To and from Ray
Clive Phillpot

How did I get to know Ray? Well, out of the blue, he sent me an envelope containing four sheets of paper with graphic images, probably around January 1981. The only words in this missive, other than the titles of the images, were rubber stamped on each sheet: ‘Please Add To and Return To Ray Johnson’. The characters featured included Mickey Mouse, Marcel Duchamp and the critic Lawrence Alloway. I took the inclusion of Alloway to refer to the fact that he, like me, moved from London to New York.

I didn’t understand what I had received through the mail, or how to respond to Ray’s instructions, but with nothing to lose, simply wrote playfully on the sheet with the drawing of Mickey Mouse. To my surprise Ray replied with a typed response on the page that I had altered, quoting an opinion about Mickey Mouse from Christopher Finch (another transplanted Englishman and author of the large Abrams book on Walt Disney). It seemed that I had engaged successfully with Ray’s world.

Why did Ray seek me out? In retrospect I think it was because he had seen a photograph of me in The New York Times a couple of months before, together with a column by John Russell (yet another emigré Englishman and acquaintance of Ray’s) about me and about an exhibition that I had curated on Dada and Surrealist magazines. What with a mention of my employment at the Museum of Modern Art as well, several buttons were pressed for Ray.

I had known about Ray since at least 1966 from various magazines, books and exhibitions, but after my arrival in the USA I was not particularly aware of Ray’s presence on the New York scene. We first made contact during a period when he had had no one-man shows for a while, although he was visible in the twilight zone of mail art and little magazines. At the same time I was also finding my own way through the New York art world and the fact that I had met Ray was, in a sense, one more interesting meeting among many. Things quietened down after our initial encounter. I did receive other mailings around this time that I kept, but there may possibly have been some that I did not. I also received a phone call or two; one in 1981 that I somehow noted down was a question about my favourite word.

I was, however, made aware during the early 1980s of the status that Ray had achieved among mail artists. Working at MoMA, I received a great many unsolicited mailings and photocopy catalogues, a very high proportion of which had either references to Ray, or small contributions by him. In addition his signature bunny heads appeared in print everywhere, usually redrawn by each artist. They also originated in many different countries, from Japan to Europe to Russia to Australia. So Ray’s underground reputation was already secure. To mail artists he was god.

By the end of the decade, our correspondence was accompanied by regular phone calls, but I only noted down a few of these prior to 1990. One of the earliest that I did record was in 1988 when he told me that he had invented ‘Flop Art’. It is not every day that an artist calls you to announce a new movement so I wrote this down on a scrap of paper and filed it for future reference. Ray must have given me examples of Flop Art, because about three years later I remembered some of these works when he elaborated the scope of the movement, even though I had not noted them down at the time. I do not know if coining the term Flop Art was a eureka moment for Ray, but it may have been in so far as he could now place himself outside, or between, Pop Art and Fluxus. (In 1990 he invented Buxus, which to me was the obverse of Flop Art, even though one might strictly have expected it to be called Puxus.) But the impetus for me to set down each and every telephone call on paper was my offer to write a text for the catalogue of the Philadelphia exhibition More Works by Ray Johnson 1951-1991, then nearly two years off. As 1990 progressed, Ray’s phone calls became more frequent, as did his letters. It suddenly dawned upon me that among the disparate details of his phone calls he was feeding me with facts about his life and work for my essay. Furthermore, many of these facts were either not already published, or had been published in scattered and obscure sources, so I felt that I was receiving privileged information that should be preserved.

Thereafter I must have made notes of most of Ray’s telephone calls, though probably not all, because he was likely to call me at any time at work or at home, and sometimes I was just too busy to write anything down. It had become such a habit to make notes of his conversations, however, that I continued to do this until I returned to England in 1994, a few months before he died. Usually I would quickly expand my notes into a full version of my memory of our conversation, but sometimes I was left with just my staccato original notes, for once the day had gone by I could not expand these without falsifying the original exchange. But it seems to me that even these notes have a value, since the recitation of names and other matters indicates what was on Ray’s mind at that time.

Ray’s phone calls were always full of unsolicited information: ‘I introduced Jim Rosenquist to Andy Warhol…’ ‘I made a visit to Mondrian’s grave…’ ‘I’ve dropped Ingrid Sischy…’ He also had a wide knowledge of and interest in classic Modernism, and in conversation this was one of our common denominators or shared vocabularies, reinforced by my employment at MoMA. He was well-informed about Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and particularly well-informed about the work of Picasso, Duchamp, Dali, Ernst and Cornell, as well, of course, about his contemporaries and friends, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Cage and Chuck Close. Ray was extraordinarily well-connected, and was a paid-up member, even if an undervalued member, of the ‘art world’. His incorporation of people’s names in his conversations and his art might suggest that he pursued celebrity, but I think he inhabited a world – accented by the contents of newspapers, magazines, television and films – that to him was more like an extended family, even if his relations with many ‘names’ were tenuous and via third parties or the media.

Ray’s phone calls were also full of questions: ‘Have you read this book on Pollock?’ ‘Have you been to Cranbrook Academy?’ ‘Have you seen the new Derrida book?’ And particularly questions about people: ‘Do you know Tory Barr?’ ‘Do you know Davi Det Hompson?’ ‘Do you know George Herms?’ ‘Do you know Rosalind Constable?’ He was very tuned in to art-world gossip, and he also solicited information that I might be able to provide, particularly about the museum where I worked. He was an information gatherer, but in my experience he was not a name-dropper. The scores of people to whom he referred in our conversations, well-known or not, were nearly always connected to my experience or his, however tangentially. He linked people, objects and events by association – even osmosis. He also talked about current exhibitions and asked me for my views. As I grew confident about the value of my opinions I told him exactly what I thought, without trimming my response to allow for what his opinion might be. He seemed to value this, and, indeed, I found myself always being frank about my thoughts with Ray. Somehow he seemed to elicit truthfulness on my part.

Ray initiated most of the telephone calls. Although he tended to call me towards the middle of the week, I do also remember that on Saturday mornings he would often call me punctually between the time I had finished breakfast and before I set out for SoHo and a gallery perambulation. He got to know my habits. He also developed a particular pretext that he employed to start a telephone conversation with me, and that was to request my help in finding an address, usually of an artist or art-world figure. I used to keep a copy of the Art Diary on my desk at work, and had an old copy at home; this international directory satisfied many of Ray’s requests. On other occasions I looked for answers further afield in the MoMA Library, or among the books and magazines that I had at home.

Ray’s conversations were composed more of sentences than paragraphs. He would often skip rapidly from idea to idea, occasionally saying self-consciously, ‘Next thing…’, or he would progress from a first item, to a second item, to a third item, as if he had made a list of questions or observations for me. One sentence would follow another sometimes by association, but sometimes without any apparent connection. Here is a succession of topics from just one ten- or fifteen-minute conversation taken at random: Ben Vautier, Nothing Festival, Elsa Longhauser, Chuck Fahlen, Michael Lowe, a lumber(!) party, Brooke Shields, Quincy Jones, Holland, Douglas Blau, the brother of Steven Leiber, New York Correspondence School, Leon Trotsky, Ellen Johnson, Lesbian Eskimos, Boxing Helena, the daughter of David Lynch, a senior citizen, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, FaGaGaGa, Rita Bottoms, a Nothing, The Little King, O. Soglow; words and names piling on top of each other, much as they did in his work.

Our conversations were sometimes rather one-sided when Ray would deliver a cascade of disconnected bits of information, gossip, observations, memories and questions. But most of the time we had a proper two-way conversation, even if Ray tended to steer it. There were a number of times, however, especially when I was writing about him, that I had questions about his life and work and would try to obtain the information that I needed. In retrospect I regret how much I had not yet found out about Ray, for if I had known then what I know now, I could perhaps have clarified much more of his history, and elicited other useful information.

On a few occasions I found myself crossing lines, the existence of which I had not perceived, and then being playfully rebuked by Ray. For instance, I went too far in assuming what he might do in one situation, when, in response to a remark that he did not want someone to publish certain mail art sheets, I said that the person making the request should get ‘nothing’. Ray immediately retorted: ‘That’s my department.’ Another time I impinged upon the personal: Ray said that a Japanese woman wanted to cut off some hair from different people and that he was ‘not available’ for this. I responded with: ‘There’s not much to cut anyway, is there?’ Ray replied rather tetchily: ‘There’s a good half inch all over,’ and promptly changed the subject. But such moments were rare.

Although the phone calls from 1987 to 1991 had a lot to do with our collaborations over the three projects that I worked on: a small booklet titled Ray Johnson: Jean Dubuffet Fan Club, the Philadelphia exhibition, and a new mailed book titled Book About Modern Art, the fact that our conversations endured seems to be evidence not only that the two of us worked well together, but that both of us also found enjoyment in these dialogues. I can certainly say, for myself, that after initially being flattered that Ray was interested in my opinions, ideas, and responses, I simply and thoroughly enjoyed Ray’s humour, inventiveness, word play, ideas, stories, gossip, and friendship-at-a-distance. (I only met Ray a few times early on. He declined many later offers to get together, though I never quite understood why, particularly when I was able to say that other people with whom Ray was acquainted might be involved.) All this telephone activity was also paralleled by the pleasure and puzzlement obtained from receiving gifts of Ray’s work regularly through the mail. He was often so impatient for a response that he would ask me if I had received a particular letter when only a day or so had elapsed since he mailed it.

The day that I told Ray I was leaving New York and the USA, he sent me a sheet bearing the word ‘Boo’ next to a silhouette of his head. This in turn was placed above a very scared-looking bunny head partly overlaid with one of Duchamp’s punning 1926 discs that included a reference to ‘esquimaux’; yet another puzzle. Then at the bottom of the sheet was written: ‘Clive, This is a personal letter.’ It was personal for me too, for after I arrived back in England, I felt the absence of our regular conversations acutely; they had imperceptibly become part of the rhythm of my life in America.