‘What a Dump’ Delves Into the Irreverent World of Ray Johnson

A new exhibition examines the artist’s mailings and collages — and his persona


The word “camp” doesn’t mean much today. The sensibility has dissolved completely into our culture, like sugar. Of course, there are revivalists, post-camp superstars, in particular Lady Gaga and Björk, and very un-campy museum surveys, such as the 2018 Met gala Camp: Notes On Fashion, which turned camp into a historical trope. The memes and trends of online humor aren’t inherently campy, but their mixture of codedness and accessibility steals from camp and has come to supplant it entirely; you could even say that the Internet killed camp.

It’s disturbingly appropriate, then, that Ray Johnson died in 1995, just as the information superhighway was paving its roads. His work embodies a sensibility of bad taste and ironic humor, which is perhaps why he’s less known today than many of his queer contemporaries. His friends, for example, photographer Peter Hujar and Fluxus experimenter Geoffrey Hendricks, could be campy, but they were also earnest, mournful, careerist, explicit about depicting the male body (Hujar), and conceptually expansive (Hendricks). Johnson’s magazine-scale collages boil camp down to its essence, and his obsession with the cultural flotsam and jetsam of the 20th century ties him to a time and place. His preferred outlet wasn’t a gallery or museum — it was the United States Postal Service, through which he sent art to an interconnected network of appreciators under the intentionally misspelled umbrella term “New York Correspondance School.” Like camp itself, his mailings lampoon and repurpose an analog world of instruction diagrams, circulars, and flyers. Lining the vitrines at the center of David Zwirner’s new show Ray Johnson: What a Dump are a paper advertisement for buttplugs — ”Please send to Hilma af Klint,” reads a note scrawled across the top — send-ups of Mickey Mouse stationery, directions for how to draw John Waters, and a petition requesting that Geoffrey Hendricks shave his beard. Many of his missives invited collaboration, such as drawings of Cher asking his correspondents to add hair; it can be difficult to distinguish the work of Johnson from the work of his School. He reduced grand, entrenched notions of art-making to something as exquisitely dumb as a note a kid might pass in class (another adolescent ritual rendered kitschy by the World Wide Web). For Johnson, as for his buddy Andy Warhol, sensibility itself became the artwork. 

Located in Zwirner’s 19th Street gallery, What a Dump shows the relentlessness of Johnson’s sensibility, while also reminding us of his extraordinary, inconspicuous craft. Many of his collages, which Johnson fashioned from materials as various as cardboard, illustration board, and wood, are the size of an 8.5” by 11” sheet of paper. Echoing the Depression-era movie mags of his youth (Johnson was born in 1927), they juxtapose advertising copy with images of celebrities, queer icons including James Dean, Shelley Duvall, and Liza Minnelli. Other works, self-consciously titled with mailing instructions such as Long – Please send to Robert Desnos, dangle with the verticality of a centerfold, or a tongue. In these small spaces, Johnson packed astonishingly dense ideas: Iconic names rub against anonymous figures, colorful details play off duo-toned photographs, his silly jokes disguising his time-intensive construction process. If you take his sense of humor seriously, Johnson’s work can look breezy, but the attention to detail is extreme. Many of his highly layered, provocatively juxtaposed pieces took him literally decades to construct. 

While Johnson ultimately landed on collage, he was unusually versatile. He began as an Abstract Expressionist before destroying most of his paintings; as for others of his generation, notably underground filmmaker Jack Smith, sabotaging his commercial prospects became performance art itself — Johnson once removed all of his work from a gallery the night before a show and left a single drop of blood in its place. His childlike bunny figures anticipated late-20th-century comics, such as Matt Groening’s Life In Hell, and his pairing of these repeated forms with text had formal traces of graffiti art. He was a graphic designer, a conceptual artist, a satirical prose stylist, an autograph collector, a starfucker, a photographer, a winking portraitist. One series, “Silhouette University,” features the pencil-drawn profiles of scores of art world figures, 28 of which are on display in What a Dump. The simple drawings are striking for the way the outlines of Johnson’s sitters — Nam June Paik, Howardena Pindell, John Ashbery, among others — hug the edges of the paper, as though asking us to focus not on the silhouettes themselves but on what might be inside their brains. Needless to say, the series makes us wonder something else entirely: What went on in Ray Johnson’s brain, and who the hell was he?

The accepted narrative is that Johnson was a recluse, holed up inside his Locust Valley, New York, home while communicating with friends through parcel and post. The brilliantly curated What a Dump never dispels this perception, yet it does illuminate another side of the artist — Johnson as social butterfly, as well as Johnson as physical being. Enough of his clothing is on display to dress his corpse: a gay-club-ready leather jacket, a serpentine ring, a T-shirt that reads “Disco Duck.” Also exhibited are snapshots of his friend John Dowd’s ass. Taken by professional punk Jimmy DeSana under Johnson’s instruction, they include a close-up of Dowd’s rear, another of Dowd peering over his shoulder, grinning at the camera, and one of a clothed Johnson shot from behind as he stares at Dowd’s bare derriere. The photos offer a bleary-eyed tour through the possibilities and pitfalls of objectifying a nude model, illustrating the model’s complicity as well as the artist in the act of looking. And by making Dowd — a beloved bartender at Chelsea leather mainstay The Eagle — feel like a celebrity, Johnson created one. Dowd toured Canada, visiting mail art enthusiasts and hosting “bum signings.” One of the few occasions when Johnson’s work acknowledges AIDS is a short note dated 1988, which mentions that John Dowd had died a few weeks earlier.

Mostly, it’s up to Johnson’s contemporaries to provide some gravity and context to his humor, and the show includes work by people in his circle. Hujar captures Johnson shirtless and contemplative, a vulnerable position for a flamboyantly private artist. A Sari Dienes rubbing from 1952 is full of sorrow, the imprint of Johnson’s hands on the black woven paper eerily prophetic in the context of the exhibition, and like many of the pieces by his peers, completely devoid of camp. These works are welcome, since emotion hardly ever breaks through Johnson’s airtight sensibility.  He always seemed like the guy with the glazed-over grin in the corner at the party, smiling no matter what happened around him. 

In reality, the grief of losing so many of his friends to AIDS might have contributed to Johnson’s decision to open his safe deposit box, stuff $1,700 in his pocket, arrange his artwork as though it was meant to be found, and jump off a bridge in Sag Harbor. Several days after his death, a card arrived at the post office with a Los Angeles postmark and Johnson’s signature, as well as the message “If you are reading this, I must be dead,” and the date of his suicide: January 13, 1995. No one knows whether Johnson actually sent it. The clues he left engrossed the Sag Harbor police department, which described the case as “like doing a gigantic puzzle,” as well as the New York art world, yet today it’s hard to think of his death apart from the year it happened. In December, the Food and Drug Administration had approved Saquinavir for general use, which, in combination with a couple of other drugs, drastically reduced the mortality rate for those living with HIV. The Internet became a commercial enterprise, as Amazon and eBay and JavaScript were introduced to the public. Meanwhile, Johnson’s Correspondance School was brooding over the loss of their founder, questioning whether his death was the performance piece that it seemed to be and if there was any meaning to the fact that he was last spotted doing the backstroke across Sag Harbor Cove, a campy exercise that, because of the frigid temperature, must have been excruciatingly painful to execute. His only audience was a pair of local teenagers. Fittingly, Ray Johnson got the last laugh, because everyone else was left to their pain, with the future bearing down fast.   ❖

Ray Johnson: What a Dump
David Zwirner Gallery
525 West 19th Street
Through May 22, 2021

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