Note: William S. Wilson (Bill Wilson) who is mentioned in this article died on February 1, 2016. The obituary, "William S. Wilson: good-bye my dear friend," is here. The Feigen Gallery mourns the death of Mr. Wilson here. Tributes can be left on the NYT Legacy page provided by Bill's family here. A selection of photographs of Ray Johnson taken by Bill appears on the Blastitude site here. The following article by John Suiter originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday (U.K) on June 4, 2000:
RAY JOHNSON WAS ONE OF THE MOST ORIGINAL OF ALL POST-WAR AMERICAN ARTISTS. BUT NOTHING IN HIS COLOURFUL LIFE SO BECAME HIM - OR MADE SUCH IMPACT - AS HIS LEAVING OF IT. JOHN SUITER EXPLORES A POST-MODERN SUICIDE MYSTERY.
When Ray Johnson committed suicide from eastern Long
Island's Sag Harbor bridge in January 1995, he had been known as "the
most famous unknown artist in New York" for 30 years. He had first
been called that in the New York Times, on the occasion of an exhibition
of his work in Manhattan in 1965. For another artist, such a review, in
such a publication, might have heralded his entrance into the mainstream.
But Johnson embraced the role of "famously unknown", with all
its contradictions, and deftly maintained it for the rest of his life.
Even now, he remains an underground figure. But that may be changing. His posthumous career, no longer encumbered by the actual presence of his unpredictable genius, is beginning to take shape "behind glass", as curators like to say. With a major retrospective scheduled to open in September at the prestigious Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio (after a critically acclaimed run at New York's Whitney Museum), plus the publication of a handsome new monograph of his collages and "correspondences", Johnson seems on the point of receiving the wider recognition he didn't crave. He is being categorized as a precursor of the post-modernists for his richly allusive collages ("moticos" he named them); also as the inventor of Mail Art (art circulated using the post); as a Pop Art pioneer (see his mid-1950s Elvises and Lucky Strike logos); and as a life artist and master of the throwaway gesture in performance events he liked to call "nothings" (as opposed to "happenings"). And a following that is almost a cult has developed around Johnson on the Internet and in wannabe mail-art networks in the wake of his "Friday the 13th" suicide - or "Rayocide," as it has been called.
Even his closest friends and associates agree that Johnson carefully planned his death, performed it as his final "nothing", and that it was, in retrospect, a long time in the making. The legend of Johnson, who was born in Detroit in 1927, goes back a long way - at least as far as Black Mountain College in North Carolina, matrix of the post-war American avant- garde, where Johnson arrived in 1945 and soaked up the influences of Merce Cunningham, Jean Varda, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and, particularly, Joseph Albers, John Cage, and sculptor Richard Lippold (who became his lover, and with whom he later lived in New York with Cage and Cunningham). But Bill Wilson, writer, collector and long- term friend, insists: "Ray was already on his way to drowning when I met him in 1956." Johnson was then living in Dover Street, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Wilson remembers seeing an early drawing of Johnson's "with dotted lines leading from the shore out on to the Brooklyn Bridge and then down into the water."
On Johnson's last afternoon, he drove from his home in Locust Valley, Long Island - where he had lived for the previous 25 years - to the village of Orient, far out on the island's North Fork. Johnson had moved from Manhattan to Long Island in the summer of 1968, after a traumatic 48-hour period which included the shooting of his friend Andy Warhol by Valerie Solanas, his own mugging at knifepoint later the same night, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy the next morning. He never moved back to the city. Instead, from Locust Valley, he conducted his ever-expanding "New York Correspondence School".
Johnson had been a creative and prolific correspondent from high school, when he first included drawings and collages along with written words in his letters. As his network of friends grew to include other artists - and eventually everybody who was anybody on the New York art scene - he began to orchestrate paths for his correspondences. He sent off drawings with instructions to add something to the work then mail it on to someone else. Eventually, the piece would return to Johnson. By 1968, when the activity first acquired its New York Correspondence School tag, his hundreds of correspondents included Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, James Rosenquist, John Cage and the de Koonings.
At 4pm on the day of his suicide, Johnson arrived in Orient and called his old friend Bill Wilson. "Tell Toby this is a mail event," he said to Wilson. "Toby" is Toby Spiselman, Johnson's closest female friend, another old comrade from the mid-1950s in New York. Spiselman was for years the "acting secretary" of the Correspondence School. Johnson himself had spoken to Toby the night before, and although he did not mention suicide, she sensed that "something was wrong". Mostly, Ray had been intent on conveying his deep feeling for her in what he apparently knew were his parting words. "Toby," he had told her as he hung up, "remember you are loved."
Wilson, too, had the feeling on the phone that he might be talking to his friend for the last time. "This was not a sudden eruption of melancholy," said Wilson shortly after Johnson's suicide. "Ray planned this carefully as a rational adult." Wilson is convinced that "from at least a year before the act. . . Ray Johnson intended to die on a Friday the 13th in his 67th year."
"With Ray, you can never err on the side of reading too much into any act or place or work, because he saw all the meanings that you would see before they ever dawned on you, and then some," says Frances Beatty, Johnson's representative and vice-president of New York's Richard Feigen Gallery. To Beatty, who knew him for nearly 20 years, it wasn't only Johnson's last afternoon that may have been a performance. "Ray was always `on'," she says.
Orient is a village of only 15 streets, lined with venerable trees and early 19th-century houses, the last and easternmost town on the North Fork of Long Island. Most likely, Ray was drawn there for the evocations that would be stirred by its postmark. In his art mailings, Ray sometimes went to places solely for such purposes. Once he drove from New York City to Pennsylvania to do a mailing from the post office at Intercourse.
To those familiar with Johnson's work, Orient was an obvious pointer to his interest in Zen and Taoism and the many other Asian references in his work: the Japanese stamps and characters in his collages, his "Buddha University" and "Taoist Pop Art School" (two incarnations of his New York Correspondence School), the Zen attitude of his performance art "nothings", his whole orientation. To those who knew him well, "Orient" also conjured vivid memories of Manhattan's Orientalia Bookstore, where Ray periodically worked unloading shipments of books. Bill Wilson remembers that "For Ray, wrapping and unwrapping books was not only a meditative exercise in precision, but a source of an enormous amount of material for collages."
With his call to Wilson complete, and his pieces to Spiselman mailed, Johnson left Orient and drove five miles west to Greenport, where he took a ferry to Shelter Island, a 10-minute ride across Greenport harbour. Shelter Island is not huge; by car, it can be crossed in 15 minutes. Johnson knew it well. He had spent two summers here in the early 1980s, staying with Toby Spiselman, and working on a series of portraits.
By the time Ray reached the South Ferry slip, it was nearly 5pm. Here, the water between Shelter Island and North Haven is not more than 500m wide. In autumn, I'm told, the antlered heads of deer are often seen bobbing in the current as big bucks swim across at low tide. The ferry takes but five minutes to cross. Here, most likely, Ray would have seen his last sunset, flaring out in magenta and orange over Shelter Island Sound. One wonders: did Johnson have his final destination in mind at this late hour? Had he decided to jump from the bridge at Sag Harbor, or was he heading somewhere further south? Or was he simply rolling along with the road and the ferries, awash in memory and unknowable emotion?
At North Haven he drove further south on narrow, unlit Route 114, through the darkening winter woods, deer trotting daintily across the road in his headlight beams. Within minutes he could see the Sag Harbor marina lights winking through the trees, and then the road came suddenly out of the woods and on to the short, two-lane bridge spanning the inlet between North Haven and Sag Harbor - the one he would leap from in less than two hours.
At Sag Harbor, Johnson checked into the Baron's Cove Inn. The motel's records show that he signed in at 5.24pm. Under "Company Name", he wrote "New York Correspondence School". The room was clean, well-lighted, over-scented. Two beds, three lamps, dresser, TV, small round table, chair, closet, small refrigerator, glasses wrapped in cellophane, towels folded, complimentary soap, shampoo in a small wicker basket. He was in the room for 90 minutes. He brought no luggage. He made no phone-calls. Standing in the door, he would have seen the lights of the bridge and a red winter moon, three days shy of full, laboring up heavily over the horizon. He left no suicide note.
Shortly before 7pm, Johnson drove from the motel to the village, a one minute trip, and parked his old Volkswagen in front of the 7-Eleven store, about 30 metres from the bridge.
Johnson left his car, climbed the grade to the bridge's pedestrian walkway on the cove side and followed the railing to the middle of the span where it arched slightly to a height of about 7m above the water. The tide was rising beneath the bridge, flooding in from the open bay into Sag Harbor Cove. And then what? All we really know is that Johnson was alone. Did he drop himself over the side "as he would drop an envelope into a letterbox", as Bill Wilson imagines? Or, as another friend, David Bourdon, envisions, did he spring from the rail like the suicidal tramp in Renoir's farce, Boudu Saved from Drowning (reportedly one of Johnson's favourite films)?
Ray was alone on the bridge, but under it two teenaged girls were hanging out, and they heard the splash when he hit the water. They saw him bob to the surface and watched as he began swimming out towards the center of the cove. It was weird, but he seemed OK, because he never yelled for help. He was doing the backstroke. Still, they hurried to the police station two blocks away to report what they'd seen, but the office was closed. They couldn't find a patrol car, either, and none of the grown-ups they encountered on the street seemed overly concerned with what they told them. Finally, the girls went to a movie.
RAY JOHNSON'S BRIDGE no longer exists. In the years since his jump, the bridge gave out, and this January it was demolished to make way for a new one. One of the things that strikes me after looking at the photographs of the old Sag Harbor bridge, and walking along the shore of the cove where Johnson's body was found floating on the morning after his jump, is the intimate scale of everything. I had imagined the bridge as a portentous arched structure, looming tall with suicidal suggestiveness. But Johnson had leaped from a quaint country bridge - less than 100m long from end to end, with only a 6m clearance at low water, not even high enough for a small sloop to pass under. Hardly enough to kill, or even stun a free- falling person.
Then, based on accounts I'd read of Johnson metaphorically "backstroking out to the open ocean", I'd also expected a vaster horizon. But Sag Harbor is tucked safely behind two protective necks of land, 10km from any truly sizeable bays. "A doubtful suicide should try the ocean," wrote Robert Lowell, "Who knows?/ He may reach the other side." Indeed, had Johnson had any doubts, even in the water after his plunge, he could easily have reached "the other side" of Sag Harbor Cove. Johnson's final act, so seductive in its apparent nonchalance, was anything but casual. A gunshot suicide is dead in a flash: one would only have to maintain the suicidal impulse for the duration of a single finger-squeeze. A watery death takes time, even in the 39F waters of Sag Harbor. Doing a leisurely backstroke, Johnson would have had at least 15 minutes, and perhaps as much as an hour, to consider his act before the drowse of hypothermia set in and he drowned.
Johnson's body washed back and forth ("floated the measureless float", in Walt Whitman's phrase) on two high tides and two ebb tides during the course of the moonlit night, and was discovered shortly after noon the next day in bright sunshine, drifting face up in the water, fists clenched and arms crossed over his chest like a Pharaoh, 50m inside the mouth of Sag Harbor Cove.
RAY JOHNSON'S SUICIDE doesn't fit in with any of the usual suicide statistics that I know of. He is not known to have made any previous attempts on his life. Manic depression, culprit in the suicides of so many painters, poets and composers, does not seem to have been a factor, nor was he terminally ill. There were no drugs or alcohol in his blood, and an HIV screen test found no trace of infection.
As for being driven to the deed by debt, when Sag Harbor police looked through his wallet on the shore of the cove, they found sixteen 100 dollar bills. On his last morning, Johnson had withdrawn $2,000 from a bank account of $100,000. Altogether, he had some $400,000 in savings.
Apparently this money came to Johnson late in life, through an inheritance, but like so much about Johnson, the details are sketchy. All that can be said is that he lived with admirable disregard for money when he had it and when he did not. He dressed in jeans and T-shirts, drove a 10-year- old Volkswagen, slept on an air mattress surrounded by boxes of correspondence. He had no studio other than his Locust Valley home; his art materials, mostly found objects, cost him next to nothing. Money hadn't changed him, and he in turn left no provision for it. After his death it was divided among 10 distant cousins who hadn't seen him in decades.
Wherever his money came from, not much of it derived from art sales. Johnson sold very little work during his life. When he did sell, his prices never came close to those of his more ambitious peers. "I think I sold half a dozen things for Ray during the last eight years of his life," says Frances Beatty. "Then, a small collage might go for $3,500 or so; a big work - even his best work - probably never sold for over $18,000. Now, the range is more like $5,000 to $25,000.
"The fact is," she adds, "that when Ray was alive, you couldn't get him to sell anything, so there was no basis for pricing his work. So, while his work is now selling well to collectors and museums, the market for him is just beginning to develop."
"Ray was highly ambivalent about the whole art market," says Richard Feigen. "We tried for 17 years to put on a show of his later work here at our gallery, but he never cooperated. He didn't make it easy. He would rather rent a helicopter and drop a ton of sausages on Riker's Island - which he actually did; I paid for the helicopter - or have a gallery show with absolutely nothing at all in it. We represented Ray, but he was never "with" Feigen Gallery in the traditional sense. He was a beat character really, fey and elusive."
Ray knew that he could be impossible. When a proposed show of his work at Guild Hall in East Hampton fell through in the mid-1980s, he told the curator: "You should be happy; I would have made your life hell."
On the phone Bill Wilson tells me about one of Ray's "nothings" - a strange homage to Whitman that Johnson performed in the after-hours ATM space of a Long Island bank. First, Johnson filled his mouth with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and pieces of chocolate. Then he began reading from a book of Whitman's conversations, a passage about correspondence - "reading", that is, with his mouth closed, while simultaneously chewing away on the peanut butter and chocolate. The reading was taped by Long Island videographer Nick Maravell. Ray called the event "Smile".
Later I locate the book from which Johnson read and find the passage: "I am not much of a correspondent/ never was/ always wrote when I had something definite to say but never for the sake of writing/ never for the sake of keeping up what is called a correspondence. Such correspondence as that of Emerson and Carlyle would be impossible to me, though I see it is all right in itself and for them. It is a matter of taste/ of temperament. I don't believe I ever wrote a purely literary letter/ ever got to discussing books or literary men or writers or artists of any sort in letters: the very idea of it makes me sick. I like letters to be personal - very personal - and then stop."
Johnson skipped around on the page as he read these words, "collaging" the fragments together while chewing away, letting out a word or a phrase here and there, then closing his mouth again and using the peanut butter cups to cover the transitions, finally ending where Whitman ended: "I like letters to be personal - very personal - and then stop."
"Ray's reading was not for a moment disgusting," says Wilson, who saw it on the videotape. "The words were unintelligible until they gradually cleared... It was a demonstration that Ray sees, reads and knows more than can be communicated in his art which mashes ideas and images, even as he was mashing the peanut butter cups with his mouth. That event contains an apologia for his art, and a theory of knowledge. . . If he knows more than we can immediately understand until he has mashed something, what else does he know that we don't know, and that we can correctly perceive only sections of?"
Helen Harrison, a writer from Sag Harbor, had been one of the first people notified of Ray's death by the police because hers was the only local telephone number found in Johnson's address book. She seriously doubts that Ray was coming to see her on the night of his death. They were friends, but not that close. She is careful to say that while she knew Ray for 15 years, she didn't really know him. However, as it turned out, she had spoken with him a only few weeks before. At that time they had made arrangements to get together around an idea Ray had for a new work involving Jackson Pollock's skull.
Harrison is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center - the house on Long Island where Pollock lived, and the studio-barn where he created his "Action Painting" Abstract Expressionist canvasses - 10 miles from Sag Harbor. "Jackson Pollock had this old skull that he kept around the studio, and Ray wanted to do one of his shadow-portraits with it," says Harrison. Johnson did hundreds of "shadow-portraits" in the early 1980s, of subjects including Warhol, David Bowie, Edward Albee, Saul Steinberg. They worked this way: the subject stood - never sat - sideways against a wall, where a background sheet of white paper had been taped. Ray lit the stander directly from the side with a tungsten hot light that threw a hard silhouette on the paper. Standing back, Johnson waited for the perfect moment, then darted forward, quickly tracing the shadow of the person's profile in one or two strokes. "Ray made it very dramatic, of course," says Harrison.
Johnson filled the resulting silhouette with bits from his vast stock of accumulated collage materials, picking scraps based on the mood and charge triggered during the standing. "He had boxes and boxes of all kinds of stuff to fill in the space created by the shadow line," says Harrison.
"And that's the sort of thing I think Ray had in mind for Yorick here," she says, holding the skull up to Pollock's studio wall. "But with Ray, you never can tell. He always allowed for chance to play a part in the outcome, and he also may have been thinking of something entirely new."
Pollock incorporated the skull in some very early representational works; later he kept it around the studio as a sort of a memento mori. "Ray certainly would have been attuned to these associations," confirms Harrison.
Over the years, Johnson had done a few pieces referring to Pollock, always in an ironic or satiric way. One was a 1971 portrait entitled Jackson Pollock which in fact was a silhouette of Gertrude Stein (whom Ray adored), a subtle comment on the yin-yang of extreme gender roles. In a 1973 mailing, Johnson made a more frontal attack on Pollock, and on Action Painting, juxtaposing a newspaper display ad for the super-hero "Action Jackson" toy with Pollock's name and dates, and a doodle of an outsize phallus on the figure along with the words "This squirrel's got nuts."
Johnson's subversive attitude towards Pollock was formed in the late 1940s, when he came to New York at the outset of his career and Pollock dominated the scene, not only with his huge canvasses and physical method, but with his Hemingway-esque persona. The public may have been enthralled with an artist who was a "real man", who lived large and made big art, but Johnson, 21, gay, broke, and working on 8in by 11in shirt cardboard, wasn't. Johnson acknowledged Pollock's greatness, calling him the Urinating Buddha (for Ray, a compliment), but just as the young Beats had to find a way around Hemingway's all-pervasive writing style, Johnson's wave of young artists struggled in the late 1940s and early 1950s to break free from the shadow of the Abstract Expressionist giants.
In those days, Johnson supported his art with various commercial jobs, including designing book jackets for New Directions. New Directions' avant-garde backlist was fertile ground for Johnson, enabling him to work creatively with images of literary icons such as Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes and Scott Fitzgerald. Ray designed many classic New Directions covers, including Williams's In the American Grain and Rimbaud's Illuminations. He began working with the names and faces of the famous in a style that anticipated Pop by several years: cutting and splicing names (RIM ART BAUD), juxtaposing faces with product logos (James Joyce and Lucky Strike, James Dean and Magritte's pipe). From Rimbaud's androgynous visage, it was a small jump to the face of Elvis Presley, which Johnson began painting in the mid-1950s, using appropriated photographs which he overworked with red washes, adding enigmatic glyphs called moticos. In 1956, the year Pollock died, Johnson - by then 29 - would announce: "I'm the only painter in New York whose drips mean anything."
If there had been any doubt that Ray had staged his death as a "piece", those doubts vanished upon entering his Locust Valley home in the days after his suicide. Throughout the house, there were stackings, pilings, groupings, placements of objects, hints, messages, all imbued with Johnson's spirit, all personal; "Ray's visual poems", according to Bill Wilson. The effect was of an elaborate composite suicide note in Johnsonian code, magnified by the fact that no one in his final audience had ever before seen the interior of Ray's home.
Beatty recalls that it was "like going into Ali Baba's Cave, with everything set up like a series of 3D puzzles. You could tell that he expected us to be there; he expected all this to be seen. There was his line of neckties, with an Andy Warhol tie poking out; his pairs of shoes in a row, with part of a phrase written on one shoe, and the second part of the phrase on the other shoe; all the fake eyelashes that he used in his collages were lined up perfectly on his work table. Each room had something. One of the most powerful experiences was walking into a small room full of framed works, all turned against the walls except for one huge portrait of Ray's head - by Chuck Close - staring out at you.
"It was eerie, but not surprising, that he put so much thinking into the way the house should be found. On the other hand, it got to the point where I wasn't sure if I was looking at `a piece' or just an example of Ray's usual obsessive orderliness. Clearly much of it had been set up just before his suicide; other things had been organized as they were for years. There was this long accretion, like archaeology, and after a while it was impossible to tell where one level left off and another began. Down in the basement, all his tools and rakes and wheelbarrow were organized just so, but then there were also piles of leather Duchampian valises. Sometimes you had to
"We had to take it apart because his heirs had to sell the house. I didn't want it to be dismantled; neither did Richard [Feigen]. It could have been left just that way as a Johnson museum. But over a period of weeks, we took it all down. But we created a grid showing the position of everything and catalogued every piece in every box and videotaped every wall and surface in each room."
MONTAUK. THE OLD LIGHTHOUSE on the island's last promontory is only about a 20-minute drive from Pollock's house. It is not a place for a side-trip on the way to somewhere else: situated as it is at the long terminal tip of the
South Fork, it can only be a destination, that is, "an ultimate end", "a place to stand". With its broken dirt cliffs and reddish sands constantly giving way to the grey-green sea, Montauk Point has more than an end-of-the-island feel; on a raw day such as this, with the lighthouse beacon already cutting the fog at 2pm and its signal horn bellowing in the void, it feels more like the end of the entire human world.
Ray didn't come this far south on that final Friday, but I'm reminded that in the 1970s and 1980s, Warhol had a house not far from here, outside Montauk village, which Johnson would have certainly visited on occasion. Surely Ray, always drawn to ragged shores, would have found this place. But mostly, I am thinking again of Whitman, who came here many times, and was inspired by Montauk to some of his darkest and most powerful poems. What was it he called the ocean here? "The old crone hissing the low and delicious word death." Walt, who often imagined himself drowning, would have understood Johnson, heart-mind to heart-mind I'm sure, especially on Ray's last afternoon.
"I too Paumanok,/ I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float,/ and been washed on your shores,/ I too am but a trail of drift and debris,/ I too leave little wrecks upon you, you fish-shaped island."
I think of Ray, chewing his Reese's cups and chocolate, reading Whitman's thoughts on correspondence in that ATM at the other end of the island, and I do smile. I see Ray laboriously chomping and mashing, mouth closed, letting out a word here and there, his phrases gradually clearing: I like letters to be personal - very personal - and then stop.
"Ray Johnson Correspondences" is published
by Flammarion and distributed by Thames & Hudson, price £30.00.