Richard L. Feigen & Co., April 29 – July 31, 2009
The Richard L. Feigen & Co. gallery has unveiled an unseen trove of collages by Ray Johnson, with works by Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. Included are the collages Johnson subjected to seemingly endless reworking and overlaying, which were found signed, scrupulously dated (many with multiple dates documenting the ongoing changes) and neatly arranged in his house at the time of his suicide on January 13, 1995.
Despite Ray Johnson’s strong impulse to leave a message for posterity, he remains curiously unknown today—and unknowable. His intentions and the ultimate meaning of much of his work are hard to pin down. This holds true even in his “formal” collages, with their shifting sets of reference points. Johnson seems to be taking cues from Jacques Derrida’s multiplicity of interpretations, but also from Dada pun-making by Marcel Duchamp and others. Indeed, “avant-god” Duchamp, a pun-master himself, was often a target of Johnson’s puns and misspellings in the latter’s “glued-landscaped-constructions” (as in “Marchamp du sel,” a transposition of “Marcel Duchamp” into “merchant of salt”).
Over and over, Johnson deconstructed his artworks, cutting up some, abandoning some in the street or sending them out in the mail. He named his collages “moticos,” an anagram of “osmotic,” which alludes to something “liquid, penetrating even the thinnest membrane.” The destruction of some of his work now seems to presage his personal self-destruction. He also incorporated images of suicide victims like Marilyn Monroe in his collages, and he used newspaper clippings about drowning victims in his mail art.
Some Ray Johnsonites claim to possess secret insights into the decoding of the artist’s hallucinatory assemblages, information passed on from the maestro himself. In terms of art history, however, Johnson evades labels and categories. He was post-Surrealist and pre-Pop Shop. Diary-like, almost painfully personal, his assemblages are also utterly collective.
My favorites are: “Mask with Green Mona Lisa” (1991-92), with his own image, totally defaced, between two halves of the Mona Lisa, and including a mail-art section bearing the legend “Hi Cowgirl Haiku Girl.” “Untitled (Dear Marilyn Monroe)” (1972-92-92-94) is an art-history narrative establishing a direct connection between Duchamp’s “combs” and Pop Art in the form of a fictitious letter to Marilyn, his alter-ego, with two Duchampian combs facing each other, suggesting a zipper or perhaps a bloody “vagina dentata.”
Johnson’s sex references are everywhere; “Box-69” (1977) features multiple copies of Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres” with an enlarged butt-crack, phallic snakes, a water cooler with a penis for a nozzle, and a faux-condom in-between Dali and his wife, Gala. He compulsively repeated pop icons such as Mr. Peanut, Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse—Americana that makes his art a time capsule of the many symbols of his generation.
Ray Johnson both resuscitated and invented several collage techniques: sanding edges; layering; “Rubbage” (rubber-stamp collage); “Scrattage” (scratching the entire surface of a collage); “Accumulage” (the aforementioned cutting and reworking of old collages); the use of multiple photocopies; mail-art collaborations.
“Ray was the artist of cross-references and inter-relations,” says Bill Wilson, son of May Wilson (herself an underground art-guru for Johnson, John Evans, myself and so many others), but I think that applied only to his outer skin. Deep inside, Ray was searching for happiness and peace. Some of his religious subjects, such as Buddha, Christ, St. Sebastian, represented a spiritual quest for the artist, and he often combined these images, as in “Untitled” (1975-76-77-79), depicting a black snowman-Buddha emerging from the chest of Christ, with two clams in a box at his feet. His early “Buddha University” and “Taoist Pop Art School” collages certainly qualified him for an honorary place in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim, which analyzed the influence of Asian religions on America artists, but alas, Johnson was not included.
Ray’s works have a bittersweet sadness to them, a quality that comes only to those who have experienced ecstasy, such as Emily Dickinson or Tennessee Williams. Johnson embraced the role of “famously unknown,” with all its contradictions, and deftly maintained it for the rest of his life; even in death, he is still famous but not commonly knowable. And today his art seems to be on the verge of receiving the wider recognition he didn’t crave. To mate Johnson with Andy and Dalí signals a move to a higher price bracket and perhaps to a better position in the pantheon of art.
This show, for veteran connoisseurs and first-timers alike, is surely a gold mine of high inspiration; for Ray’s old friends and correspondents, a wellspring of memories.