PRINT April 1995

Between the Buttons

“My story begins with some unfamiliar handwriting on an envelope.” That was
the first line of a piece I wrote called “Casting for ’60,” published January 9, 1969, and also of Ray Johnson’s appropriation of the piece—the first paragraph, or first 452 words—for a collage he made titled I’d Love to Turn You On, dated 1969. The words are handprinted inside the form of a lightbulb. A collage under the last sentence of the text includes a put-down of Harold Rosenberg—“Looks Old Timey/Eccentric and/Chinese-Modern/To me today”—attributed to William T. Wiley. Underneath that, Ray wrote a kind of p.s. to his appropriation of my text: “Dear Sir: We love your dangerous dance critic sister Jill Johnston—New York Correspondence School.” The last I heard from Ray personally—and I was never a correspondent in his Correspondence School (for the reason that Ray scared me)—was sometime after November 22, 1994, the date of the message, which he sent circuitously, as he famously did, through Geoff Hendricks. He wrote the message on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper with a Xeroxed photo of himself from the back, his head turned in profile, and a drawing of ten stacked buttons under which are printed the words: “Ray Johnson's! New Booki'Ten Buttons'/Send for Your Free Copy.” And under that more print: “A Ray Johnson New York Correspondence Sch!Paloma and Claude Picasso Fan Club Meeting/November 1, 1991 6-8 pm/Goldie Paley Gallery Moore College of Art/Philadelphia 19103.” At the bottom, in red ink with large letters, Ray wrote to Geoff: “Please send to Jill Johnston.” At the top, over his photo and stack of buttons, is his message: “Jill-Ronald Feldman sold the I'd Love to Turn You On work which has my hand-lettering of your words in it-to a charming California art dealer or something.” Included in those 452 words written in 1969 was this line: “Then, at some age or other, for lack of any good reason to go on living, he committed suicide.” And this one, at the end of the quote: “You’ve gotta have something to be dismembered by.” In keeping with my failure to correspond with Ray, I had no plan to answer his message about the sale of his work, but by fate I happened to send Ray an (unrelated) communication sometime in December. Along with the sheet sent to Geoff meant for me, Ray had enclosed another sheet with various images and words requiring additions. One side had three bunny heads on it with a superimposed profile of Gertrude Stein, a balloon coming out of her mouth, and these words underneath: “The Butler Didn’t Do It.” Geoff gave me a copy of the sheet, thinking I might fill in the Stein balloon. Then Ingrid, my partner, urged me to do it, so I wrote in this line from chapter 4 of Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor, her only detective story: "It is very strange how everybody occupies your time, very strange and very difficult and very hard and very much as it is,” and sent it to Ray. When I heard Ray offed himself, I regretted it. He hadn’t even asked for a quote. Way back in the ’60s, after surviving a seemingly life-threatening episode, I remember David Bourdon telling me that Ray had sent messages around reading, “Save Jill.”

Jill Johnston is an author and critic who lives in New York. Her most recent
book is
Secret Lives in Art: Essays from 1984–1994 (Chicago Review Press).