Magazine article Art Monthly

Ray Johnson: Please Add to & Return

Magazine article Art Monthly

Ray Johnson: Please Add to & Return

Article excerpt

Ray Johnson: Please Add to & Return Raven Row London February 28 to May 10

It is rare enough to see any of Ray Johnson's art in a British gallery, never mind a handsomely presented, extensive survey of the late American artist's work. Johnson legendarily preferred the US postal system to the gallery system, mailing out collages from the 50s onwards, and the distribution method's mix of intimacy and distance, imposition and offering, clearly suited him. An expansive gadfly, he appears in retrospect to have been unable either to ignore the commercial art world (and the commercial world as a whole, given how permeated his art is by familiar cultural signifiers in cracked and weirdly graceful combinations) or, in good conscience, to ally himself with it.

Across three floors of Alex Sainsbury's newly opened nonprofit space, in whose domestically scaled rooms baroque detailing glints through a minimalist makeover, Johnson's story replays roughly chronologically, with multiple flashbacks. We begin with his 50s 'Moticos': thrifty collages on those cardboard rectangles that laundries fold shirts around which Johnson hawked to galleries and, apparently, to pedestrians on Manhattan's Bowery. This was proto-Pop, clearly, but of a darkly dreamy, irrational stripe. Shirley Temple's outline meets a wirescrubbed background of cardboard slats; a heart-shaped outline encloses a gun, while below it discharges a volley of black, hand-cut abstract shapes that have seemingly wandered off a Blue Note album cover. Camp and sour by turns, Johnson's early art half embraces commerciality's surfaces and shapes but also dissolves their narratives and strands them, making sense only on formalist and associative levels: claim and reshape mainstream culture, it whispers, lest ye be possessed by it.

This would remain partially true when Johnson made work for galleries between 1965 and 1973, but meanwhile his art became increasingly ripe, gnomic, codified. Henry Fonda Foot Dollar Bill, 1970, is organised around a large foot-shape containing a surfeit of small rectangles, each holding short, neatly inked lists of famous names (eg Bob Dylan, Rene Magritte, Mama Cass) like some celebrity cemetery map; pasted-on dollars; drawings of women with a taxonomy of slang for breasts; appropriated vintage cartoon strips; and lots of ominously spreading black ink. The later collages in the show's middle stretch, which were found in Johnson's home after his death in 1995, are visually airier but, if anything, more conceptually knotty, being reworked over years. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.