The Sadness of Ray Johnson in Big New Whitney Show

The American artist Ray Johnson, whose work is currently on exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, died in 1995 at the age of 67. For much of his career he remained unknown to the mainstream art public. You might even say that public obscurity was something he worked at, sometimes in public. Yet, as this paradox suggests, he wasn’t at all indifferent to fame and celebrity. On the contrary, celebrity was one of the central subjects of Ray Johnson’s art. For reasons which themselves remain obscure, however, it was a subject he chose to explore at a certain distance from the limelight. Years ago, Grace Glueck got it exactly right when she described Ray Johnson in The New York Times as “New York’s most famous unknown artist”–a characterization the artist himself delighted in.

Now that the public is offered a voluminous account of this semi-obscure oeuvre in the show at the Whitney called Ray Johnson: Correspondences , I shall be curious to see what sort of response it elicits. No admirer of the work could have asked for anything better than Holland Cotter’s tender and intelligent review of the show in The Times of Jan. 15. The reference it made to the poetry of Marianne Moore I thought particularly brilliant, and one that the artist himself would surely have cherished. Yet one has to wonder how many members of the museum public in 1999 are in a position to understand its significance. For a public now so devoid of cultural memory, even the artist’s jokes require footnotes, if not a bibliography.

I found the show far more absorbing than I expected to, yet also a lot sadder. For anyone who knows the cultural terrain which the work traverses, there is much to be entertained by, yet accompanying its air of insouciance and camp humor there is a distinct undercurrent of existential despair, a sense of loss. There was indeed a “lost soul” aspect to Ray Johnson’s life and work that is easily missed in the abundance of amusing and bemusing gamesmanship the show offers to its viewers. A lot of it looks, to me anyway, like an extended elegy in which the artist spent a lifetime meticulously preparing a memorial to his own memories, enthusiasms, ambitions, grievances and objects of desire.

The principal vehicle employed in the realization of this elegiac project was collage–or assemblage, as it came to be called–that is frequently embellished with written texts, lists of names, fragments of “concrete” poetry and items drawn at random from the artist’s copious treasury of ephemera. Central to much of the work are the recycled and altered photo-images of celebrated figures from the worlds of pop culture (Elvis Presley and James Dean are clearly the most beloved), modern literature (particularly Gertrude Stein, whose prose style is frequently imitated) and the modern art scene (names too numerous to cite here). Ray Johnson was a tireless trawler in the annals of contemporary celebrity, and he made no distinction between high culture and pop culture or, let us say, between the sublime and the ridiculous. Fame was a kind of sainthood for him, and there is no doubt in my mind that he harbored a desire to be recognized as such a saint himself, however unorthodox may have been his strategy for achieving that exalted status.

It wasn’t only the images of the celebrated that Ray Johnson collected and recycled with an almost religious reverence, however. Even their very names seemed to acquire magical properties for him, and in some cases you didn’t have to be so awfully famous–you might only have mentioned his own name in print at one time or another–to be included in one of his incantatory lists. Or so I conclude from the fact that the name Hilton Kramer makes an appearance on at least one of these lists in the current exhibition.

It’s likely that my name is included because I had met Ray (as I shall now speak of him) well before he had become “New York’s most famous unknown artist” and I had become known as an art critic. We met at a party at a friend’s house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the winter of 1952-53. Like Ray, most of the other guests at that party were alumni of Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., where they studied with Josef Albers and also came under the influence of John Cage. Until then, Black Mountain had been little more than a legend to me–a legend compounded of stories about unorthodox experiments in the arts and equally unorthodox experiments in living. It didn’t take long to understand that Black Mountain had, for better or for worse, left a deep imprint on the lives of everyone who had been there. This was certainly true of Ray, whose art cannot be fully understood, I think, in isolation from the ideas of both Albers and Cage. Yet what most impressed me about Ray at the time was that despite his apparently sunny disposition and his extraordinary good looks, he already sounded like a man in mourning for his life. (He was then in his mid-20′s.) He had clearly adored Black Mountain, but he spoke of it as a paradise from which he had now been exiled into a world he didn’t especially like. There was already a note of unappeasable nostalgia, regret and refusal in everything he said. It made a great impression on me at the time because just about everyone else at that party–myself included–was in a state of high excitement about the New York art scene and eager to become a part of it. Ray, on the other hand, seemed already to be preparing to drop out.

I never got to know him well, but we would run into each other from time to time in galleries or museums or on the street, and it never ceased to amaze me that his judgments on the art scene had become over time even more pessimistic than my own. At our last encounter, which took place on West 57th Street not long before his death, he added a bitter denunciation of New York itself to his customary litany of complaints about the art world. (He had moved to Long Island some years earlier after being mugged in Manhattan the same day that Andy Warhol was shot.) He was clearly lonely, depressed and ready to call it quits. At the time, I thought this meant that he might be planning to move again. Instead, on Jan. 13, 1995, he jumped off a bridge in Sag Harbor, L.I., and drowned.

Given the nature of his work, it is inevitable for it to inspire comparisons with Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, even Jasper Johns, not to mention Cage. Yet it is important to remember that Ray had been a student of Albers. The very first work we encounter at the Whitney is a dazzling abstract painting, Calm Center (circa 1951), which not only serves as a reminder of Albers’ teaching but, in the remarkable anthology of abstractionist ideas that this painting encompasses, brilliantly anticipates on a miniature scale developments in abstract painting that were not seen on a larger scale until much later–in the paintings of Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly and a good many other practitioners of hard edge, color field and Minimalist art. When he made his decision to drop out of the competition for big and bigger paintings, it wasn’t because Ray lacked the talent to pursue such a course. It was his preference to remain marginal.

Even so, within the more intimate dimensions of the art he did produce, his best work is often to be found in the purely abstract collages and assemblages he created. A painted wood abstract construction like Balshazzar’s Feast (1964) is, to my taste, worth more than all the Elvis and Jimmy Dean collages put together. But then, of course, I have never myself been a big believer in the sainthood of such figures, or indeed, in the sainthood of celebrity.

Like many contemporary museum exhibitions these days, Ray Johnson: Correspondences is far too big for its subject–it numbers more than 150 items, not every one of which is a compelling experience. Yet I don’t begrudge Ray his posthumous moment in the limelight. As he himself might have said–and often did say on occasion–we’ve all seen a lot worse at the Whitney.

The exhibit, which remains on view at the Whitney through March 21, was organized by Donna De Salvo for the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus, and will be seen there from Jan. 29 to April 16 in the year 2000. As a final touch of irony, a 224-page monograph on the show has been announced for publication in the early spring of this year.