PRINT April 1995

Golf War

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE, after knowing Ray Johnson for twenty-five years, that I’ll never again receive something in the mail to add to and send on to someone else, or hear his voice on the phone asking me some trivia question about a marginal movie star.

In 1991, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I curated a show of portraits culled from the museum’s collection. In one of my regular telephone conversations with Ray I said I was sorry MoMA didn’t own one of his portraits because I would love to put one in the exhibition. We talked about getting a collector who owned one of his pieces to give it to the Modern, or about him donating a piece himself, but he very much disliked being Judged by curators (or for that matter by anyone else) and didn’t welcome the possibility of being rejected. So, In typical Ray Johnson fashion, he found a circuitous, slightly subversive role into MoMA’s collections: he began to Include Clive Phillpot, then the director of the Modern’s library, in his circle of correspondents, his letters taking the form of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Xeroxes and drawings. Ray knew that Phillpot wouldn’t throw away anything he had sent in, and also that anything in the flies of the museum’s library would be accepted without question as property of MoMA—and therefore as part of its collection. This made it possible for me to select one of his “bunny” portraits of Willem de Kooning for my exhibition. (Years earlier it had been Ray who had introduced me to de Kooning for the first time.) In the middle of all those valuable paintings, drawings, and photographs, Ray’s humble 8-by-10-inch Xerox was the only piece that had made its way into the Modern’s collection by completely bypassing the curatorial process.

In the summer of 1972 or ’73, my wife Leslie and I were house-sitting in Garrison, New York, a very conservative and WASPy area across the Hudson from West Point. Ray came to visit. Leslie made BLT’s with tomatoes she had grown that summer; these sandwiches became the source of endless BLT pieces over the next twenty years. Ray was fascinated by the fact that the house abutted a golf course, and nudged me to go with him to play. We sneaked onto the course. What a wonderfully incongruous image Ray made with his shaved head, black leather jacket, and motorcycle boots, playing golf among all those Republicans in green pants. He scared the shit out of them.

Chuck Close is an artist who lives in New York.