby this because I had alot of remorse. Because when he asked if I wanted to buy the James Dean collage, I said 'Of course I do Ray. But let me think about it.' I didn't know what kind of price. Who knows what Ray Johnson prices are! And I said #39;I'll call you back.#39; I got tied up I didn't call him back for a couple days and then I left for England. And I was there when I heard that he had drowned. So when I got back I said 'Toby, my god, I hope I didn't contriute to depressing him by not calling him back.' And she said 'No, no,' and then she gave me this whole litany of things that decisely meant that he was going to do this anyway. She was sure this whole thing was planned out. That he was sending out clues and there was nothing I could have done that would've changed his mind. And the same thing with this business that my colleague Francis Beatty was confronted with, with Ray. I don't remember what it was but it was on his mind.

Chuck Close: I think people who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, not because they want to boost their careers.

Jill Johnston: I was trying to suggest that.

Knight Landesman: I want to go around the table and ask people where they think Ray and his art will stand in in time in relationship to the other art of our time.

Chuck Close: I think that's hard, at this time, to really access. Ray had profound ambivalence about everything-- even about living-- from the looks of it. He wore his outsider status both as a badge of honor, and he also was incredibly pissed-off. He made things difficult, and yet he wanted attention desperately. He streaked his own lecture! It was like, how can you screw yourself up? It's so much a part of him.

Knight Landesman: Richard where do you think he'll be seen as an artist?

Richard Feigen: Well I haven't changed my mind in 30-odd years. I think he's at the very very top rank of seminal artists of the second half of the 20th century. I mean, this is what I do for a living so I think I have a perspective. I think I do. There's been never any question. His collage works, more than the the correspondence things, are of an extraordinary high order, aesthetically. Forget the fact that they are earlier than everybody else . They're just beautiful, beautiful things and they are very important. One of the clues, maybe, and I dont need any clues, is: we're borrowing works from Jasper Johns. I don't know, Chuck, if your lending, but we're borrowing stuff from all these artists. That's who knew Ray. That's who kept his work. Somebody like Jasper is a real collector. He's passionate about it.

Jill Johnston: Why are you borrowing these things?

Richard Feigen: We're borrowing it for our memorial exhibition.

Knight Landesman: Richard's doing a show that will open April 27. It's a memorial show for Ray Johnson. How long will it be up, Richard?

Richard Feigen: I don't remember. It will be up for a quite a while. What's happened now, since he died: I was at the National Gallery in Washington, recently, talking to its contemporary art curator, Mark Rosenthal. Before Ray died, it was like screaming into a wind tunnel trying to get a major museum to acquire a work of Ray Johnson's. Now, all of a sudden, he died and it's all over the press. Here's Artforum. The National Gallery wants one. And it's not going to be difficult to place Ray Johnson in these museums. And I'm talking now as an art dealer. I would submit if I'd been succesful in having a... getting Ray to cooperate and have a show in Chicago with my gallery, which we were trying to do for several years, I wonder if Artforum would have reviewed it. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn't have. You certainly wouldn't be doing a huge article like this one. So there's no question that he's going to get known now and get placed in these museums and now collectors are going to start coming out of the woodwork and want his works. I have no doubt of it.

Knight Landesman: Mark, where do you see him fitting in?

Mark Bloch: I personally feel thast he's one of the most important artists of the century. I really do. And perhaps the most important one since Duchamp. Here's why: any young person who is doing mail art, who is doing zines or involved with cyberspace... these are all influenced by Ray Johnson. By correspondence, by highlighting the process as the art as opposed to the art object. His relationship to the art market is one thing. But when you look at someebody who was involved with a long lasting influence... we're talking about thousands of artists in over 50 countries who are still involved with mail art some thirty years after he began it. I can't think of an art movement that's lasted longer. I think his influence is huge. And like Richard said, the early pop art works are not only beautiuful but important because he was the first artist to ever work with a celebrity that I can find. I don't know of any other artist who took a celebrity and made that the subject of the art. I think as they look back on our century and they try to figure out what was happening, who did it first, I think they'll come up with Ray. Not to mention all the nothings and weird stuff that he did-- which was among the earliest performance work.

Jill Johnston: I think possibly his ambivalence, which Chuck pointed out, could pursue him into his after life. He needs a good explicator. He needs an in-depth, huge show collecting examples of his work, behind glass, of correspondence. And let's just say a book following correspondence with one person and annotated. That's the way I see it.

Chuck Close: He was, I think, a profoundly unique and idiosyncratic person. We don't do too well, as a country, as a culture, recognizing idiosyncratic people. We very much look for people in the mainstream. It'll take what Jill was suggesting, I think, that is, an interpreter to pull things together and point out to the rest of the world what artists have always known about Ray. Which is that there was a major contribution.

Knight Landesman: Charlie, you knew Ray briefly, right?

Charlie Finch: My friend Walter Robinson was, of course, a correspondent with Ray and was featured in a number of his bunny head pieces and I got one of Ray's last pieces of mail art right before he died, because Ray was a fan of my radio show and was nice enough to leave Mark Bloch a message on his answering machine about it. Let's hear Ray's voice on tapes that he made for Mark.

(Voice of Ray Johnson:) Mark, do you have Beatrice Wood 's phone number or address? Yes, no? (Click.)

Mark, Ray Johnson. I 'm looking at the photo in the New York Times of the collapsed roof on Delancey and Eldridge Streeet, near the lumber yard. (Click.)

Mark, Ray Johnson. Have you heard this one? It's President Bush talking about recession. They have this music in the backgroundwith it. I don't know who did it but its pretty good. Can you hear it? Can you hear it? (Click.)

Hi, Mark, this is Whoopie Goldberg, again.(Click.)

Hi Mark. I guess you're out on your honeymoon. Could you call me? (Click.)

Mark, it's Ray Johnson. The Sandra Gehring opening I told you about is on December 3rd from six to eight. (Click.)

Hi Mark. I'm listening to the Charlie Finch Show, he has a very nice voice. (Click.)

Hi Mark I like this big color xerox you sent me. (Click.)

Richard Feigen: I wish I'd taped some of those things.

Knight Landesman: Who do people think would be the right person to put a Ray Johnson show together? To curate such a show?

Richard Feigen: I don't know. Maybe Bill Wilson?

Jill Johnston: I think David Bourdon.

Richard Feigen: We borrowed 38 things from Bill Wilson and David Bourdon. I don't think many people know that much about Ray's work.

Knight Landesman: Do you think about him alot?

Richard Feigen: Yeah I do. I was very fond of him You couldn't get too involved with Ray or it was a full time thing. I loved the guy. But if you got on the phone with him, when we did reperesent him, it was all day long. You couldn't just do anything else. You couldn't represent anybody else. But in a lot of the conversations, for instance, with James Rosenquist... he's on this planet and there's a beginning and an end to what your talking about. He'll let it go as long as you want. There's a point to the conversation. With Ray there generally wasn't. So I honsestly miss him alot. I feel like I should have... I dont know... carried on these conversations more...

Jill Johnston: He still feels guilty.

Chuck Close: I think everybody who knew Ray feels guilty, because everyone was annoyed by him sometimes.

Jill Johnston: I don't feel guilty because I didn't have enough to do with him.

Chuck Close: Sometimes the phone calls came when you really didn't want one. Or send a drawing on to someone else and having to go to the post office became an obligation.

Jill Johnston: What you're saying sounds like he's incredibly lonely, like he was reaching out all the time.

Mark Bloch: I think that was part of his work, though...

Jill Johnston: He lived alone.

Mark Bloch: ...the isolation.

Chuck Close: Yeah. I think it was a ritual. I mean, the fact that... I mean, everyone can have a xerox machine. They're incredibly cheap. But he liked to walk to the post office and put coins in a coin-operated xerox machine.

Mark Bloch: By the way, I think he was the first person to do that, to use the first coin-operated xerox machines in his work. Can anyone think of anyone who did it before Ray?

Knight Landesman: Do you think about him every day, Mark?

Mark Bloch: Yeah as a matter of fact I do. Especially lately. I find a real emptiness exists. And I've talked to other people about this. I used to walk down the street and I'd find something on the street and it would make me laugh. I'd pick it up and I'd send it to Ray. Now I don't know what to do with that stuff. I don't know whether to bother picking it up or what.

Knight Landesman: Chuck, do you find yourself thinking about him even more now that he's dead?

Chuck Close: When the phone rings, every time, for a split second, I think it may be Ray. It's very sad.

Knight Landesman: Many of our listeners maybe haven't seen Ray's work but it often involved language, yes? I'll ask you, Mark, maybe you know it best. Did it always involve language?

Mark Bloch: Nearly always. Sometimes there was language underneath the visual stuff. He'd cut stuff up and recycle it. So yes, I'd say a large portion of it.

Charlie Finch: Thanks to all the guests. I'm sure Ray would have loved it. Maybe somewhere he's listening to it.

Transcribed from live radio broadcast on WBAI's Artbreaking, hosted by Charlie Finch. Portions reprinted from Coagula Art Journal #18.