Magazine article Artforum International

Ray Johnson: Richard L. Feigen & Co

Magazine article Artforum International

Ray Johnson: Richard L. Feigen & Co

Article excerpt

Ray Johnson

Richard L. Feigen & Co

Ray Johnson (1927-1995) has been an artist of compelling interest since the mid-s, thanks to two premonitory Pop collages, one depicting Elvis Presley, the other James Dean. Yet for all the acclaim they have received, these pieces stand apart from the larger body of Johnson's oeuvre, which comprises works that, over time, revealed an intricate tissue of affinities, a network made visible in his diligent Lists of Names, a particular Johnsonian genre. Such is what they are--literal lists of names, mainly those of art-world personalities, each denominated one below the other or punctuated by a little bunny head (or is it a duck?) when set up within a checkerboard formation. Name as word and visuality, word made flesh. To be sure, these lists at times generate a "whatever happened to ... " response, since many of the notables mentioned--artists, critics, authors, museum and gallery personnel, society and media personalities, or just plain friends--if not by now markedly aged are already dead. Hence, Johnson's art world--the heart of his art tout court--is one of shrinking borders, even as its personages become the stuff of footnotes.

The forensic task demanded by the lists was made ever more taxing by this exhibition's scope: It included some thirty-nine collages by Johnson, eighteen by his artist peers, and fifty-one pieces of ephemera--broadsides, photographs, exhibition announcements, pamphlets, and snippets of printed images, such as the iconic five-and-dime Valentine's Day cupid, paper snakes and their Ovidian metamorphoses. And then there was Silhouette University, , a list of names that recalls an imaginary attendance sheet for a fictional class.

Early last year the redoubtable Elizabeth Zuba published Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954-1994. In her introductory essay, she describes Johnson's epistolary preoccupations, telling us that the ephemera-stuffed envelopes the artist sent to members of his "Correspondence School" contained sweepings that were specific to each letter s recipient. Maybe so; maybe not. As a "correspondent" years ago, I received envelopes of various origin filled with desultory clippings, sometimes relevant--a scrap printed with my name, for example--but mostly, apart from the occasional fortuitous clipped or crumpled shape, just snippets of scant appeal. …

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