Philadelphia

Ray Johnson

Moore College of Art & Design

“More Works by Ray Johnson: 1951–1991” presents a representative selection of drawings, collages, as well as a sprawling body of mail art. Given the comparative abundance and notoriety of the correspondence, the collages make a particularly strong impression here, revealing a refined, formal side of Johnson’s work that may not be familiar to most viewers; some are abstract and derive their poetry from his finely textured surfaces, others reveal a fluid engagement with pop-cultural images. The earliest of the latter sort predates Pop art’s beginning (as we traditionally date it) by a decade. The practice of collage, with its unlikely clipped, pasted, and Xeroxed visual and verbal encounters, also informs the correspondence in which contingency and assimilation play equally important roles.

The formal collages may be beautiful, but the mail art, which depends on the postal system instead of the art system, accounts for Johnson’s renown and best reflects his unconventional sensibility. Johnson’s relationship with the gallery/museum system has been spotty, and it is his identity in the art world that is ultimately the content of much of this work. Until 1965, he avoided formal relationships with galleries, and, since that time, he has had only a handful of significant exhibitions. Johnson’s position as an outsider is, in some respects, inevitable—the necessary choice of an artist who values the elements of chance and change above all in his work. Not only does the mobile life of the correspondence defy the gallery system, but Johnson’s inclination to cut up and reuse everything, including his own earlier collages, thwarts the marketability of his project. Johnson’s engagement with the names and reputations of other artists and art institutions has cast him in the role of the rejected lover, operating in that limited emotional range between adoration and disdain. Johnson’s cartoonlike rabbit head may be his chosen signature, but he draws a more telling portrait of himself through his running commentary on more established members of the art community. The most transparent examples are found in his Book About Modern Art, 1990, a selection of letters and mailings sent to Clive Phillpot at the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York. In one piece, Johnson has written “Dear Whitney Museum, I hate you. Love, Ray Johnson” over a reproduction of an Edward Hopper painting. On a photograph documenting part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist has drawn his rabbit head image in a monumental scale, lying on the floor like some grand sculpture, with Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock paintings hanging on the walls. The gesture calls to mind the adolescent pleasure and embarrassment of showing up at a party to which one wasn’t invited. In another instance of Johnson’s persistence, he draws his rabbit head over an image of a Willem de Kooning painting. The reproduction, from a Long Island daily newspaper, is headlined “De Kooning’s Art Isn’t Ailing.”

This exhibition resulted in a new body of correspondence to Elsa Longhauser, the director of the Goldie Paley Gallery at Moore College. In one mailing to her, Johnson has written, “Please send to Some-body Elsa from No-body Ray” across a page from an illustrated version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On the same page, a drawing of a Nobody is captioned “Nobody. i.e. a monster.” The precedents of antiart and happenings as derived from Dada and Futurist activities provide historical validation for correspondence as an art activity. It is more difficult, however, to determine the meaning and ultimate significance of Johnson’s occasionally elegant, sometimes witty, and often cranky voice from the side.

Eileen Neff