New York

Ray Johnson

Richard Feigen Gallery

Of a mixed bag of Rauschenberg, Cage, Cunningham, Lippold and Ray Johnson—who tore about the lower reaches of New York City in a black hearse a generation back—all but the last named have come into lions shares of renown. Of course, Johnson has had his New York Correspondence School to slake a thirst for infra-fame, if this modest appetite can be attributed to the benignly sweet, perennial teenager. The general feeling around is that Johnson is due for his cut of esteem and high time too. This leads to hard problems, for in Johnson’s work there is a wide breach between those elements usually considered “pictorial” and those which might be regarded as literary, poetical or linguistic. It may be argued that his discrepancy is itself the signature fascination of Johnson’s work but to me such a solution to an irksome conundrum seems notably sophistic.

Stated flatly, John son’s pictorial gifts are so exceptionally derivative—although handled with exquisite dexterity—as to be, at moments, stultifying. His precision routine of juggling Crayola-besmirched cardboard tiles into tasteful patterns is Synthetic Cubist structure on a Rococo High. Johnson’s elegance, his sandpapered and otherwise softened cardboard edges, ranges from the arty refinement of Anne Ryan through Merzian matchbooks and sideswipes a wide range of handicraftsian ploys. Moreover, the paper tesserae, textural blurrings and surprintings genteelly arranged on blank hard white sheets may be cued by works of an entirely different scale—the photo-cropped paintings of his friend Joseph Raffaele.

Johnson’s literary allusiveness is of another order. Though derived from Max Jacob and Apollinaire, and currently dilated on in the concrete poems of Emmett Williams, these poetical sources are unfamiliar to the experience of seeing and so seem quite novel. (Finally, behind these not able blandishments hovers the life-style model of the Divine Marcel.) Johnson’s peculiar literary feeling is eccentrically visible in his motifs—used either as picture or word. His referential stock is encyclopedic. Unquestionably the pictures are collages à clef—a very good reason why they are easy to like but hard to respect—that is, images whose allusions lie outside the works themselves. Nevertheless, the interlinking of these clues (throughout in fact Johnson’s production of recent years) is one of the major means of esthetic pleasure. But without an awareness of the interdependencies of these motifs the compositions are as blandly neutral and mechanical as any advertising mock-up. Johnson’s visual dictionary opens at the baby Good Ship Lollipop, Paper Snakes, Marianne Moore’s Tricorne (not this season), comb striations and listings of friends. Despite the isolating effect of this confessional stance, I am convinced that this personal streak produces a kind of epicene strength.

Still, Johnson is far too frequently the dupe of his own diary. “Buddha was unhappy,” Johnson letters-in. “He looked out of the window. He saw a lady [pause] woodpecker.” The blank passage between words is the joke. How easily this deteriorates into fatuous primitivism: “Robin Richman said people in Houston call their chateas [sic] shadows.” Or ambiguous catchphrases: “Let it all hang out,” of a sidewise portrait of John Gibson, the art dealer. Or of short order visual gags—a red valentine cupid holds in one hand a heart, in the other, a phallus. Or facetious human interest: “A 2-year old Queens girl was killed yesterday when a partly dismantled piano fell on her in her home.” Or ingenuous pictogrammatic switches—a schematic peach can in exchange for a photo of Peaches Browning. Or plugs for his friends (Miss Richmond’s name already appeared in this litany) such as the negative stat of Raffaele’s Eyes, Mouth, Fish: Watch: Canyon: Operation, originally an illustration to an interview with the painter published in Artforum (December, 1966). These special friendships with the most irreducible ephemera perhaps convince us that Johnson’s seemingly trivial foci after all may be somehow critically important and that the collages may be, in the long haul, the means whereby his motival selections may be scaled out. It may also be that these collages are important to us because they are so damned important to him. But the snout-nosed truth is that while an exhibition catalog might have closed with such a saccharine and conceivably true piety, I cannot believe it.

Robert Pincus-Witten