Ray Johnson, 2 Yellow Green, 1959-75-76-77-88-89, collage on corrugated cardboard, 15.5" x 15.6", Copyright Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
Ray Johnson: Ray Johnson…Dalí/Warhol/and others…'Main Ray, Ducham, Openheim, Pikabia…' at Richard L. Feigen & Co.
34 East 69th Street
New York, NY
April 29 through July 31, 2009
Ray Johnson used Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali as part of his palette. Who did Andy and Dali represent to Ray, one a famous friend he had known for years, gay, asexual, effete and addicted to glamour and New York Society and Dali—older, remote, mad, brash, assertive, fearless, and covered in Modern ants while steeped in the Old World, an interpreter of Old Masters? For all three, their lives were performance art. Dali and Warhol were strongly associated with money; Johnson has become famous for his ambivalence toward it. All three used themselves as the subject of their art. Johnson was a Zen master collagist and a trickster who used seemingly simple scatological humor and occasional amateurish techniques to skewer, in a very sophisticated way, art history, including these two contemporaries of his, each of whom, it appears, he held in high regard.
In this show at Richard L. Feigen and Company uptown that lasted into October, Ray Johnson also punctured and skewered the human body from end to end, from the top of the head (represented here by his friend Toby Spiselman emblazoned with a Duchampian star) to the buttocks (in a tribute to a Man Ray tribute to both Ingres and the famed Parisian model Kiki of Montparnasse) to the feet (of Botticelli’s Venus in a shell, Johnson adds another shelled sea-creature winding into itself in the ratio of the golden section resembling a folding penis). Johnson also “fists” Marilyn Monroe twice, drawing a “knuckle sandwich” over her face, and on yet another collage addressed "Dear Marilyn Monroe", he surreptitiously poked a hole into the thigh of Jesus on a reproduction of a crucifixion image by Dali. (The last page of the paperback essay catalogue states that the document’s design will be complete only when the purchaser punctures a carefully-placed X on the back cover with a pin or thumbtack the way Ray Johnson was posthumously discovered to have done on many storage boxes in his home—performative gestures of equal parts geometric precision, superstition and/or OCD, never to be fully understood by those of us who outlived him.)
The curator, Frédérique Joseph-Lowery, a Dali scholar, deserves praise. To those of us who knew Johnson, her overall premise is a point that cannot be made enough: Ray was a Surrealist. Surrealism was indeed “an essential source of inspiration” for him. She impressively heaps layer upon layer of cross-connectivity onto Ray’s sublime works, attempting to focus our take on his vision. She sees Johnson as pre-occupied with the concept of masks and every work of his art appears to have a relationship to this concept. She uncovers references to Edward Paolozzi and links via Martial Rayse to a Catalan beach scene by Dali that acknowledge respect for these European masters that tiptoed into the still unnamed waters of Pop when Johnson did—in the early 1950s. Most strikingly, the vitrine that dissected the back gallery revealed that Ray had collaged on the back of at least 15 different cardboard reproductions of Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus, the late-period museum-sized Christ-image, housed at the Met, that hovers crucified over a super-geometric cross, representing a major affirmation of Johnson’s interest in the Spaniard who influenced him as a young man. Ms. Joseph-Lowery reveals various sides of these works, literally and figuratively, and even displays an underlined passage about “coincidence” in a Dali book Johnson owned. Ray also had Ernie Bushmiller books next to his bed when he died. So when “Nancy” or “Sluggo” show up in his work, it is never surprising. But here for the first time, we see strong ties to Dali and Jesus, including a happy rendition of “Nancy Ritz,” herself, on a crucifix—the image that was used as the powerful invitation for this show. Other unexpected pointers to Christ are also here, including Ray and a blond Jesus fused together in a portrait—with the latter on top and the nostrils, mouth and chin of Ray—fair-haired in his youth—on the bottom. In the background is a shape reminiscent of Duchamp’s Fountain, the “Buddha of the Bathroom” from which all avant iconography showers forth.
Untitled (Dear Marilyn with Purple Rectangle); Collage on cardboard panel
15 by 9.75 inches (38.1 by 24.77 cm); 1973-80-94; Copyright Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
And so I say bravo for this deft curatorial achievement, choc-a-block with profound inclusions: from the haunting Life magazine cover of an erased and defaced Marilyn Monroe to the photograph of that same issue, pre-defacing, juxtaposed on a sidewalk with a Johnson self-portrait. And kudos for including Man Ray Box, in which Johnson altered five photocopies of Violin d’Ingres with five different “tesserae” tiles or “moticos” stuck to the back of model Kiki d’Montparnasse in a square wooden 5-sided box (including the base and no lid). In this twin homage to Kiki and Man Ray, who was, in turn, paying homage to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1808 Bather of Valpincon, the curator elevated Johnson’s “cracks” about an ass with a convincing deadpan exploration of butt crack as a seam---a way to split a human being in two, astutely backing her theory up with a photograph Ray took of his own reflection with this same image, similarly split in two by the doors of a shiny, reflective truck.
Like the Ingres-Man Ray tribute, there are other classical references here, often used in double-homages to other artists closer to Johnson’s lifetime. Ray used antiquity just as Dali did with his prints of Don Quixote in 1958 and Warhol’s prints Details of Renaissance Paintings in 1984. St. Sebastian by Il Sodoma (1525) is juxtaposed with the aforementioned “mouth of the month” of the Toby Spiselman homage to Duchamp’s star in Tonsure. Rembrandt’s 1650 Man in a Golden Helmet provides a backdrop for the fur-lined tea cup and contains twice the word “ouch” as a way to whisper “Touch” in a piece that shouts, “Dear Meret Oppenheim.” When he ubiquitously flattens the curvy icon of Marilyn into hard-edged silhouettes, it is more apparent than ever that Johnson is a post-Stonewall, post-Surrealist seizing the female form for a swan ride to the subconscious.
With “Dear Marilyn Monroe” scrawled in marker, a reclining Courbet nude with a snake circling her breast also contains “Louise Nevelson’s feet”. Elsewhere, the face of the Portrait of a Lady by Rogier van der Weyden (1465) merges with a homo-erotic man in a swimsuit via the red hot dog shape he is holding. His swimsuit echoes the omnipresent Johnson renderings of cartoon underwear and phalluses present in this show. There are also classic Johnsonian inked (Gertrude Stein) buttons that morph into skeleton heads and even stigmata. And there are chairs that resonate with Warhol’s electric chair and Dali’s May West couch.
Ms. Joseph-Lowery and the Estate of Ray Johnson are a bit like Duchamp when he installed what has come to be known as Sixteen Miles of String at the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942, filling the Whitlaw Reid Mansion gallery at 451 Madison Avenue with an impenetrable web of twine: yes it provided a temporary obstacle to seeing the actual work, but in the end it made the show itself into an instant legend, the gallery show as a complex work of art in itself, unified by seemingly random connections and providing a profound aesthetic experience for those of us lucky enough to have plucked our way through it. â€¨
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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