When Ray Johnson jumped off a bridge in the East End of Long Island in 1995, the police chief was baffled: the more people he interviewed, the less he understood. “Everyone had a story about Ray Johnson, but nobody knew everything about Ray Johnson,” he said. “He would just allow you so far into his being, and that was it.”
The investigation is continuing. The man the New York Times once dubbed “New York’s most famous unknown artist” is recognized (if at all) for his collages. Today the Morgan Library discovered an even more obscure Johnsoniana stash, an archive of 5,000 snaps taken with 137 disposable cameras between 1992 and 1994 and stored in boxes. Curator Joel Smith presents a well-chosen bouquet in no particular order, because how do you organize a spirit full of spontaneity and randomness?
Like most of his output, Johnson’s photographs are both mundane and poetic, casual, airtight, and intermittently stunning. He sent some of these whimsical and ephemeral creations, one at a time, to a select audience of famous strangers and distant correspondents. Here’s a strumming lyre statue kissing an oversized Oscar Mayer sausage; there, a cut-out silhouette of the artist’s head leaning against a log on a beach, a layered portrait of death, both distant and imminent.
He developed a graphic signature, a stenciled rabbit with pricked ears, saucer eyes and a trailing nose, which he emblazoned with other people’s names (Pablo Picasso, Harpo Marx, Erik Satie) and keyed to various places. Each of those stray rabbits meant that Johnson had been there and was gone; they are self-portraits of the artist as absence.
His quirkiness and circle of acquaintances (friends might be overkill) made him a known unknown, a prolific and well-connected man who quietly disassociated himself from the commercial art world but continued to twirl around the edges. It’s exciting, if disconcerting, to see his work exactly the way he wishes we didn’t. In 1958, the dealer Leo Castelli offered to mount an exhibition of his collages (some of which are now exhibited at the Morgan). Johnson left without a word. “There was no reading of the meaning of these coins,” he grumbled later. “They just wanted them as objects. ‘Aren’t they nice! Put them in a museum with nice lighting.” . . I wanted to stick things on wagons. Nothing to see by anyone except the coyotes.
So how do coyotes look at art? Johnson’s visual koans entice the human viewer to decode them, but he also said that the whole point of his work might be “not to make sense”. Best to relax and enjoy the puzzle with canine acceptance.
Johnson was born in 1927 in Detroit and got his start in the art world as a student at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s. There he studied with the Bauhaus guru Josef Albers and met nonconformist composer and philosopher John Cage, who became a lasting influence.
He moved to New York in 1948, flirted with abstract expressionism and then destroyed his first trial and error. Existential baring just wasn’t his MO, and he tapped into popular culture instead. Long before Warhol (whom he came to know), Johnson was charmed by the glossy papers of Elvis and the wrappers of Lucky Strike. In “James Dean in the Rain,” assembled between 1953 and 1959, Johnson juxtaposes two identical shots of a soaked Dean with writhing black shapes and totem symbols that only the artist could decipher.
In the early 1960s, Johnson invented what he half-jokingly called the New York Correspondence School. He sent someone a letter-sized photo or collage and asked that person to pass it on, creating long semi-secret chains of custody. He wasn’t averse to the occasional show, however. He once had a helicopter drop foot-long hot dogs like fliers over the crowds at an art festival. “I was quite shocked to hear that people were eating hot dogs,” he remarked. His long-suffering dealer, Richard Feigen – miffed at receiving a bill for jet hire and frankfurters – described Johnson as one of only three artists who “have inhabited a different planet from the rest of us. we”.
Johnson was attacked at knifepoint on the same day in June 1968 that Warhol was shot, and the double trauma drove him out of town. He moved to a gray wooden house with white shutters in Locust Valley, Long Island. There he almost isolated himself, hoarding his work in boxes piled on the floor and communicating with the faraway and famous by phone and mail.
These cartons then disgorged photos oscillating between a rigorously abstract sensibility and a figurative language rooted in pop iconography. They rhyme and pun and dodge and flex, blending clichés and surprises with immaculate elegance. Johnson specialized in ironic, slightly distorted self-portraits. One, from 1992, shows him lying on a beach next to a dead horseshoe crab, the creature’s protruding top and spiky underside reflecting his shaved head and stubbled chin. Some viewers might even mistake the inert crab for an electric one. . . Ray.
In another magical shot of light, Johnson shoots his own shadow across an almost white concrete slab so that he appears to be juggling a manhole cover like a ball. Difficult to distinguish the background from the shadow. The heavy iron disk resembles a weightless sphere, and Johnson himself has dissolved into a two-dimensional projection.
Death stalks many of these scenes, sometimes by suggestion, sometimes more explicitly. He frequented cemeteries and on one bizarre occasion came across a ‘Raymond’ headstone in a Johnson family plot. The photograph he takes there is one of his anti-self-portraits.
Smith cautions against reading Johnson’s work for omens. “It would be trivial,” he wrote, “to hunt through the vast, complex, often comic, and always personal corpus for nothing more than a rebus suicide note.” And even . . . Weeks before his death, Johnson placed two unopened packages at the edge of a pier as if enjoying the sunset together. A few minutes later, in a second photograph, one of the boxes plunges into the water below.
In a final image, he is seen staring through a display case at his own reflection in a mirror. He is almost completely hidden by a stocking cap, with the Instamatic covering one half of his face and, on the other, a sign with his signature bunny and the words PLEASE SEND TO ЯƎA⅃⅃IꟻƎ — “real life”, in mirror. Was he announcing his plans to go beyond the here and now? Maybe. “I’m done doing nothing,” he told his friend, gallery owner Frances Beatty, who had spent years trying to entice him into a solo show and now runs his estate. . “Now I’m going to do something, and then you can have your show.”
As of October 2, themorgan.org