Ray Johnson at Vassar College
I have written short essays for the Pavel Zoubok Gallery, and for Vassar College, a show with Ray Johnson, Peter Hujar and Rudy
Burckhardt, opening this June. These two, and an essay for Feigen Gallery to use in Basel, Switzerland, overlap, since Feigen wanted sentences from Vassar in its essay, and Vassar wanted sentences from Feigen in its essay. Bill Wilson
April 25, 2006
Ray Johnson’s mature collages are summonses to surfaces, because for him surfaces are as much as a person can know and needs to know. Born in Detroit in 1927, in high-school he responded to experiences in every art, even gluing ticket-stubs, pictures of paintings, and souvenir images into a scrap-book.
By 1953-54, Ray was clipping images from books and magazines, gluing
ready-made mass-produced surfaces onto a surface, avoiding illusions of spatial depths and delusions of deep meanings. Because he did not want to be analyzed in order to be cured of his erotic self, he was against interpretations of his images. Thus he rendered many images and words illegible and uninterpretable.
Ray’s practice in art became fewer aesthetic illusions and more aesthetic experiences. He worked toward less transcendence and more immanence, participating in arts which were elaborations of an American Buddhism, with a mischievous Zen and an oceanic Dao.
Ray rarely saw a code he did not render un-decodable, or confront a system he did not make unsystematic. A collage by Ray Johnson often holds scraps of former communications, but their message is inaccessible. If a viewer could not read from surface toward meaning, attention would stay on the surface, moving laterally, from image to image. The purpose of relative flatness was spatio-temporal presence. For an experience of space, he often glued flat images to cardboard, then glued cardboard to cardboard, constructing a spatial
surface with two or three different levels. For an experience of time, he used fragments of earlier collages, often dating them precisely, but impressionistically. If an old fragment or a newly clipped image from a book, magazine or newspaper had a spotless surface, Ray might sandpaper it, or allow ink or paint to
splotch the surface. He needed accidents and other failures of his
intentions, because accidents and failures did not follow his rules, and he could not plan responses to mistakes. His moments beyond the reach of his own rules were felt as un-decodable immediacies within the swirl of oceanic cosmic forces. He was satisfied when he did something he had never done before, and showed himself something he had never seen.
While Ray was a man who felt empty in several ways, and who philosophized about Nothing and Nothingness, he was in fact filled with gratitude for artists and their art. The artists Ray responded to, often mentioning them in collages sometimes designated as "portraits," were the artists with whom he felt rapport. After all, he and Andy Warhol were together, if only by being far from their birth-places, and not in danger of sinking back into them. Ray
would discover a rapport with an artist, and then reveal that rapport in a collage, even in a series of collages, with each work of art becoming an expression of his gratitude. Gratitude was his rapport. His collages, as works of art about artists, did the work of gratitude, giving back appreciations for his having been given so much. Ray gave more art away than he sold, because he preferred the rapport of the gift to the anxieties of a sale. He eagerly
made his portraits of artists, but he was reluctant to sell them lest he appear to be profiting on a friendship. He worked, largely ignoring fame and the sales of art, to give thanks for the astonishments that each artist gave to him
Ray did not take revenge on the finite for not being infinite, or condemn the temporal for not being eternal. His last gesture, drowning, was not art, but it was attuned to the images and values in his art, including un-interpretability. He had tried to live as actively as the water-in-the-wave. He drowned, trying to disappear like water-in-water. Yes, he had always trusted water to evaporate, leaving Nothing.