Critics’ Picks

View of “Something Else Entirely,” 2015.

View of “Something Else Entirely,” 2015.


“Something Else Entirely”

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
120 College Street
June 5–August 22, 2015

An image from a promotional photo shoot for Ray Johnson’s book The Paper Snake (1965) shows the famed artist blithely holding up the real thing. It’s a compelling portrait in this exhibition, which shares a wealth of Johnson’s original and related materials for the project; throughout, the snake is a master of riddles and a phallic symbol.

Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins divined The Paper Snake from Johnson’s assorted mailings and in 1965 printed the fifty-page book in cyans, browns, and brick reds for his fledgling Something Else Press. The volume includes rubbings that suggest snakes slithering, line drawings showing laid-back topless studs, and Johnson anecdotes such as “I went to the sea and peed and kept peeing and a mermaid threw a big green turd at me.” Other texts are absurdist microplays that feature characters such as a talking candle with an identity crisis (it doesn’t know whether it is a candle or a carrot). There are jumbles that resemble concrete poems zigzagging to tell two stories at once and reduced-size reprints of early Johnson multiples—one of which, hisses the repeating text “Mississippi, Mississippi, Mississippi.”

Records recently unearthed in the archive of art critic William Wilson—a friend of Johnson—reveal that an unknown prankster accomplished a shade of Johnson humor, filling out an order for one hundred copies of the book to be used as toilet paper in Grand Central Station. But Johnson’s achievement surpasses this kind of buffoonery. Just take his snakes. As conjured here, they are coy, changing, ridiculous, and capably menacing.