“Please Send To: Ray Johnson, Selections from the Permanent Collection”
158 Main Street in East Hampton, NY
October 20 through December 16
By MARK BLOCH, DECEMBER, 2018
Shortly after taking her position as associate curator and registrar of the permanent collection at East Hampton’s Guild Hall in 2015, Jess Frost came across some digital records that eventually led her to a vast and intriguing physical treasure trove of Ray Johnson “mail art” and related collage material that had all ended up in the hands of local painter Ted Carey. It had entered the little museum’s Permanent Collection through the Tito Spiga Bequest, an artist for whom one of the museum’s galleries was then named.
One of Frost’s predecessors, Guild Hall curator Helen Harrison, friend to Spiga, Carey and Johnson, had stashed the collection safely into file folders in the institution’s catacombs before exiting for a position as director of the nearby Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in The Springs, where Pollock lived and worked until his death, an art mecca that Harrison still caretakes with great aplomb.
Harrison oversaw the acquisition of a number of paintings by Carey into the Guild Hall collection before his passing, and expedited the bequeathal of Spiga's estate to the museum a few years later. This rich Ray Johnson trove would not have been placed here without her enthusiasm for his work, and the fact that Tito Spiga donated a number of Warhol works to the collection rounds out the picture.
In one of these dozens of mailed pieces, mostly from the early 1970s, Ray Johnson playfully commanded his friend Carey to “Drop your ass into the conspiracy.” Now, almost 50 years later, we, the public, are indirectly being invited to do the same, via Ms. Frost's remarkable exhibition “Please Send To: Ray Johnson, Selections from the Permanent Collection.”
The “conspiracy” is the same as Johnson's perhaps, but now with greater reach. Like any good conspiracy or conspiracy theory, there is plenty of ambiguity, even confusion about just what we have wandered into here. With plenty of mystery to go around, a greater perspective surrounds the work and the information gathering process is easier now—in some regards—while the passage of time has insured that other doors have closed and even locked, which probably would be to the delight of Mr. Johnson, best known in these parts for his fatal final act, driving to then diving from the Sag Harbor-North Haven bridge, a few miles away, on a cold Friday the Thirteenth evening in January 1995, and backstroking into the local harbor, the Great Unknown and an ever-strengthening position in art history, in that tragic order.
This very complex exhibition is a unique opportunity to delve into Johnson's way of working. Full disclosure: As a friend of Johnson, myself, a member of his New York Correspondence School and as a participant in the global mail art network, I have often thought that one way of understanding the process would be to look at one correspondence between two people and deconstruct just that as a microcosm of the greater whole. Furthermore, when it comes to Johnson's work, I have always believed that one tiny piece of his oeuvre is like a holographic sliver that contains his entire life's work. His graphic cartoon-works are deceptively simple. They delight and whimsically draw us in, but like the “Song of Myself" from Whitman's Leaves of Grass, created in West Hills, Long Island, not far from Johnson's home in Locust Valley, they "contain multitudes." Each fragment points to the whole as a celebration of the unique as well as the universal. So what we have here are a series of valuable entry points to a rich Ray Johnson plot, scheme, plan, machination, ploy, trick, ruse, subterfuge or racket.
Johnson’s conspiratorial admonishment to Carey, five years his younger, to drop his ass in, was delivered, as many messages are in this cache, via a clipped out newsprint image, this one of Michael Caine from the 1970 movie Get Carter that arrived at Mr. Carey’s new address in Manhattan after he had spent many years receiving mail from Johnson in his previous apartment on West 57th Street. Was the Carter in Get Carter a reference to a figure Ray inquired about when he asked Carey “Do your remember Rand Carter from those early Warhol days?” This follow up question, sent January 11, 1978, seven years after it appeared, contemporaneously with the release of the Get Carter movie—also the height of the Jimmy Carter presidency by the way—only invites more questions: is it a clue or coincidence? an important tangent or a dead end? What conspiracy is this anyway?
Or perhaps the picture of Michael Caine is a veiled reference to the artist John Kane, the painter of a 1929 Self-Portrait that is considered one of the artist's masterpiece for its shockingly realistic depiction of the male body—veins, chest hair, and all—one that Ted Carey admired and wanted to use as the inspiration or even prototype for a potential portrait of Johnson.
Both prospects are unlikely. Yet neither is too farfetched to not consider because this show is full of equally dubious connections that unite two men and a network of gossipy names and concepts that connect them. You are invited to connect yourself and the dot you rode in on to the strange art of correspondence that Ray Johnson masterminded. He was of the generation that took the world by storm with Pop Art but rather than work large, Johnson consciously chose to stuff his cultural excavations into envelopes and send them across the world to other individuals by mail, weaving his "big picture" that way, and welcoming the viewer to bring their own interpretation.
According to Geoffrey K. Fleming, Executive Director of the Huntington (WV) Museum of Art, Edward Fawcett Carey (June 3, 1932 – August 3, 1985) a.k.a. “Ted” was a painter, designer, collector, author, and teacher born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania in Delaware County, who then served in the Army Reserves and studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and later Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Carey had several relationships with individuals he met who would become prominent in the arts and entertainment industries including Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) who he began assisting in 1957, becoming a collaborator, shopping partner, and lover. After moving to the Hamptons in the mid-eventies, Carey became well known for his naive, folksy painting style, while also writing for art related publications, including ARTnews. He died at the age of fifty-three, one of a generation of art professionals lost to the AIDS crisis. A show which he was supposed to attend, days after his death, of his most recent paintings, opened as planned at the Artview Gallery in East Hampton serving instead as a memorial.
Carey shows up in photographs with Warhol from the late 50s-early 60s era, but especially in a famous portrait. The American artist Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) immortalized Carey and Warhol in 1960 with a 40 inch square oil painting on linen now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
But Carey’s particular claim to fame regarding Warhol’s career was his insider knowledge about the origins of the earliest paintings that cemented Warhol’s reputation and may have left Carey behind. When, in October 1961, Leo Castelli officially signed Roy Lichtenstein to his gallery, the first real Pop art institution, it was Carey who informed Warhol about Lichtenstein’s use of comic book imagery, something Warhol was already doing. Carey also helped console Warhol after describing Jim Rosenquist’s painting of a 7-Up bottle and the giant versions of everyday items at Claes Oldenburg’s “Store,” both of which depressed the ambitious Andy, still without a dealer. This desperation led directly to the soup cans and the early “money” paintings. On November 23, 1961, when Warhol wrote gallerist Muriel Latow a check for $50 for coming up with the idea of the Campbell’s soup series, both Carey and his boyfriend John Mann were present and went on to tell the tale to various interviewers including to Tony Scherman and David Dalton in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (NY: Harper, 2009). According to Carey, it was their cheerful visit to the home of a despondent Andy that directly led to this life-changing transaction.
So while we know that Carey began working as Warhol’s studio assistant in 1957 and had moved on by 1962, we do not know when Ted Carey may have first encountered Ray Johnson, who had met Warhol even earlier. There is no evidence here of early Johnson-Carey correspondence. Had it been later, Johnson would still have been very interested in Carey’s contribution to the soup can and money mythology. That sort of detail delighted him. Or that Carey's account conflicted with rumors that it was Stable Gallery owner Eleanor Ward who first suggested Warhol paint the pictures of money. Ward's name appears frequently in this show.
While we do know that Ray and Warhol communicated as early as April 24, 1956, evidenced by a Johnson postcard at the Warhol Museum and that another postmarked September, 1956 appears in Johnson’s Whitney catalog, Ray Johnson: Correspondences. De Salvo, Donna and Catherine Gudis, eds., Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, 1999, the exact beginnings of the friendship between Warhol and Johnson is also cloudy. Both men worked for New Directions designing book covers in the 1950s and revered images of female movie stars, with Johnson’s use of them for artmaking predating Warhol’s.
Furthermore, by Fall of that year, both Johnson and Warhol were self publishing what could be called early “artist books,” including Johnson’s BOO K OF THE MO NTH which foreshadowed his future activities while Warhol’s elaborate The Gold Book carried a dedication to "Boys/filles/fruits/and flowers/Shoes/Ted Carey and Edward Wallowitch.” Wallowitch was another Warhol collaborator whose name, miraculously, does not appear in this show.
But by 1957 Johnson had met Soren Agenoux who Carey also knew and figures heavily in the Johnson-Carey correspondence here, along with, to name a few, Mr. Mann, Ms. Harrison, Ms. Ward, and Richard Bernstein of Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a publication Agenoux briefly edited at its inception. There are also multiple mentions of Alan Lindenfeld, an East End architect with an office in Manhattan who is “seen across the dinner table,” and visited this show, Caresse Crosby, inventor of the bra in America and a publisher of the Experiemental Black Sun Press, Julliard trained-musician-turned-unhinged Fluxus artist Albert M. Fine, an early influence on Philip Glass, photo booth artist Herman Costa and sixteen of his friends, two Michael Findlays, one an art and auction afficianado and the other a director of sexploitation films, Jock Truman, the art dealer and collector who worked at the Betty Parsons Gallery and Ralph Di Padova, a Packard sedan-driving gangster wannabe around town that Johnson seems to have admired just as he did the elusive grifter Agenoux, a person Warhol later had arrested for passing forgeries of his Flower paintings. Yet, when Carey tells of meeting with Johnsons’s old friend, Soren in a visit, Johnson wistfully expresses he wishes he could have been there.
“Ralph di Padova had Frank Sinatra’s teeth knocked out in Las Vegas,” Johnson wrote in a publication featured in one of the show's vitrines, one of several published pieces sent to Carey. “Ralph was working as a valet at the Sands at the time & he is now working in his father’s bathing suit factory in south long island.”
Elsewhere, in a more personal invocation of DiPadova, Johnson gives strange instructions to Carey about delivering mail through DiPadova’s doorman and at one point inquires, “Dear Mr. DiPadova will you marry me?” It is not clear if Ralph was an acquaintance, a friend or just a source of curiousity; for both men or just Johnson. But such is the nature of this rogue's gallery in a gallery.
Interestingly, there are even (at least) four imaginary starring roles: Babar the elephant, whose phallic trunk makes recurrent wrinkled appearances; a not-quite-a-handlebar handlebar moustache that conveys homoerotic secret code of some kind, and two versions of the same name, Suzy Knickerbockers and Suzy Knicker Knockers, two alter-egos immortalized repeatedly with rubber stamped signatures.
Johnson also apparently created 17 stamps with real artist "friend" names, just for the pleasure of stamping them once on a single missive that appears in this show. Johnson is not beyond going to great lengths in his work to make a single point but such gestures never land in a one dimensional way. Complex, multi-layered gags were obviously Johnson’s stock in trade.
According to a gentleman named Barry McCallion, who attended college with Carey’s brother and visited the Johnson show, “Ted Carey had an Emak Bakia sign in front of his Hampton Waters house… The sign was either the house name or a warning to Basque visitors.” Emak Bakia, which means “Leave me alone” in Basque, is also the title of a 1926 Surrealistic film classic directed by Man Ray. Carey painted a beautiful image of the house where he lived with Spiga. In a September 1970 letter to Carey, Johnson wrote, “I told Joseph Cornell last night Emak Bakia was a house on the Baltic Sea and he said it was the name of a Man Ray movie.” Johnson was a frequent visitor to Cornell's home on Utopia Parkway in Queens.
Johnson followed up when he also made an elaboate collage sent to Carey titled “An Evening at Emak Bakia,” an image of a naked baby in the fetal position with its right arm draped over its stomach. Above it, a torn image of a green guy with his arm similarly draped over his stomach is glued onto a cut-out Johnson “tesserae,” one of the collaged puzzle pieces Johnson constructed his collages with. A closer look reveals the man in the image is actually holding a long pornographic penis that mimics the more serious scene it is glued onto. “This is just a little microcosmic example of the thread that goes through Johnson’s work and the permanent collection,” Frost told an interviewer about the show. “It totally appeals to the archivist in me.”
Carey had first arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1954. He recalled meeting Andy Warhol, who asked if he could draw him, at an exhibition of cat drawings Warhol had done, displayed at Serendipity, the 60th Street Manhattan restaurant that figures heavily in the early Warhol mythology. Then, after Carey met his lover, John Mann, at a party, Warhol also asked to sketch Mann, a recent transplant to New York City from Cambridge to work in advertising. After Carey mentioned that his partner was particularly well-endowed, Warhol drew Mann from the waist down. “Andy said, ‘Please let me do it!’” according to Mann and before he knew it, “I was sitting with my pants down, with a daffodil wound around my dick. That was my first meeting with Andy.”
Typed in a photo onto the cheek of an unidentified (moustachioed) squinting victim (possibly Charles Fahlen?) , Ray cryptically states in a note dated May 12, 1970, presumably to John Mann through Carey, “Dear Mr. Mann, the kitchen utensil that best describes my legs has not yet been invented. My idea of an ideal bachelor’s survival kit is no strings.” He signed it Suzy (Knickerbockers) three different ways: with the finely printed "-bockers" rubberstamp, in India ink on a "dotted line" made with tyewriter, accompanied by a small drawing of a duck head. Johnson also eeked out the aforementioned downward slanting double-projectile moustache with dark ink that in another work, could just easily have been Johnsonian hieroglyphics of fish or fetuses.
Despite the large cast of characters and although Carey's handwriting ocaasionally peeks through via some tiny printing to offer his point of view, this show is obviously one-sided, favoring Johnson. Unfortunately, Carey's correspondence to Locust Valley has not survived. Johnson was known for disappearing large amounts of what he received. He liked to say he left it on museum steps but that claim has never been verified. Luckily, the pieces added to by others and sent on or back to Carey, including the fragments from Carey himself that made a round trip, supplement Ray's vast output here. In addition to the correspondence, Frost has further accentuated Johnson by installing, along the westernmost wall of the museum, six stupefying black and white photographs from their portfolio of eight, taken of Johnson between 1980 and 1994. by his friends Joan Harrison and Michael E. Ach, a couple who lived near him in Nassau County.
Carey is pictorially represented by a rare glimpse into Johnson's process via the black paper cut out of one Ray Johnson’s legendary silhouettes with a little hair flip and his name scrawled in grease pencil across the face, all centered on the back wall of this exhibition above a sliced open 1980 envelope addressed to Helen Harrison. The framed piece anchors this sprawling correspon-dance, connecting the artist, his subject and the person who insured that it all survived. On the back of the envelope it says Mr. Montauk and there is a Ted Dragon Fan Club rubber stamp, too, refering to a local legendary figure and the partner of Alfonso Ossorio. Dragon was once caught stealing (and restoring!) furniture from his Long Island neighbors, continuing the theme of ne’er do well figures who naughtily fascinated Johnson.
Such “oversized” drawings and silhouettes of artists, authors, critics, collectors, curators and gallery owners connected to the New York art world of the late 1970s and 1980s that Ray Johnson did between 1976-1990, created through tracings of the subject’s left-facing profile, are also an anchor to the Ray Johnson Estate. This 1977 Ted Carey template was apparently turned into a more finished silhouette March 26, 1990 with the addition of an equilateral triangle composed of smaller triangles in black marker according to Estate inventories. And according to a master list seen here that Johnson liked to send out and that even appeared in collages and portraits of other people, silhouettes Johnson executed around the same time as Carey’s included John Belushi, gallerist Elaine Benson and musician Robin Crutchfield.
On March 16, 1977 he sent Carey a letter mentioning Ms. Benson the gallerist and Mr. Crutchfield, a Manhattan musician. “Since I am having a show next summer at the Benson gallery which should be one of the highlights of the social season. if I have anything to do about it I don’t think Gloria (Vanderbilt) will pose for me… but I must do your silhouette. It just takes a few minutes of time. You could invite Robin Lee Crutchfield my light holder and I to dinner. We eat anything and love Reese‘s peanut butter cups. For dessert Love Ray Johnson March 16, 1977.” It is worth noting that years later, Johnson did a reading for videotape of a Walt Whitman poem in a bank ATM with his mouth stuffed full of the Reese's candy.
One April '70 piece is signed Eleanor Ward by Ray and accompanies a letter to Lord and Taylor ordering pressed duck powder in Ward’s name. Elsewhere a cut out black and white newspaper clipping features Ward as Sunset Boulevard’s Gloria Swanson playing to the Bill Holden character who is labeled only “Ian.”
Babar—referring to French author Jean de Brunhoff’s series of children’s books— makes many appearances in the correspondence: he sticks his trunk into the second V of Viva in one that is signed Ray Johns. In another work, with a drawn pin stuck through his trunk, a Babar image accompanies a real package of pins adhered to a partial answer to a clipped questionnaire that says “e) by having various parts of your body pinched and squeezed with pliers…”
Finally Zsa Zsa Gabor is turned into Babar with a purple pen and ink drawing of a trunk resembling a penis while she serves as the staging ground for another drawn moustache. Other examples in the show indicate perhaps Ray was sending the elephant to people and requesting they be sent on to Ted, a technique of Johnson’s known as the “Add to Send to.” It is impossible to tell if the elephants were intentionally singled out for third party participation for Carey or just a popular icon at that time in Johnson’s life, particularly the period from 1970-72.
In the end, perhaps the homoerotic mail exchange between Johnson and Carey boils down to one missive in which there is some provocative banter regarding some comment Carey apparently made and that Johnson probes. “Do you require a simple yes or no?” he asks, citing “Mr. Carey’s question” which is, “Isn’t it disgusting the price we must pay for sex??” Johnson requests that Carey send his one word answer back by adding to and returning “the Gregory Battock postcard enclosed.” Only moments before he refers to it as “a Gregory Corso postcard” that was sent to his friend, the writer David Bourdon, who later wrote a monograph on Warhol. Ray refers Carey to a “clipping in today mail… what is obscene… somebody sent a quote by David talking about your question about sex.”
In the end, the question itself does not seem to really matter, nor do the postcards, but somehow the various names do, two Gregorys, one a non-fiction writer, the other a Beat poet, with the provocative quote becoming less of a real question and more of a sexy conceptual prop around which various other concepts can congregate. “For whatever reason I am concerned for your health and welfare” is conveyed. At another point it is mentioned that somebody thought, “A picture is worth a slap in the face.” All interesting, some inviting, others deflecting, all potentially meaningful and meaningless simultaneously.
In the Interview article by Bernstein that Johnson sent Carey, Ray is quoted as saying “I'm intrigued and interested in an incredible galaxy of people... I cut everything up... they're all people like in a kaleidoscope but a person is many-faceted, like a crossword puzzle. One person has so many possibilities of games to play… and these are all cross references to other people. The Correspondence School is related to the collage work and all these images, conversations, complexities are what for me I’m trying to make meaning out of."
In one letter, Ray Johnson asked Ted Carey about a simple cut out image of two identifcal faces he had sent, in profile, upside down and backwards, two mirror images facing each other. “Ted, isn't this what it's all about?“ Johnson pondered. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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