PRINT April 1995

Something about Nothing

RAY JOHNSON STARTED mail art some 35 years ago. Now everyone’s doing E-mail art.

Did Ray go away because he couldn’t stand the proliferation—the vulgarization—of his cherished medium? His last message to me was on my phone machine a couple of years ago: “It’s Pablo speaking.” And he hung up.

Ray Johnson learned something about “nothing” from John Cage back in the Black Mountain College days in the early ’50s. The problem was that he learned it too well. “When you negate everything, why not negate careerism too?” Twice in the early ’60s Ray turned down one-man-show offers from a very prominent gallery. He extended nothingness to its logical conclusion.

I asked Cage in 1960 at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice: “Why do you compose?”

Cage: “Because I promised Schoenberg I would.”

Paik: “Why do you still compose?”

Cage: “It is important to do meaningless things.”

Paik: “Treue um Treue, à la SS/Hitler?” (Faithfulness for the sake of faithfulness, like Hitler’s SS?)

Cage: “No, that’s a self-glorification. My case is self-abandonment.” Then he got serious: “When I was around 20, I was interested in both architecture and music. Architecture, however, is about making something permanent, and about possession, whereas music is about giving up something, giving up myself.”

Perhaps I quoted Hegel: “Sound is a voyage from nothing to nothing.”

For Ray, the best way to make art yet not to possess it, or to grow rich and famous through it, was to give it away in the mail. William Wilson: “Ray Johnson plays the U.S. mail like a harp.” So do millions oflnternet lovers today, globally. And Ray sent out his time-consuming handmade objects and drawings not only to YIPs but also to losers, gadflies, eccentrics, scum.

What an entourage he had. When I arrived in the U.S. for the first time, in 1964, Ray came to visit me with a lady who was reputed to be a nurse at a clandestine abortion clinic, this at a time when abortion was heavily punishable (and when it was sometimes performed without anesthetic, and with rock ’n’ roll playing to drown out the screams). He next appeared with a pretty belly-dancer who had a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and worked by day for IBM. After that, one of Ray’s friends listed his telephone number under my name in the Manhattan phone book, and changed the nameplate outside his apartment to “Nam June Paik.” Someone saw photos of me all over his apartment. He wanted to be my double. I got a little scared.

Shyness, an oriental habit, was manifest in Ray’s daily doings. He’d never look you in the eye; he’d look at you from the comers of his eyes. When you mail something you don’t have to confront the recipient, a curator maybe. You can’t be turned down the way you can be on the telephone. Mail is strictly a one-way communication.

Shyness may have led Ray to the invention of mail art, but mail art led him to his critique of the art distribution system. He skipped over the gallery/museum complex. It was 1965 before Ray finally decided to have a one-man show in a legitimate gallery (Willard), allowing Grace Glueck in the Times to hail the debut of “the most famous unknown artist.” By then, however, the art world’s great game had settled for the moment and the territory was drawn. Ray’s pioneering works from the early ’50s (subtle, ambivalent, profound) escaped the wows of camp followers; the layman confused the teacher with the taught. I remembered a Korean proverb: “The scariest thing of all is the tiger’s tail.” Paraphrase: To see a tiger’s tail sticking up from a bush is far more frightening than seeing the whole body, because you can’t size the creature up. Soon Ray went back into self-exile, from Suffolk Street near Delancey—in a studio where the walls, painted shiny white, were bare, the artwork be being neatly hidden away—to Locust Valley, Long Island.

Where better to pay tribute to Ray Johnson than on the Internet? Here’s the on-line address for Fluxus: You’ll need the viewer software “Netscape.” E-mail can be sent to: Don’t minimize the impact: over 10,000 people from around the world checked in and browsed at our Fluxus online service between September 1994 and January 1995.

Nam June Paik is an artist who lives in New York.

I am grateful to Alan Marlis for help with writing in English.