When artist Ray Johnson walked off a Sag Harbor bridge in 1995, and began backstroking through the frigid waters of Sag Harbor Cove, there was little reason to suspect that death would bring the recognition that had proved so elusive in his lifetime. Johnson was found floating 50 feet offshore with $1700 in his wallet, an apparent suicide. The man who had always feared water and obscurity achieved instant fame through death by drowning. Thousands suddenly encountered this anonymous figure whom art world cognoscenti knew well as a perennial enigma and gadfly.
Now, nearly four years to the day after Johnson’s death, the Whitney Museum of American Art is opening a full-scale career survey, the first in over two decades. Beginning with his early Pop works and moving on to his lapidary later collages (dubbed “moticos”) and his Dadaist silhouettes, the show also includes snippets from the far-flung archives of his best-known project, the New York Correspondance [sic] School.
As a cultivator of symbols and of his own mythology, Johnson would surely have been amused by attempts to read clues into the numerical trivia of his last day. He was 67 (6 + 7) when he died on January 13; his final lodgings were room 247 (2 + 4 + 7) of the Baron’s Cove Inn. One of Johnson’s favorite movies, as the late critic David Bourdon once pointed out, was Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, in which a tramp jumps off the Pont des Arts in Paris with every intention of killing himself, only to be rescued by a kindly bookseller. Boudu repays the favor by wreaking havoc in the bookseller’s life.
Havoc was a constant in Johnson’s life, but not the farcical Jean Renoir sort, in which lovable hobos sleep with other people’s wives and maids. Johnson’s domestic life was prosaic to the point of tedium. He lived modestly in a frame house in Locust Valley, Long Island. His sorties into the official art world were rare. But, from inside his house, Johnson generated his own brand of aesthetic havoc, a seductive lifelong guerrilla campaign of messages, mailings, and collages sent in flurries to hundreds of people throughout the world. Small in apparent scale, Johnson’s work had ambitions that in many ways prefigure the random-seeming but densely organized, network-based art of the Internet. His New York Correspondance School art mailings appeared unprompted, from out of nowhere (well, Long Island). They employed found images and mechanical techniques. Chance, to Johnson, as to the Dadaists, was a system. His correspondences were e-mail (and sometimes spam) with a stamp.
“You were always a mysterious personage, resolutely withholding information on what made you tick,” Bourdon wrote after the suicide. As Donna De Salvo, the Wexner Center for the Arts curator who organized the current Johnson show, adds, “He subverts the curatorial process at every turn. He’s in control.”
De Salvo notes the difficulties of even compiling a thorough survey (“I’m deliberately not saying retrospective”) of work by a man who critiqued celebrity even as he courted it. And Johnson sought his own fame in the oddest possible way, through effacement. As formally beautiful as his collages are, their real interest lies in the way the surfaces are worried, erased, abraded. He was, in a sense, the anti-affichiste. “Ray just adamantly refused to show,” explains Frances Beatty, vice-president of Richard L. Feigen & Co., Johnson’s putative dealer during his lifetime and currently the representatives of his estate. “I tried for 17 years. When I finally got him to agree to a show, he said, ‘You know what we’ll have in the gallery?’ I asked, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ ”
What De Salvo aimed for was to “get past” the suicide and “open up the question of the work because so few people have actually seen it. He didn’t let people see it. There’s a tremendous amount of work people never had an opportunity to know.” There are, for instance, the early Pop collages, created after the artist first came to New York in 1948, as a recent alumnus of the fabled Black Mountain College. There are chopped-apart paintings, reformed as collages, or moticos (the word is an anagram for osmotic). There are documentary reminders of his participation in early Happenings. There are his silhouette portraits of the celebrated (one, labeled with Jackson Pollock’s name, slyly depicts Gertrude Stein instead). And there are the mailings, of course.
Johnson, claims De Salvo, would have resisted any attempt to assemble a biography. “I’m the first to say it. He’s a difficult figure to place.” That Johnson has never been properly established in the context of postwar art is not merely “too bad,” as De Salvo remarks, it’s distorting. “So many contemporary ideas about history, mythology, celebrity, the mutability of meaning are all there. From the beginning, he was working toward an art form that remained in flux.”
Some of the earliest uses of Pop imagery were Johnson’s. A New Directions book jacket he designed (Andy Warhol got him the job) used a photograph blown up, Lichtenstein fashion, so large that the image was reduced to its component benday dots. The cartoony figurations of the marks he made were no less the evidence of a personal lexicon, as De Salvo suggests, than Cy Twombly’s more celebrated scrawls. Certainly Johnson was quick to see the uses of text. “He reflects the systems of pop culture so beautifully,” explains De Salvo. “There is loads and loads of cultural information. What does it amount to in the end? It amounts to beautiful abstraction.”
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.”
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.