The problem with eccentric artists whose personas are as much a part of their work as the physical artworks they make is what to do with what’s left after they die? Are the surviving pieces of art actually just artifacts? Ray Johnson definitely presents this conundrum. Johnson is an artist's artist, he knew everyone in the New York art world and has attained the status of cult hero. What do you do with a person who committed suicide at age sixty-seven on Friday the 13th having checked into room 247 at a nearby hotel? I watched the film How to Draw A Bunny for the first time in years after viewing the exhibition at Aurel Scheibler (the first such exhibition in Germany) believing revisiting his story was necessary to understanding the work. Except in all the stories Johnson’s friends, colleagues, lovers and dealers recount there are only two things you take away: Johnson’s life and art was one big enigma and no one really knew him.
The officer who investigated Johnson’s death in the film wonders aloud how a sixty-seven-year-old man with so many friends could remain such a mystery to so many people. He’s an interesting character, but it has little bearing on seeing the work now. If you look at the work he left behind as somehow tied to, or reliant upon Ray Johnson the persona, you won’t get much out of it. Looking at the work at Aurel Scheibler I was more interested in what was in front of me than in wondering how it fit into the neurotic man’s life.
The exhibition is roughly separated into two bodies of work, a collection of his early collages from his “Mail Art” project displayed in a large group and his more substantial collages that are almost bas reliefs consisting mainly of his silhouette portrait series. Johnson heavily worked and reworked these later pieces, often returning several times over the course of years and sometimes decades to individual collages. Understandably, then, there is something a bit too obsessive and overworked about them.
They feel hermetic and locked down. This feeling is produced not only by their history, but by the pieces’ formal qualities as well. Untitled (de Menil with Tesserae) (1979-81) for example is covered with thick blocks of cardboard that fit together almost like puzzle pieces. All of the collage’s components have been sanded and the surfaces roughed up. The overall edge of the composition is clearly defined and its stark black, white and red color scheme very clearly delineates it from the rest of the world. Untitled (de Menil with Tesserae) and those like it also bring to mind Joseph Cornell, a hero of Johnson’s, and the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. And so they seem to look back into the history of art and add to the hermetic, closed sensation the works produce.
Johnson is at his best when he makes quick asides and spontaneous gestures as we see in the earlier collages. When Johnson first began making collages he was very sparing with material. At first he did not even paint or draw them, choosing only to juxtapose image with image, and image with text. Often they are little more than a picture clipped from a magazine with a block of text from a newspaper taped to it, the whole thing affixed to a sheet of thin cardboard, the kind that comes with folded shirts from the dry cleaners. These pieces are simple, almost incidental, but show Johnson’s true genius.
Oddly, the later works seem pre-occupied with art of the past, while these earlier ones seem to look forward, to the possibilities of visual culture that would come. It’s almost baffling, how could you make such casual work with such little alteration in the 1960s? The Pop Artists might have appropriated images as source material, but they always turned it into fine art. Lichtenstein cleaned up those comic panels and reworked them before he painted them on large canvases. Even Warhol made his photos from newspapers into proper paintings. But here we have Johnson, doing little beyond excising a cartoon from the newspaper and by changing the context turning it into a bizarre tableau: A man is punched in the face by his angry wife as he walks through the door, his nose made red by a dot of ink. The caption reads, “What’s the most effective way for stopping a severe nose bleed at home? Insert sterile absorbent cotton into each nostril. Press nostrils together for 6 minutes. Gently remove the cotton hours later. Tomorrow: Thunderstorms.” What?! This little bit of advice, called “Health Capsules” has been taped over a black and white picture cut from a magazine that is indecipherable and offers a cool frame to the warm yellowing newsprint. In its simplicity is a lot of sophistication.
When you think about Johnson’s approach to art, it was more a form of communication than object production to him. Or that as the inventor of “Mail Art” he not only sent countless amounts of artworks to people all around the world, but involved and connected them with one another by instructing them to send parts on to others, to add to the collages, and to return other parts to him, you can’t help but think Johnson’s artistic practice is a precursor of social media.