PRINT April 1995

Brother Ray

RAY JOHNSON NEVER ACHIEVED the popular success of many of his friends, certainly unjustly. But his career is documented in the cold comfort of several publications on his hermetic and obsessive collages, and on his role in the larger developments of Pop art. Also, through the broad network of the mailings of his New York Correspondence School, he became a household name in the art world, a celebrity, as it were, franked in inverse proportion to market, that real-life stress about which Ray (not to say artists in general) felt acute ambivalence.

The taproot nourishing Ray’s idiosyncratic and mercurial work is Joseph Cornell more than it is the oft-argued fraternity with Andy Warhol & Co. His collages are beautiful and authoritative in a way free of period theoretical buttressing. More’s the pity that this simple formula wasn’t applied to his work when it was being shown regularly during the ’60s and ’70s.

Early memory points to the Willard Gallery as a meeting place of choice, for in addition to Morris Graves (then perhaps Willard’s best-known artist), Richard Lippold and Ray also showed there. Even in the light of today’s confounding of confession and history, the amalgam of Lippold and Johnson—names seemingly pulled from a hat—seems to beggar sense (ethereal construction versus impudent collage). In fact it perfectly characterizes the startling convergence of young artists then losing faith in the reigning AbEx patriarchy. During those far-off affordable postwar days, the two tooled about the Lower East Side together—in a hearse, no less, belonging, I could swear, to Graves.

Despite manifest temperamental dissimilarities, the Lippold/Johnson/Robert Rauschenberg intersection was intensified through total-immersion baptism in the Black Mountain College pool. Rauschenberg was in North Carolina in 1948–49, the year of Lippold’s artist-in-residency and the tail end of a three-year stint there for Johnson. As is by now common knowledge, Cy Twombly, on Rauschenberg’s advice, also went to Black Mountain shortly thereafter, in 1951, the year I first met Ray. It has always been tempting to suppose that Twombly’s archaizing and fetishlike sculpture gets its arcane reticence from the forget-me-nots exchanged between the Black Mountain painters and dancers to commemorate their propinquitous friendships. This recondite property is also sensible in Rauschenberg’s collage box-and-pebble work. But it is Ray’s work above all that retains its aura of talismanic gift, from the early labor-intensive collages to the Kurt Schwitters–like enclosures of his later tireless mailings. So, clues deposited in the memory bank of an insecure teenager who came of age in that earlier age of anxiety—living vicariously, nose out of joint for being pressed against the glass—now yield interest.

I met Ray when I was going to the High School of Music and Art and beginning to test the waters of the avant-garde. He was monkishly handsome, his ostrich fuzz finally tamed by full tonsure. Ray spoke in a fluty manner, with a high-pitched breathlessness he never lost. We used to hang out in the Village, eat burgers in the old Prexy’s on Eighth Street. He remained the last person to call me by my boyhood nickname.

Until his perplexing, dismaying death, Ray’s gifts came wrapped in a thin skin. Once, noting the names of artists who had receded from public view in the tidal drag of Pop art, I called Ray’s collages “evaporations,” a joshing (or so I thought) the effect of which no apology ever assuaged. Ray’s next exhibition announced “Evaporations by Ray Johnson.” Vigilant to offense, Ray was able to recast a passing slight, of a sort inherent to all artist/critic relationships, into a badge of honor.

Robert Pincus-Witten, professor emeritus in art history of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is an educator, a writer, and the exhibition director of Gagosian Gallery, New York.