Long Island Books: The ‘Most Famous Unknown Artist’

On Jan. 13, 2015, it will be 20 years since he was seen diving from the Sag Harbor bridge and backstroking out to sea — a reasonable time to take stock
Ray Johnson’s self-portrait with works by Ed Ruscha, a collage dated “1975-81-86-87‚” demonstrates many of the artist’s strategies and methods and is on view in New York City. Ray Johnson Estate, Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Outside of some art-world friends who lived on the East End, Ray Johnson had a tenuous association here until his ultimate performance in Sag Harbor became the stuff of local and international legend and inextricably bound him to the area. Earnest young artists have made pilgrimages here to retrace his steps and delve for meaning in his use of the numeral 13 and its factors in his age, choice of date, and room number at Baron’s Cove Inn.

On Jan. 13, 2015, it will be 20 years since he was seen diving from the Sag Harbor bridge and backstroking out to sea — a reasonable time to take stock. This past year, two books were released that do just that, “Not Nothing,” a compilation of his writings edited by Elizabeth Zuba, and a reissue of “The Paper Snake,” a group of writings, small artworks, and other ephemera he shared with Dick Higgins, a Fluxus artist and poet and the book’s original publisher. Siglio Press has reprinted the book, first released in 1965, in the same edition of 1,840 copies. And Richard Feigen, Johnson’s longtime dealer, has mounted a show, “Ray Johnson’s Art World,” that will remain on view through Jan. 16.

Those not familiar with Ray Johnson might think upon introduction to his work that he was a poor man’s Warhol, someone who, 1980s-style, shared a symbiotic or parasitic relationship to 1960s artists who came before him. Born in 1929, he actually predates them. He was one of the instigators of Neo-Dada, Pop, Fluxus, Performance, and Conceptual Art with various other movements and impulses of the era that continued and were recycled by others through the 1980s.

His unique contribution was mail, or correspondence, art. His New York Correspondance School — he misspelled the word intentionally — involved many of his friends and associates in a tight, highly curated membership that Johnson himself controlled.

His prolific oeuvre in this creative pursuit extended to The East Hampton Star, which received mail art pieces over the years that included references to Chuck Close, Edie Beale, and Andy Warhol. He even sent actual letters. On July 14, 1984, he wrote: “Dear Helen Rattray, I enclose this drawing [which was circled and emphasized with an arrow in case she missed it] to accompany the Southampton College press release of my ‘Basting Syringes’ performance July 30, 8:30 p.m. Fine arts theatre — R Johnson.”

A biography of the artist compiled by his estate notes a 1958 review in ARTnews of a Jasper Johns exhibition that placed Johns “with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” When Billy Name covered Andy Warhol’s factory walls in silver, he credited Johnson for the idea. According to John Cale, his song “Hey Ray” was written for Johnson, “the first artist I met in New York in 1963‚” the composer recalled in an introduction to the song in 2011. Johnson, in other words, was himself a subset of artists that mattered to artists that mattered, the way the 13th Floor Elevators were a more obscure subset of bands like the Velvet Underground.

Grace Glueck’s comment in a 1965 New York Times review of one of his shows has become an epithet and epitaph; he may well always be “New York’s most famous unknown artist.” In that time and the years that followed, as his contemporaries began to achieve celebrity status, his reaction was to become smaller and more obscure. He called his version of happenings “nothings” and made collages and other objects small enough to mail. Then he would cut up those original collages or other pieces of cardboard into squares and stack them, to make what he called tesserae, which were compositions unto themselves or reassembled into new works. In later years, when that didn’t appear to be enough diminishment, he withdrew entirely from the scene to a small house in Locust Valley, which is where he was living when he made that fateful trip to Sag Harbor.

To the people he matters to, he matters greatly, and these editions are lovingly and reverently submitted.

In “Not Nothing” there are sober and erudite essays, both objective and subjective, that plumb the connections between his work and his writings, finding them inextricably bound in their depth and meaning. In her introduction, Ms. Zuba sets out in scholarly argument to make Johnson’s connection to modern poetry. Kevin Killian, who wrote the book’s essay, uses a more stream-of-consciousness approach, comparing the artist to the writer Ron Johnson, at first chiefly because of the conflation of their names but then more expansively in the analysis of shared affinities in methods and overall approach.

The writings are presented as facsimiles of the typewritten originals in their Courier font, messy from the skip of keys and what looks like the use of carbon paper. It’s intimate and winning, far more duplicative of the experience of receiving them in the mail and reading or examining them while holding them in your hands as opposed to seeing them on the wall. This was likely the thought that guided the publishing of the first book as well.

As for the writings themselves, they rather defy description. It’s best just to immerse yourself in them and be drawn back in time to a place where the riddles and non sequiturs make an odd kind of sense. They are invigorating, exasperating, and pure in a way that stands out from much of the shallow or surprisingly empty, self-consciously revealing, artwork done today.

As Frances Beatty, who is the director of the Johnson estate and a vice president at Richard L. Feigen & Co., says in the introductory remarks, encountering these outpourings is like being “inside of Ray’s head, experiencing him experiencing life.” She’s not incorrect. One does find that in these obviously intimate works.

At Feigen, the gallery has taken Johnson’s collage and mail art and put it together with aligned works by John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, James Rosenquist, Edward Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, and May Wilson. It adds his voice to a discussion that was prevalent at the time of the art’s making but has faded over the passing decades. But it is one worth reviving, and all of these efforts should be received with alacrity in equal measure to the care and esteem with which they were brought forward.

Connecting with them and with Johnson’s world would make a great endeavor for the new year.

Ray Johnson’s “Untitled (Jasper Johns, James Dean With Coca-Cola),” a collage mounted on cardboard, is from around 1991 to 1994. Ray Johnson Estate, Richard L. Feigen & Co.
Examples of Johnson’s mail art sent to The Star over the years. East Hampton Star Archives