New York

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Campbell’s Soup with Cut-Out Circles), 1973–88, collage on illustration board, 19 × 17".

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Campbell’s Soup with Cut-Out Circles), 1973–88, collage on illustration board, 19 × 17".

Ray Johnson

Richard L. Feigen & Co

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Campbell’s Soup with Cut-Out Circles), 1973–88, collage on illustration board, 19 × 17".

Ray Johnson (1927–1995) has been an artist of compelling interest since the mid-1950s, thanks to two premonitory Pop collages, one depicting Elvis Presley, the other James Dean. Yet for all the acclaim they have received, these pieces stand apart from the larger body of Johnson’s oeuvre, which comprises works that, over time, revealed an intricate tissue of affinities, a network made visible in his diligent Lists of Names, a particular Johnsonian genre. Such is what they are—literal lists of names, mainly those of art-world personalities, each denominated one below the other or punctuated by a little bunny head (or is it a duck?) when set up within a checkerboard formation. Name as word and visuality, word made flesh. To be sure, these lists at times generate a “whatever happened to . . . ” response, since many of the notables mentioned—artists, critics, authors, museum and gallery personnel, society and media personalities, or just plain friends—if not by now markedly aged are already dead. Hence, Johnson’s art world—the heart of his art tout court—is one of shrinking borders, even as its personages become the stuff of footnotes.

The forensic task demanded by the lists was made ever more taxing by this exhibition’s scope: It included some thirty-nine collages by Johnson, eighteen by his artist peers, and fifty-one pieces of ephemera—broadsides, photographs, exhibition announcements, pamphlets, and snippets of printed images, such as the iconic five-and-dime Valentine’s Day cupid, paper snakes and their Ovidian metamorphoses. And then there was Silhouette University, 1976, a list of names that recalls an imaginary attendance sheet for a fictional class.

Early last year the redoubtable Elizabeth Zuba published Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954–1994. In her introductory essay, she describes Johnson’s epistolary preoccupations, telling us that the ephemera-stuffed envelopes the artist sent to members of his “Correspondence School” contained sweepings that were specific to each letter’s recipient. Maybe so; maybe not. As a “correspondent” years ago, I received envelopes of various origin filled with desultory clippings, sometimes relevant—a scrap printed with my name, for example—but mostly, apart from the occasional fortuitous clipped or crumpled shape, just snippets of scant appeal.

While, admittedly, many of the figures mentioned in the lists have fallen off the edge of the world, many have not, among them John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Ad Reinhardt—germane works by whom were included in the show. Lynda Benglis was represented here not only by her notorious, ithyphallic advertisement from the November 1974 issue of Artforum but also by the multipart Polaroid work Secret #3, 1974–75, in which she, Robert Morris, and Johnson pose together; in one of the shots, Johnson smiles and clutches an apparatus recalling that now beyond-famous dildo.

Johnson’s exquisite cut-up images collaged onto scratched and sanded bristol board form tesserae loosely reassembled into richly vagrant miniatures. Here, they were accompanied by Untitled (Campbell’s Soup with Cut-Out Circles), 1973–88, in which Swiss-cheese-like holes poked in the tin can’s familiar red-and-white label reveal a collage underneath, and by Untitled (Five Snakes, Jimmy Connors), 1975. Both are unusually large works (for the artist) whose minutiae still make Sherlockian demands on the viewer.

As a connoisseur of children’s-book illustration and newspaper cartoons, Johnson often cited the name of the Caldecott honoree Wanda Gág, a genial children’s-book illustrator from the 1920s through the ’40s, whose fluid, declarative line was the very forebear of Johnson’s style. In several of his works, Johnson also inscribed the name of Ernie Bushmiller, a cartoonist remembered as the creator of Nancy. That comic strip starred, along with its eponymous heroine and her tough, baldy-bean sidekick Sluggo, the delightful brunette Fritzi Ritz; all three characters appear throughout Johnson’s work. One relevant name found in the lists is that of Robert McCloskey, the author and deft illustrator of the two Homer Price books published in the ’40s and ’50s (and also a Caldecott recipient). Homer, I believe, is our best approximation of the idealized 4-H persona assumed by the artist—sweet as a dappled fawn, a gentle farm boy all cowlick and hayseed: Ray Johnson right down to the ground.

Robert Pincus-Witten