PRINT April 1995


I met Ray Johnson In September 1956, when he invited Peggy Smith and me to a party to view a huge fireworks exhibition on the Hudson River put on by Macy’s and the Japanese. I met two young, shy fellows there named Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg. When I got a loft in downtown Manhattan on Coenties Slip, in 1959, it was Ray who introduced me to Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney, who lived nearby. A short time later he called me around midnight and said "Do you want to go to Helen Keller’s and get blind?” So I got out of bed to see what this was, and it turned out to be a waterfront bar called Keller’s, filled a third with sailors, a third with tourists, and a third with gay people.

I would see Ray over the years, but not often. I remember him sitting in my four-room $60-a-month apartment in 1963, for some reason watching John Kennedy’s funeral with my wife, mother, and father. Once I visited his apartment on Suffolk Street; there was a stack of books that went up to the ceiling and a clothesline going from one wall to another. When I asked Ray why, he said that the books stacked to the ceiling supported the roof and the clothesline divided the space. Once when Ray was sick I visited him in the welfare ward in Bellevue, where they also treated criminals. On his J.D. card it said: “Ray Johnson. Religion: None.” Ray crossed out “None” and drew a picture of a snake. Another time Ray and Larry Poons popped into my studio on Coenties Slip while the Dutch artist Karel Appel was visiting. I had some of Ray’s work there and Karel saw it and asked, “What is it?” Ray said, “It’s something like Cubism. I put things in the mailbox and they get spread out all over.”

The last correspondence I have from Ray is dated September 30, 1994. It’s an almost unidentifiable cover of the New York telephone book, looking as though it’s been sandpapered or run over. There’s a rip in the middle, right where, on the back, the phone company has printed the large numbers 911. At the top it says “Call for Emergency.” I didn’t know and couldn’t realize Ray’s feelings at the time. I miss Ray because when I find something unusual I have no one to send it to.

James Rosenquist is an artist who lives in New York and Florida.