Influences can be a funny thing sometimes. I can tell you exactly what song I was listening to when I made the decision to take up playing guitar. I don’t have a clue how I first came across the documentary film, How To Draw A Bunny, but I do know it’s how I came to learn about artist Ray Johnson. While doing some research on him, I found quite a few other people who said the same thing.
Born 1927 in Detroit, Ray Johnson may best be known as a collage artist, but was also a painter, performance artist, photographer, and experimented with video. In 1943 he attended the Black Mountain College in South Carolina, after which he took up residence in New York. In a short time, likely due in part to connections made at Black Mountain, Johnson had befriended just about every contemporary artist that called New York City home including John Cage, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Christo and Jean-Claude, and Willem de Kooning to name a few.
Ray Johnson was a mystery to most all throughout life and even in death. On January 13, 1995 he jumped from a bridge into the chilly Sag Harbor and was seen doing a breaststroke out to sea. There was evidence to suggest that his suicide was a performance piece of sorts, but you’ll have to watch the film to learn more. It was his death that prompted filmmakers Andrew Moore and John Walter to start a six-year investigation culminating in the documentary.
While Johnson did exhibit and sell works of art, much of his notoriety comes from what he did behind the scenes, making collages and sending them in the mail to fellow artists. He founded the New York Correspondence School in which artists would receive a starter piece of art, alter it further, and send it in the mail to either the originator or another artist to be altered more. Taking the commerce out of art meant making art just for the sake of art. This is where I most felt an affinity with Johnson. For years I’ve been fascinated with the postal service. Though the rate of postage is always rising and e-mail is quick and easy, there is something very satisfying about sending and receiving handwritten notes or drawn pictures. At the time of this writing I can send one ounce of mail to Alaska for 49 cents. That’s pretty cool.
Ray Johnson seemed to make artwork out of everything right down to the haggling of sales of his collages. In the film Peter Schuyff recalls wanting to buy a collage portrait that Johnson had priced at $2000. Schuyff countered at $1500 to which Johnson agreed and would send the work later. When Schuyff received the work, the bottom right quarter was missing, Johnson having effectively removed $500 worth of the piece to reflect the agreed upon price.
Every artist interviewed about Johnson has a different piece to the puzzle, but the thing they all seem to agree on was that making art didn’t stop at performances or collages or identifiable works of art. Ray Johnson was a work of art 24/7.
“Ray wasn’t a person. He was a collage or a sculpture, a living sculpture. He was Ray Johnson’s creation.” – Billy Name
I can’t recommend this documentary enough and this review isn’t doing the film or the man justice. It’s by far the best artist documentary I’ve seen and when I first saw it I hadn’t even heard of Ray Johnson. There are a few resources out there, not the least of which is a website maintained by the Ray Johnson Estate.
Over the years there have been a number of books about and by Ray Johnson. Most of these are out of print and now command collector’s prices (The best price on How Sad I Am Today is $100). However, Ray Johnson: The Paper Snake is scheduled to be reprinted and released August 31st as well as a new book, Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson 1954-1994.
Are you a fan of Ray Johnson’s work? What work or story about Ray first comes to mind when you hear his name?