Ray Johnson died on January 13, 1995. He was 67 years old. These 67 paragraphs were originally prepared for Lightworks Magazine in 1995 and may eventually become part of a larger work. For a definition of a Ray Johnson Nothing, please see paragraph 32.
The question on the lips of everyone in the art world throughout 1995: "What was Ray Johnson doing in Sag Harbor cove on Friday, January 13th, 1995?" My answer: "The Backstroke."
Ray's deathit was and it wasn't a "normal" suicide. On the one hand, no one who is happy jumps off a bridge. On the other, It wasn't much of a bridge. Ray lived his life in an extraordinary way, playing by his own rules. Why should his death be any different?
I prefer to think of Ray's final act as history's one and only act of "rayocide." The Greek prefix "rheo" means "flow" (and "cide," of course, means "kill"). As an extra bonus, "re" means "again" as a prefix in Latin. Thoughts of Ray give the phrase "stop me before I kill again" new meaning. Ray was always killing things off. Much of his work was about death. He took his own life several times.
"I invented my twin sister, Wanda Johnsonit's got to do with Wanda Gag," said Ray. "Who's that?" I asked. "She a children's book writer," he replied, "The woman I was buried with in 1966 when I died." (6/17/94*)
"Ray, We're going to watch The Grapes of Wrath tonight." I told him. "'Grandma died last night,'" he snapped back. "What's that?" I inquired. "Jane Darwell's big line." (8/29/95*)
Ray: What does Damien Hirst think of me?
Me: I don't know.
Ray: Tell him I've got three dead crickets on his face. (11/9/94*)
Ray once asked me "Did you ever see The Incredible Shrinking Man?" but I hadn't. Ray explained, "He's on a boat. After a period of weeks, he starts shrinking... crawling through mouseholes. In the end he goes off into the cosmos." (late 10/95*)
He often talked about things he'd seen in the obits. Ray asked "Did you see Jerry Rubin's obituary in The Times?" (11/29/94*)
"I bought The Enquirer for the first time," he informed me. "I have it here. It says Malcom Forbes had a secret gay life.... had AIDS and committed suicide." (3/22/90*)
Ray: Did you get any of my Locust Valleyer? Like The New Yorker. It's a magazine of one page.
Me: Like your Book about Death?
Ray: Yeah. (3/22/90*)
In one of our last conversations he asked, "Will you come to my show at Sandra Gering in January? I'm doing a half a nothing. I can't decide whether to do it in the first half or the second half."
Ray and I used to speak quite a bit abnout Étant Donnés, Duchamp's final, secret work. It was the first thing I thought of after I heard he'd died.... (12/5/94*)
I asked Ray once if he ever thought about his own death. And if his works would be found like Étant Donnés when he was dead. He replied mysteriously, "Don't think i'm not working on it." He added, "On her death bed May Wilson said 'Too late.'" (11/8/88*)
I told Ray I'd bought the 1969 issue of Art in America that contained the immediate reaction to Étant Donnés. Ray said the second time he saw it he went up to the peephole and didn't look in. "My tongue wasn't long enough to get through that hole." (7/26/88*)
Despite efforts to categorize him otherwise, Ray was not, in the end, Pop and certainly not Fluxus or Beat. The NYCS was where he saw himself in the world and in history. His School was who he wasa one-man movement exploring the all-but-ignored synchronistic world of correspondences. From the Blue Eyes Club to the Brue Eyes Club to the Irene Pin Fan Club; from the Taoist Pop Art School to the Pre-Pop Shop, Ray invented pseudonyms for himself and the School to fit his concerns of the moment. So when he flung himself into the water, ending his role as a bridge between people, I thought immediatley of Flopism. He often talked about things that "landed with a thud." I never dreamed he would be one of them.
11/8/88 Afternoon. He talked about "Flop Art." When I asked him what that was he said, "It is my movement. I created it. I'm publicizing it. Producing it. Étant Donnés flopped on the brambles. I told him that in slide show lingo, "flopped" means "backwards". He told me that another category of Flop Art is "Lop Lop." He said he was reading an Eric Satie biography. He said "He was a good alcoholic. Him and his bottle." (11/8/88*)
He said his "hair combs show in Chicago was one of my biggest flops." I asked him did he really fly to Chicago with John Cage? He said, "It was passenger class. He put his head between his legs when the plane took off. A real pro." He said he used to live across from Cage "at 326 Monroe Street, when he was writing the Music of Changes. He sent me some Flop Art. Blackened out the tip of James Dean's cigarette." (11/8/88*)
Excerpt from a letter I wrote October 24, 1991: "Dear Billy Name, I especially liked the part where you explained what it was like to meet Ray Johnson and John Cage. You said it was like being slit open with a razor blade and having your ego removed. Please tell me more stories about how to lose your identity. I'm not sure but I think I still have mine."
I told Ray about the new book West Coast Duchamp. I told him the book was excellent; that it told about how MD's whole collection ended up in Phillie and I asked, "Did you know that Walter Arensberg was obsessed with Francis Bacon?" He did. I said, "What a crackpot." Ray laughed and said "Cracked Liberty Bell." Then, after a long pause he said he liked Duchamp's witticism of putting his works north of the "cracked belle." Another reference to the Étant Donnés. (1/13/92*)
He told me that Étant Donnés was where his movement Flop Art started. I said Oh? He said, "Yeah she's just flopped down on those brambles." I said those what? He said "those brambles , those twigs." I said, "Oh, you mean those faggots?" He said, "Yeah those twigs, those faggots. That is an example of Flopism." (8/15/91*)
He said, "I told Mrs Christo a joke but she didn't get it." He said, "What did Bette Davis say when she looked at Duchamp's Étant Donnés ? Answer: What a Duchamp!" I thought about it and got it a reference to 'What a dump!' He said something about her looking through there with her big Bette Davis eyes. (8/15/91*)
Some have accused Ray of rigidity. Others saw him as a Taoist sage. I think he was both and here's why: The Taoist Ray let thoughts bubble updelicately, without his influence. He allowed two items to dance, ebbing and flowing until he noticed a correspondence between them. This could be between two images, two aspects of an image, two people, between a person and an image. These sorts of criteria did not matter but what did matter was the effortless way Ray allowed each pair of mental images to flow until he settled on a correspondence between them. From these associations a triangulation of references–correspondences–would form. Once these allusions resonated to Ray's satisfaction, (and his standards were high) Ray would "lock on" to their new equivalence in his fertile mind, and admire the frozen-in-time correspondence. Some saw only a need to control but to me the seemingly rigid triangulations that Ray would seize upon were the manifestation of a unique processa free-flowing imagination unparalleled in history. He spent his life nurturing this process, allowing it to evolve until he had trained his mind to function unlike any other.
Example: I use the image of the Greek God "Pan" in my work. My name is Mark Bloch. Ray's triangulation in this case: to call me "Mr. Wok." Why? "Because it rhymes with Bloch and it's a kind of pan" he explained. (from an answering message, 1980's, date unknown)
From the Tao Te Ching**, 76:
Alive a man is supple, soft;
in death unbending, rigourous...
Unbending rigor is the mate of death
And yielding softness, company of life...
Nothing more than a Taoist, Ray knew who he was in the sense that he was a master of correspondence. When Ray said he invented the New York Correspondence School, it was more than a cute way of linking people up. Ray's School has most often been cited as a pun on the word "dance," and indeed it was, but the third element in that triangulation seems to have been forgottenthe French spelling of the word. And let us not forget that Correspondances is the name of one of Baudelaire's poems. In his L'art Romantique, Baudellaire says correspondences are "the affinities which exist between spiritual states and states in nature; those people who are aware of these correspondences become artists and their art is of value only in so far as it is capable of expressing these mysterious relationships..." To me, that sheds more light on Ray's work than a confederacy of dances.
In the year since his death, I have come to see Ray as a 20th Century extension of the Romantic poets.
When I came across these statements*** by Stephane Mallarme I had to think of Ray: "In delving so deeply into my verse, (he assures a friend in a letter) I have run into... Nothingness... Having found Nothingness, I found The Beautiful... I am no longer the Stephane that you knew but an aptitude of the spiritual universe for seeing and developing itself through what I was...My mind is moving into the Eternal.., whatever is sacred, whatever is to remain sacred must be clothed in mystery..." Mallarme felt that poets must make their work "accessable only to exceptional spirits... by inventing an immaculate language, a series of sacred formulae."
"I'm going to write a whole new essay," Ray once told me, "democratic lesbians, gay republicans... republic of lesbos, interchangeable gay democrats, lesbian republicans... gertrude stein repetition, all this gay and lesbian stuff. As Albert Fine would say, 'Cockroaches!' I'm reading this biography of Rimbaud and he says poets should create new language. We need new language. I'm so sick of this stuff." (6/21/94*)
The Taoist concept of wu wei means "do nothing but leave nothing left undone." This concept of action without "doing" was what Ray meantand didn't meanwith his nothings.
From The Tao Te Ching**, 63
Act in repose
Be at rest when you work...
Ray: "I admire very good actors and directors. Meryl Streep was very good in Plenty. Plenty of nuthin." (3/22/90*)
August 24 1995 "Yeah the other day I'm sittin there in my jockey shorts talking on the phone with the front door open. Suddenly there were these two women at my door. I dropped the phone. They said 'I'm Sister So and So and Did I know their religion, the Latter Day Saints Church' and I said no and closed the door." "I married one of those sisters, I told him. "Did you send those sisters here?" he asked, suddenly concerned. When I said no, he continued. "Then I was driving down the street and I saw them under a tree sitting there eating their lunch and I apologized and said 'I'm a Taoist' and they said 'What's that?' and I told them." (8/24/94*)
A month later: "I'm waiting for a call. That's why I answered the phone 'Hi' instead of 'Taoist Pop Art School'". (9/20/94*)
Me: I saw a book about Lee Miller.
Ray: I met her once with her husband Sir Roland Penrose.
Me: At a gallery?
Ray: At a museum,. He gave a lecture on one of those Max Ernst paintings he ownedthe Elephant Celibes. We went to this really elegant dinner afterward. I was so dumb. I told Lee Miller she had such wonderful teeth. She said "Oh you think I have wonderful teeth?" and she pulled these plates out of her mouth.
Ray: One should never speak. One should never say anything about anything or compliment anyone on anything.
Me: Can I quote you on that, Ray?
Ray: Lao Tse (8/24/94*)
From theTao Te Ching**, 43, which is about water:
The softest stuff in the world
Penetrates quickly the hardest
Insubstanital it enters
Where no room is
By this I know the benefit
Of something done by quiet being
In all the world but few can know
Accomplishment apart from work
Instruction when no words are used
Ray walked by the water near Oyster Bay every day. "I'm gonna do my exercises. Working on a washboard stomach. Feeling very fit... doing rowing excercise on the beach with rocks... I walk with rocks." (5/5/94*)
We spoke at length about Down And Out In Beverly Hills. He said he was "offended but fascinated by its excessive horizontality." He said he liked the part "when he takes a rare book from the collection and spits in it." Said he'd seen Bodhu Saved From Drowning, the Bunuel film it was based on, years ago. (11/8/88*)
Ray was a fan of Jim Carey. One of the last films he saw was The Mask which both opens and ends with a person jumping off a bridge.
A week or so after I explained a little geometric trick to Ray he said, "I did a beautiful drawing with 6 circles that you turned me onto. I sent you a circular nickel drawing and one of those Duchampian nonagon 40 degree fish." It turned out to be a roto-relief parody: Ray's head on a fish's body. (6/17/94*)
"I want to watch Day of Reckoning at 9:00pm with Fred Dwyer. He looks like Ed Harris who should play Jackson Pollock." I told Ray about Michael Moriarty, who should play Ray Johnson. "I don't know who's playing Pollock," said Ray, "I'm not. This is the first Fred Dwyer movie I ever watched... Fred Dwyer looks like Richard Widmark." "Have you been going to the movies, Ray?" "I haven't been to the movies in a year. I don't want to go through all that. I have to go out and buy the March Esquire." Why? "River Phoenix." (3/7/94*)
One of Ray's last acts was calling to speak to Bill Wilson's son: Ocean.
"You'll like this story: There was a letters page in the Voice a few weeks back. There was a Tuli Kupferberg cartoon. They repeated it again the next week and said Walter Gurbo did it not Tuli. He used to be a Voice cartoonist. I called them both and discussed it. A cartoon of a guy with his head in a bucket of water and his ass on fire." (12/5/94*)
Ray: I saw Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It's the worst movie I've ever seen in my entire life. I wish that Gus Van Sant would commit suicide. Shelly Duvall wanted to make it. She would have done it well.
Me: How did you first get onto Shelly Duvall Ray?
He explained. Then later, another reference to Cowgirls and River Phoenix:
Ray: You know what I liked? At the beginning, 'For River'. (6/17/94*)
Me: We went to Sag Harbor and tried to find where Bill DeKooning wanted to take you to an AA meeting.
Ray: I'm sorry I didn't go. Do you want to hear a story? I went to see Helen Harrison at the Jackson Pollock house. It's a museum. I told Helen I was going to play the lead in the Jackson Pollock movie. She said 'Oh you're playing the role of Lee Krasner?' I told David Bourdon about that. He knows her and he said 'I didn't know she was such a bitch!' I said 'Who– Helen or Lee Krasner?'" (8/24/94*)
In retrospect I see now Ray was pissed off that a guy like him with such unique insights had to live in world like this where he obviously wasn't getting what he needed. He knew everyone but he must have lacked the kind of intimacy in his relationships that makes a person want to go on living. I'm sure that although he was in excellent shape, he didn't relish the idea of growing old and losing his precious self-reliance. Until mid-1995 I was in denial about my friend Ray. Well aware that he always kept me and others at a distance, I could not conceive of him as a melancholy person. I clung to the idea that his death had some special meaning. That there was only a shamanistic angle. A human dimension just didn't seem applicable when it came to Ray. But even by elaborately orchestrating his own death to have a comic, karmic, kamikaze quality to it, Ray's final act was very much that of a human being, revealing he was more isolated than he let on.
Ray's mom died. I asked him how did he feel. "No feelings"."Bad feelings." he said. "I'm an orphan. "He had to do everything "legally and properly." Gave her belongings to the Hadassa Thrift Shop. Had a garage sale. "Her house became my house."(7/26/88*)
Ray and I were both mesmerized by the Anita Hill hearings. So was everyone else. He told me afterwards "halfway through an overwhelming depression" came over him. (10/24/91*)
Ray recommended a New York Times article about David Lynch. He wanted to see Wild At Heart, his "movie of the year." The last movie he went to see was The Shining "...since I've been here in prison." (8/13/90*)
"Putting up my plastic walls here so I can air condition this room. It was so hot the other day it was like a surrealist nightmare in here. I have to cocoon myself in herehere in the Pre-Pop Shop." (6/17/94*)
"I was on the front page of The Times today in the lower right corner. It said 'RAGE.' Rage Johnson. Rage (pause) Johnson... Rage." He wanted to make sure I got it. Followed by: "You know if you go to that Sandra Gering opening all her cutesy pooh clients will be there." (12/2/94*)
I asked Ray about the "moticos." He said no one really got it. He said he destroyed all that stuff. He "wanted to paste things on railroad cars. Nothing to be seen by anyone except coyotes or cacti. Leo Castelli couldn't sell them so he wasn't interested." "Did you consciously avoid the gallery system Ray?" I asked. "I consciously burned everything in Cy Twombly's fireplace. Those were early nothings." Destroyed everything he did when he hung out with Twombly, Poons, Rauschenberg Rosenquist... Destroying them was the logical thing to do as a statement. There does exist an archive of early writings... That's what the mailings were about... They didn't kick the ideas around, though. There was no perusal of the meaning of these pieces. They just wanted them as objects. 'Aren't these nice. Put them in a museum with nice lighting.' Not the ideas." (2/20/91*)
53 Ray turned age-old money and art controversies upside-down with his work. His workall of itthe phone calls, the performance-nothings, the mail art and the collages, cannot be separated. They form a double Duchampian hinge between the free flowing Tao That Cannot Be Told and the rigid and unbending world of Ray the anti-Taoist trickster. He always proceeded carefully when money was involved and the outcome often baffled people. But Ray was very deliberate in everything he did and that included matters of money.
At a time when the art world is in a period of readjustment and looking for answers, it is time for a reappraisal of the work of Ray Johnson. That is finally happeningbut not for the right reasons.
Ray turned age-old money and art controversies upside-down with his work. His workall of itthe phone calls, the performance-nothings, the mail art and the collages, cannot be separated. They form a double Duchampian hinge between the free flowing Tao That Cannot Be Told and the rigid and unbending world of Ray the anti-Taoist trickster. He always proceeded carefully when money was involved and the outcome often baffled people. But Ray was very deliberate in everything he did and that included matters of money.
When I told Ray in one of our last conversations I was tired of the "mail-art-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-school," he distinctly admonished, "You didn't learn that in MY School." (12/5/94*)
While I think the media has overplayed the Friday the 13th angle of Ray's death, I do feel that Ray was leaving us all clues and many were missed. We owe it to him to compile them. And why has no one theorized that Ray parked his car at the 7Eleven at 7:11? I know from my phone conversations with Ray that every minute was important .
He said he had to "hang up in half a sec because it is 10 to 5 pm." (Mother's Day 1990*)
He said "ok it's 11:30 now gotta go." (8/13/90*)
Ray said he had to go "in four minutes at 1:58pm." I said what do you want to talk about in our remaining 4 minutes? He said "Nothing." I asked, "the New Orleans Correspondence School?" (a reference to N.O.something he'd said years before...). "Exactly," he said. At 2:02 pm Ray hung up. (8/28/90*)
Ray: Are you writing this down?
Me: Yes. Does that bother you, Ray?
Ray: At this point No.
Me: What about before?
Ray: At that point I don't know. (8/28/90*)
He said, "Are you writing all this down?" I said yes. He said, "I can tell." I said does that annoy you? He said "No, the only thing that annoys me is yellow jackets. I came home from my job at the gas station pumping gas and there were yellow jackets in my house and I had to call the exterminator and he sprayed this stuff and it really smelled awful." (8/15/91*)
I like to think that when Ray jumped he just flipped a switch and meandered momentarily from yang to yin. I don't think he saw it as an end of something as much as a crossing over into something else.
Six months before he died he called me to ask if he could use a piece of work I'd sent him. I had taken some of his art, cut it up, and shot a negative. Everything that was black was now white and vice versa. He was enchanted. He recalled a similar reversal of polarity as he once looked at his own electronic image. "It was one of the high points of my life," he told me, "I was doing a video with Nick. He pushed a button and I had this profound zen experience. All you gotta do is push the button." (6/17/94*)
Ray's rigourous art of free association can easily be dismissed by those without the hearty tenacity required to follow the links from one correspondance to another. On the surface it is deceptively child-like but the myriad ways any two elements intersect is worthy of scholarly study. That is why a reappraisal of Ray is important at this time. In this two bit, sound bite, simulated world, Ray's work is an unlikely antidote requiring effort and patience to "get" it. It is holographic in that every minute piece contains the whole. To follow any one of the threads reveals his entire world. The more one delves into it, the more there is to explore as each piece is integrated with every other. But this hard work is infinitley rewarding. The triangulation is the structure on which a complex and far-reaching labyrinth of associations is built. While it is impossible to arrive at the end of this maze, any attempt to do so is enlightening for its own sake, revealing subtle truths about our world via his. Ray's clever pallette remains profoundly punctuated with the forgotten details that other people's lives would be made of, if we only had the time to ponder such things.
Me: Boy, the art world is a strange place.
Ray: That's why I beat it long ago. (11/8/94*)
Ray's close friend Bill Wilson told me "Ray belongs to art history now." But I disagreed. Art history belonged to Ray Johnson all along. And now, because of his poignant but masterful endgame, we can watch it sputter and gurgle in fascinating new ways. Ray always pointed his poetry at the art world and his swan song has positioned his prismastic letter-bomb post-mortem permanently in its way. A combination of common sense and a sense of humor will forever cry out for an intelligent reappraisal of Ray Johnson's work but as before there will be only one response: nothing.
"Peter Schyuff ripped me off in The New Yorker. January 29. Page 10. A drawing of a Ray Johnson bunny head submitted as a self portrait by Schyuff... I told them it was my copyrighted logo trademark. I told them I wanna be paid. They paid me what they paid him. I told them in the future the credit line should be corrected... He said they made a mistake. He said he wasn't involved. He was involved. He did it... He called me twice. I did the Walk Away Rene." What's that? I asked. "Put the phone on the floor and walked away." (3/22/90*)
A central riddle of Ray's death is that in spite of his thinly-veiled disappointment, he will be part of art history and he knew it. His work foreshadowed many of the art trends of the second half of this century. Mail art is perhaps the longest lasting and most influential art movement of all time. Shareware has been a way of life for Ray Johnson for 40 years. He was the first master of do-it-yourself publishing, using coin-operated Xerox machines and networking a good 7 years before the Defense Department built Arpanet in 1969. He was a master of hypertext decades before it had a name. And let there be no mistake: Ray was the first Pop Artist. Before Lichtenstein appropriated Mickey Mouse in 1958 or Rauchenberg dropped a picture of Ike into his Factum 1 and 2 in 1957, Ray seized the image of Elvis as iconographybefore Presley's apprearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956and started a trend that continues almost 50 years later. It is astounding to consider that the zeitgeist-to-be could be so capsulized in one person's vision but such was the world of Ray Johnson. His School was one of the very first conceptual art worksso much so that Lucy Lippard mentioned but didn't know how to categorize it in her book Six Years. Before there were Happenings and performances, Ray arranged collages on the street for the occasion of a photograph, dripped mustard-covered dimes into a phone booth and threw dowels down a staircase. Every art writer seemed to know there was something important going on with Ray but since they couldn't put their finger on it, they glossed it over and Ray took his place on the sidelines. Or was it Ray Johnson, most comfortable on the fringe from the very start, who marginalized himself? Sometimes it seems like his entire life and then his death, was one big Walk Away Rene.
* Ray Johnson telephone conversation with Mark Bloch
** Tao Te Ching by R.B. Blakney, translated 1955
*** From Brief Lives, "Stephane Mallarme" by Stanley Burnshaw (editor, The Poem Itself)