New York

Ray Johnson

Richard L. Feigen & Co

THE MONIKER HAS STUCK since Grace Glueck coined it in 1965, but Ray Johnson's days as “New York's most famous unknown artist” are numbered. In the six years since his death, the reclusive collagist has been the subject of a traveling retrospective and featured in two exhibitions devoted to postwar experimentalism, “Beat Culture and the New America” at the Whitney and “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945” at LA MoCA. This recent show at Feigen presented eighty-eight pieces from Johnson's estate, many never before seen by the public.

The sheer volume of good work is noteworthy. But even more pertinent is the gradual revelation of Johnson as a microcosmic clearinghouse for a dizzying range of visual, verbal, and historical detail. If an idea was important to avant-garde or Pop sensibilities in the last forty years, Johnson probably drew from it, if he didn't help create it in the first place. Connect the dots among Duchamp, Cornell, Warhol, and Cage, and the lines invariably meet at a spot called “Ray Johnson.” Diaristic, almost painfully personal, his assemblages are also utterly collective. In cardboard-and-magazine collages delicately stark or heavily worked into with watercolor and gouache; in ink doodles, postcards, and visual arrays of language; through cultural references high, low, and out of left field, Johnson's eclecticism always bears his own particular stamp. Each freezes a moment in the constant flu of image and idea pouring through one omnivorous (and slightly cracked) mind. By extension, they map the omnivorous, cracked mind of midcentury American culture.

Attempting to encapsulate such plethora in the modest space of a review is akin to trying to summarize on a notecard the holdings in the Borgesian Library of Babel—an assignment, come to think of it, that Johnson would have relished. (Such a notecard was no doubt hidden somewhere in the show.) The gallery itself relied on rubrics like “Pre-Pop,” “Language,” and “Re: Stein/Duchamp/Cornell” to orient the presentation. The imposition of museological categories may distort the protean holism of Johnson's project, but it was nonetheless useful in tracking his aesthetic and social adventures—he was a graduate of Black Mountain College, considered by many to be “the father of mail art” and founder of the New York Correspondance [sic] School, a sometime affiliate of Fluxus and its Japanese counterpart Gutaï, a student of everything from Zen, the New York School, and Language poetry to fanzines and advertising. Amid the mosaic tesserae of glued cardboard, the objets trouvés, repeated stamped figures, and bits of letters, we find Elvis and James Dean, Jean Harlow, Lucky Strikes, and the Everly Brothers. Miró, Picasso, Dubuffet, and Archimboldo mix with Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore; references to Hilton Kramer and Jacques Derrida share space with a recurring alter ego or signature—a cartoon bunny with a dopey phallic nose.

The show was called “Mind Games: Ray Johnson's Art of Ideas,” and the emphasis on ludic cerebration helps explain the lasting relevance of such idiosyncratic art. The gee-whiz vernacular references can be taken at face value (Johnson really did dig James Dean), but his kernel idea is not celebrity—it's relationship. With their tropings, mirrorings, and glosses, these works demand to be read en masse. Each piece ramifies into those clustered nearby as if these bits of cardboard were mock-ups for the concept of hypertext. Indeed, Johnson called his constructions “moticos,” an anagram for “osmotic,” and this rhizomatic proliferation is the fundamental subject of all his work; “moticos” are sentences inscribed in image-language, momentary stabilizations of the constantly shifting information stream. Their handmadeness rescues Johnson's central idea from chilly systematization and reinstates it as a interesttactile pleasure, not a data-management strategy but a habit of mind.

Frances Richard