Re: Johnson. Concerning the art of Ray Johnson
Michael Bracewell

The man is of indeterminate age, but youthful. The expression in his almond shaped eyes appears expectant, knowing and intent. His fixed stare is ambiguous. His lips are parted slightly, and his smile has a downward turn. His features bear no distinguishing marks. He seems mysterious, unknowable. Let us suppose that we know just one thing about him: that his name is Ray Johnson.

He is one of the great chroniclers of the post-1946 Mass Age, as the commodity culture gathered pace in the USA, fusing new technology with slick eroticism to create a vivacious consumerist cosmography, aka Pop. This neon and synthetic firmament was lit by the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age; its stratosphere laden with the threat of apocalypse – communists, Martians – but all was a triumph of mass production. For Ray Johnson, the signage of this technology boom – the detail and fabric of its industrialism – was the setting for a grandly novelistic creative enterprise that was also his life. Dispensing with the membrane which separates fact from fiction was both his work and play. In the burgeoning Pop Age of the fifties, Johnson emerges as an all American poet seer, connoisseur of myths and modern reputations, listing iconic (always modern) names (Mickey Mouse, James Joyce, Marilyn Monroe and a further cast of thousands) in a honed, layered and patterned manner that is at once commemorative and ritualistic, as though to bottle their psychic energy.

That Ray Johnson was an artist – in the most devoted, austere, classically romantic sense – sits well with the ways in which his very name appears to embody the modern American Dream. In a dialogue subsequently published (by Between Books) under the alluring title, ‘RAY JOHNSON SPEAKS IN A LONG ISLAND KITCHEN TO TWO WOMEN’, he is quoted as saying, definitively, 'I am Ray Johnson, artist, performer, poet.' It is a direct and workmanlike statement, but seems also to declare Johnson’s own mythology: bringing to mind a comic book super hero, transforming from anonymous citizen to masked urban warrior. Or a small boy playing at the same in his imagination. It is likewise the transformation that also takes place in the mind of the longing fan – conjuring glamour in the solitude of their rooms, from spells contrived of pictures cut out of glossy magazines.

For there is a sense in which one might regard both the art of Ray Johnson – comprising several thousand individual items, activities and events – and his life’s journey, as one single work, comparable in scope and intellectual imagination to a novel such as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. One enters through the work into a literary stream of consciousness, not so much magic realist as both magical and real, within which Johnson becomes both author and character. Whether this ‘novel’ has a defining plot is of less importance than the ideas and questions that are raised by the relationships between the characters, the individual scenes, and their cumulative effect.

The art of Ray Johnson is as astute as it is obsessive. Every work a master class in charisma; his slightest written or recorded utterance somehow simultaneously throwaway and memorable – like a line mumbled by James Dean (a favourite of Johnson) or Montgomery Clift, which seems to squeeze the human condition into a few barely audible syllables. In the art of Ray Johnson, it appears that every component and gesture, the choice of words or graphical composition, is delivered with the deft, stylistic assurance of perfect pitch – in jazz terms, cool.

Film footage of Johnson shows a lean, balding man whose gaze is continually flicking from side to side, as though constantly monitoring the activity around him. Paradoxically, this has the effect of heightening the intimacy of his expression when he throws a glance towards the camera. His voice has a slight drawl, but his words seem to be chosen far in advance of his speech; his eloquence never falters. Johnson seems in many ways to be the embodiment of his art; that if his name seemed to summarise the clean cut modernity of a mass consumer age, then his physical presence made eloquent a charming yet inscrutable source of restless curiosity and creative energy.

Ray Johnson, then, can be seen as a supremely romantic figure. But this is perhaps a consciously honed romanticism, used as a further mask behind which to attend to his real business of creating an unclassifiable form of creativity, in which written and aesthetic meaning assume new and unexpected roles. These roles propose stories, or fragments of stories; their narratives colonise many forms, from doodle to directory. Their characters are endlessly interrelated.

To maintain his mask, as surely as the idols in his personal pantheon – the subjects he subjected to repeated enshrinement, (Dean, Dietrich, Duchamp) – Johnson lived what might seem, if read, a scripted life. At once enigmatic and tuned to the highest frequencies of artistic society, a paradoxically ubiquitous loner, Johnson strews his art with signposts that lead nowhere, appears to present a wealth of autobiographical material which simply covers his tracks, and proposes an endless succession of correspondences and dialogue, all of which abound with further references that somehow always lead back to: Ray Johnson. ‘Return to sender’, as the song goes.

If one of the greatest aims of art, as Oscar Wilde maintained, is ‘to reveal art and conceal the artist’ then Johnson was infallible. Indeed, one might easily imagine that Ray Johnson’s ultimate occupation was to engineer if not the obscurity, then the inaccessibility of Ray Johnson. He achieved this by working in a manner which might be termed non monumental and homeopathic – using qualities in controlled gradation to create their opposite effect; in endlessly repeating his name, for example, or the same photograph of himself, he became increasingly unknowable.

This exercise was so successful, that towards the close of the first decade of the twenty first century, and some fourteen years after his death, in 1995 – an apparent suicide – Ray Johnson remains a relatively obscure figure within the history of art. Where he is known at all, he is known for the witty Pop cool of his collages and mail art. He is thus most generally regarded to be an elusive artist prankster and mercurial sub-cultural celebrity, who operated as a solitary and isolated agent between the related but independent concerns of surrealism, American Fluxus and Pop Art.

Pioneered by his close friend, William S. (Bill) Wilson, there is a growing body of scholarly writing about Johnson’s life and work. From these writings, a viewer coming to Johnson’s art for the first time will become aware of the dense, biographical interconnectivity of themes, motifs, devices, names, symbols, tactics, media and context out of which his work is so meticulously refined. Indeed, this complex layering of component parts, intentionality, correspondence and process, which is maintained, developed and cross-referenced throughout the entire span of Johnson’s vast creative output, can almost – and perhaps to the artist’s wishes – appear at times to be impenetrable. But not entirely so.

Returning to running themes, re-working earlier works, Johnson assumes a circular concept of time within his art-making; the viewer is shuttled across the chronology of his art between recurring motifs and devices. Similarly, much of Johnson’s art directly addresses a specific correspondent as well as a nameless reader. In this, the narrative of how the work might be read is combined with the stories which individual works might tell. (Carefully handwritten in black ink on a grey background, for example, in a rather fussy, and archaic script, are the words, ‘Ray Johnson’s history of Ray Johnson’. An autobiography told in the form of a title with no text, in which author and subject go into eclipse, illuminating only the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of illumination.)

An artist who worked extensively with text, in many forms, much of Johnson’s work describes fragments of narrative; in places these fragments are declamatory and journalistic, playing on the quirky sensationalism of mass media; elsewhere they seem to describe intense, intimate dialogues, punctuated with abrupt commands or whimsical outbursts. In its melded and intensely crafted relationship between text and visual imagery, one could think of Johnson’s art as a modern epistolary novel written in the medium of an illuminated manuscript.

 The interplay of text and iconography is thus the basis of Johnson’s art, one consequence of which, from early in his career, is the deployment of a cast of famous names: film stars, famous artists and writers, figures from society. (But only one pop star – Elvis.) These become in Johnson’s hands the agents of a transformative and animating magic. To enter the world of Johnson’s art, therefore, is to find oneself in what appears to be an endlessly expanding, diagrammatic and spectacular succession of annotated names. (Johnson as the Marcel Proust of New York, an Outsider obsessed with Society, for whom the most celebrated name becomes that of the connoisseur of names and reputations, Johnson himself.) In their turn, these names (and some addresses) become a community of correspondents as much as a periodic table of celebrity. Johnson bestows celebrity by announcing a correspondent.

Pop material proliferates, brand names and actors, somehow interchangeable – Lucky Strike, Montgomery Clift, Shirley Temple, Joe Buck (the failed male prostitute hero of Midnight Cowboy) – yet seemingly not drawn from the same creative impulse which drove the bulk of American (celebratory) and European (cerebral) Pop Art. For Johnson frames and encodes his sourced mass media with often comical conversational commentary and intervention, the effects of which are ambiguous and ambivalent.

On the one hand, Johnson declares a parity, as artist, between himself and his chosen constellation of iconic stars – addressing them as intimate acquaintances. On the other, he undermines their celebrity with surreal or absurd devices; magician like, he confronts them with their mass mediated selves, and then subjects them to slapstick abuse: a print of a Rembrandt self-portrait, for example, with two neat splashes of paint, one red and one green, between the eyes and on the mouth. The statement, ‘THIS IS NOT FUNNY RAY JOHNSON’ stamped in official looking blue letters, upside down, above the Old Master’s head.

Considered in the context of the Outsider Art made by fans for their idols, the art of Ray Johnson might appear the most obsessive and deranged. Like Warhol, whose name features throughout Johnson’s art, Johnson is fascinated by the processes and signage of fandom. The elevation of the typical fan’s ‘low’ art forms – scrapbooks, collections of promotional and souvenir materials – into complex modern icons, bejewelled with astute, emotionally charged insights into the workings and psychology of mass media, is a practice at which Johnson excels.

Marlon Brando, male pin-up models, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud all become enshrined within Johnson’s modern iconography. Their likenesses or names or both are collaged, coloured in or visually or sculpturally annotated; their images become fetish like and magical, re-cast by Johnsonian comic devices that both mutate the original, and amplify their mythic status. The novel (Ray Johnson’s History of Ray Johnson, perhaps) concerns in part the administration of a democracy of fan clubs – founder, president and sole member, Ray Johnson.