The Art of Effacement

The Whitney Returns Ray Johnson to the Fold

One of Johnson's recurrent phrases, "Failure/Failure," seemed to characterize him. When Frances Beatty mounted a 1995 memorial show of Johnson collages at Feigen, "people were coming in and out of here like it was Grand Central Station." The crowds were drawn by the rave reviews Johnson's work never received in his lifetime. "Jasper Johns came in and spent an hour and 15 minutes," Beatty explains. "I clocked him. On the way out, he ran into [former Whitney director] David Ross and he said, 'This is something you've got to see. You have got to give him a show.' I mean, double, triple irony."

Johnson in 1975: a man never properly established in the context of postwar art
Fred W. McDarrah
Johnson in 1975: a man never properly established in the context of postwar art

As De Salvo explains, "I knew going in that, no matter what I did, to some extent, I would be operating at a level of failure." For starters, "to put Johnson's work in a vitrine is to stop it being in flux." This most secretive of artists once revealed to critic Henry Martin his ambition to make a form of art that remained continually in transition, "like news in the paper or images on a movie screen." What the Whitney show seems to ask is whether it was "transition" he was concerned with or the shrewdest of deconstructions. At his Pink House (it was white) on a Locust Valley side street, Johnson conducted his artistic life as chastely and intently as some suburban Penelope, staving off suitors and unraveling as he wove.

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