Ray Johnson • How to Draw a Bunny

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“Make room for Ray Johnson whose place in history has been only vaguely defined. Johnson’s beguiling, challenging art has an exquisite clarity and emotional intensity that makes it much more than simply a remarkable mirror of its time, although it is that, too.”
–Roberta Smith, The New York Times (1995)

Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was a seminal Pop Art figure in the 1950s, an early conceptualist, and a pioneer of mail art. His preferred medium was collage, that quintessentially twentieth-century art form that reflects the increased (as the century wore on) collision of disparate visual and verbal information that bombards modern man. Integrating texts and images drawn from a multiplicity of sources — from mass media to telephone conversations — Johnson’s innovativeness spread beyond the confines of the purely visual. He staged what Suzi Gablik described in Pop Art Redefined as perhaps the “first informal happening” and moved into mail art, artist books, graphic design, and sculpture, working in all modes simultaneously. Johnson not only operated in what Rauschenberg famously called “the gap between art and life,” but he also erased the distinction between them. His entire being – a reflection of his obsessively creative mind – was actually one continuous “work of art.” His works reflect his encyclopedic erudition, his promiscuous range of interests, and an uncanny proto-Google ability to discover connections between a myriad of images, facts and people.

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Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 16, 1927, Johnson grew up in a working class neighborhood and attended an occupational high school where he enrolled in an advertising art program. He studied at the Detroit Art Institute and spent a summer in a drawing program at Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan, an affiliate of the Art Institute of Chicago. Leaving Detroit in the summer of 1945, he matriculated at the progressive Black Mountain College, where he spent the next three years with the exception of the spring of 1946. He studied painting with former Bauhaus faculty Josef Albers and Lyonel Feininger, as well as Robert Motherwell. By the summer of 1948, Johnson had befriended summer visiting lecturers John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, and Richard Lippold and fellow student Ruth Asawa. He participated in “The Ruse of Medusa,” the culmination of Cage’s Satie Festival (characterized by scholar Martin Duberman as “a watershed event in the history of ‘mixed-media’”) with Cage, Cunningham, Fuller, the de Koonings, and Ruth Asawa, among others.

In early 1949, Johnson moved to New York City and became an active participant in the downtown art scene. Alongside the American Abstract Artists group, Johnson painted geometric abstractions heavily influenced by the imagery of his former professor, Josef Albers. Johnson later destroyed most of this work, having turned to collage.

By 1954, Johnson was making irregularly shaped “moticos,” his name for small-scale collages upon which he pasted images from popular culture such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple, and department store models. Johnson’s 1950s moticos anticipated Warhol’s 1960s Pop imagery. However, his attitude towards fame remained the antithesis of Warhol’s. He continually dodged it and was dubbed “the most famous unknown artist” by Grace Glueck in a 1965 New York Times article in which she discussed his deliberate elusiveness. Johnson carried boxes of moticos around New York, sharing them with strangers on sidewalks, in cafes, and even in Grand Central Station. He solicited and even occasionally recorded the public’s response to his intricate creations. After a number of performance-like installations of these works in 1954-55, Johnson claimed to have burned a plethora of them in Cy Twombly’s fireplace, a gesture that John Baldessari later replicated in his “Cremation.”

From the early 1960s onwards, Johnson would reuse his “moticos,” cutting them up to create tiny compositions that he glued onto small blocks of layered cardboard. He would then ink, paint, and sand these “tiles” or “tesserae,” using them in his extremely complex collages whose underlying structural emphasis on repetition and variations of semi-geometric forms relate to the eccentric minimalism of fellow artists Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. These collages reveal his profound understanding of cubism and his intent to explore it in different forms. Johnson incorporated meaningful texts into his work beginning in the 1950s – letters or fragments of words, names of celebrities, literary figures, and art-world denizens, both historical and current. He pointed his viewers towards marvelous connections between them and a world of metamorphosing glyphs that became part of Johnsons’s ever-expanding lexicon of text and forms. An artistic alchemist, Johnson could turn the detritus of ordinary life into proverbial art “gold.” In his typically self-deprecating way, Johnson would say that he did not make Pop Art, he made “Chop Art”.

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Untitled (Joseph Circle, 1979-80-90
collage on cardboard panel, 16.875 by 15/75 inches

In 1958, Johnson was already recognized as part of the nascent Pop generation. In a review of a Jasper Johns’ exhibition, a critic for ARTnews stated: “Johns’ first one-man show (…) places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” Around 1959, Johnson met Billy Linich (later known as Billy Name) at New York’s Serendipity, and in 1963 Johnson introduced him to Warhol. Billy Name became a key figure at Warhol’s Factory, responsible for covering the Factory walls with silver, which resulted from Johnson bringing Warhol to Name’s similarly silver-covered apartment.

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Johnson was one of the first conceptualists, an heir to Marcel Duchamp whom he may have met in 1961. Johnson shared his enthusiasm for the elder Frenchman’s work with many of his contemporaries. In Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Michael Taylor notes, “The public display of Johnson’s work helped to situate him as a crucial figure in the post-World War II dissemination of Duchamp’s art and ideas, alongside cultural luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns.” Johnson was one of the key artists to incorporate exhortations to the observer to participate actively in the work of art itself. His interest in codes, poetics, and semiotic systems looked back to Duchamp, while anticipating the enlarging contemporary conceptual practices, and the development of appropriation in particular, during the early second half of the 20th century.

Throughout the early stage of his career and spanning its duration, Johnson sought out the random and the ephemeral, incorporating chance operations into his artistic practice with “mail art.” He gradually built up an informal, hybrid network of friends, acquaintances, and strangers with whom he exchanged ideas and artworks by means of the postal system. By 1958, he began to write, “Please send to…” on his mailings, thereby creating even more sub-networks among the hundreds of correspondents in his greater mail art organization. By 1962, when it was named the “New York Correspondance [sic] School,” his virtual “school” of correspondents had become a network for a web of communication by mail that eventually spread across the nation and around the globe.

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Untitled (Paik in Studio), 5.22.94,12.12.84 +
collage on cardboard panel, 16.125 by 15.638 inches (40.958 by 39.713 cm)

Johnson was an early instigator of performance art, actively participating in events by James Waring and Susan Kaufman, among others, and staging his own starting in 1957 that included “Funeral Music for Elvis Presley” and “Lecture on Modern Music.” Johnson’s compositions were performed at The Living Theatre and during events such as the Fluxus “Yam Festival” of 1963. From 1961 on, Johnson periodically staged events he called “Nothings,” described to his friend William S. Wilson as “an attitude as opposed to a happening,” which would parallel the “Happenings” of Allan Kaprow and later Fluxus events. The first of these, “Nothing by Ray Johnson,” was part of a weekly series of events in July 1961 at AG Gallery, a venue in New York operated by George Maciunas and Almus Salcius. Ed Plunkett later recalled entering an empty room: ” . . . Visitors began to enter the premises. Most of them looked quite dismayed that nothing was going on . . . Well, finally Ray arrived . . . and he brought with him a large corrugated cardboard box of wooden spools. Soon after arriving Ray emptied this box of spools down the staircase … with these … one had to step cautiously to avoid slipping … I was delighted with this gesture.” Johnson’s second Nothing took place at Maidman Playhouse, New York, in 1962. Furthermore, the carefully orchestrated circumstances of his suicide on Friday the 13th, 1995 have prompted the suggestion that the process of his drowning was his “final performance.”

On April 1, 1968, the first of the meeting of the New York Correspondance School was held at the Society of Friends Meeting House on Rutherford Place in New York City. Johnson called two more meetings in the following weeks, including the Seating-Meeting at New York’s Finch College, about which John Gruen reported: “It was . . . attended by many artists and ‘members’ . . . all of whom sat around wondering when the meeting would start. It never did . . . people wrote things on bits of paper, on a blackboard, or simply talked. It was all strangely meaningless — and strangely meaningful.” Until his death, Johnson continued to mail out an extraordinary quantity of material, including elements of chopped-up collages; drawings with instructions (“please add to and return…”); found objects; snakeskins; plastic forks; and annotated newspaper clippings, to name only a few. To Johnson, “art” rejected physical limitations, the restraints of time, or a single identifiable goal. In this capacity, Johnson privileged inclusivity, deeming anyone and everyone with whom he interacted suitable for creative exchange.

Richard Feigen was an early champion of his work, holding one-man exhibitions in New York and Chicago from 1966-72, including I Shot an Arrow into the Air It Fell to Earth in the Ear of an Artist Living in Flushing, New York Tit Show (1970) and Dollar Bills (1970). From 1968-1974, Johnson produced an ambitious body of work, received critical attention on the pages of Artforum, and was featured in several major exhibitions. In 1970, The Whitney Museum of American Art organized Ray Johnson: New York Correspondance School, which served as a major form of cultural validation for Johnson’s practice. Additionally, Johnson had several solo shows at Willard Gallery (New York) as well as Famous People’s Mother’s Potato Mashers (1973) at Galleria Schwarz (Milan) and Ray Johnson’s History of the Betty Parsons Gallery (1973) at the Betty Parsons Gallery (New York), and participated in the group exhibition Post Card Show (1971-72) at the Angela Flowers Gallery (London).

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Untitled (Mae West, Rum and Potato), 4.21.91, 4.16.94
collage on cardboard panel, 9 by 9 inches

On June 3, 1968, the day Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, Johnson was mugged at knifepoint in lower Manhattan. Two days later, the world was shocked by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. These traumatic events prompted Johnson’s abrupt departure to Glen Cove, Long Island, to house he described as a “small white farmhouse with a Joseph Cornell attic.” He then relocated to nearby Locust Valley, where he lived in ever-greater reclusiveness. As his contemporaries became famous, Johnson gradually but purposefully closed off his private life and dwelling, but still maintained connections via his mail art, the telephone, and various activities in the Locust Valley community. Johnson, referring to himself as a “mysterious and secret organization,” eventually achieved legendary status as a “pure,” completely un-commercial artist. His underground reputation bubbled beneath the surface into the 1980s, despite his physical absence from the scene. Johnson’s presence continued to be felt by those who admired him including Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, and a close circle of friends, admirers, and collectors. Only a handful of people were ever allowed into his house and around 1978, he ceased to exhibit or sell his work commercially. In contrast to his physical seclusion, Johnson’s pre-digital network of correspondents increased exponentially. Johnson feverishly developed richer and more complex collages, which Whitney Museum curator, Donna de Salvo, described as “extending the compositional network beyond the parameters of an individual work and into the wider world.”

On April 5, 1973, Johnson declared the “death” of the “New York Correspondance School” in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times but continued to practice mail art under this and other rubrics.

In 1976, Johnson began his Silhouette project, which involved creating over 200 profiles of friends’, artists’ or famous peoples’ faces, which he would often use as the basis for collages. Subjects included “a who’s who of the New York arts and letters scene”: Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso, James Rosenquist, Richard Feigen, Frances Beatty, William S. Burroughs, Nam June Paik, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.

On January 13, 1995, Johnson was seen dressed in black diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island and backstroking out to sea. Many aspects of his death involved the number “13”: the date, his age, 67 (6+7=13), as well as the room number of a motel he had checked into earlier that day, 247 (2+4+7=13). There was much speculation amongst critics, scholars, admirers, and law-enforcement officials about a “last performance” aspect of Johnson’s drowning. After his death, hundreds of collages were found carefully arranged in his Long Island home. A retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999), which traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts as well as solo and group shows in the US and abroad, including Paris, London, Oslo, Budapest, and Barcelona, began the process of re-introducing Johnson’s work to a broader audience. Johnson is considered one of the major artistic innovators of the second-half of the 20th century within the critical community but his work remains underexposed and underappreciated by the general public.

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Following Johnson’s suicide, filmmakers Andrew Moore and John Walter, with the support and oversight of Frances Beatty, Vice-President of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and director of the Ray Johnson Estate, spent six years probing the mysteries of Johnson’s life and art. Their collaboration yielded the award-winning documentary, How To Draw a Bunny, released in 2003. How To Draw a Bunny examines Johnson’s life, art, his ambivalent attitude towards fame, and finally his mysterious death. The film includes interviews with artists Chuck Close, James Rosenquist, Billy Name, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and the founder of The Living Theatre, Judith Malina, among many others. A decade after his death, the network of mail artists continues to grow, numbering in the thousands of general correspondents. Although Johnson’s death left many questions, his life’s work is evidence of a powerful and original sensibility unique in the history of Modern Art.

Richard L. Feigen & Co. represents the Ray Johnson Estate.

http://www.rayjohnsonestate.com

christian boltanski

French sculptor, photographer, painter and film maker. Self-taught, he began painting in 1958 but first came to public attention in the late 1960s with short avant-garde films and with the publication of notebooks in which he came to terms with his childhood. The combination in these works of real and fictional evidence of his and other people’s existence remained central to his later art. As well as presenting assemblages of documentary photographs wrenched from their original context, in the 1970s he also experimented inventively with the production of objects made of clay and from unusual materials such as sugar and gauze dressings. These works, some of them entitled Attempt at Reconstitution of Objects that Belonged to Christian Boltanski between 1948 and 1954 (1970–71; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 11), again included flashbacks to segments of time and life that blurred memory with invention.

In the 1970s photography became Boltanski’s favoured medium for exploring forms of remembering and consciousness, reconstructed in pictorial terms. After 1976 he handled the medium as if it were painting, photographing slices of nature and carefully arranged still-lifes of banal everyday objects in order to convert them into grid compositions that reflected the collective aesthetic condition of contemporary civilization in a stereotyped way. In the early 1980s Boltanski ceased using objets trouvés as a point of departure. Instead he produced ‘theatrical compositions’ by fashioning small marionette-like figures from cardboard, scraps of materials, thread and cork, painted in colour and transposed photographically into large picture formats. These led to kinetic installations in which a strong light focused on figurative shapes helped create a mysterious environment of silhouettes in movement (e.g. The Shadows, 1984; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 20).

In 1986 Boltanski began making installations from a variety of materials and media, with light effects as integral components. Some of these consisted of tin boxes stacked in an altar-like construction with a framed portrait photograph on top, for example the Chases School (1986–7; Ghent, Mus. Hedendaag. Kst). Such assemblages of objects again relate to the principle of reconstruction of the past. Such works, for which he used portrait photographs of Jewish schoolchildren taken in Vienna in 1931, serve as a forceful reminder of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. In the works that followed, such as Reserve (exh. Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst, 1989), Boltanski filled whole rooms and corridors with items of worn clothing as a way of prompting an involuntary association with the clothing depots at concentration camps. As in his previous work, objects thus serve as mute testimony to human experience and suffering.

Andreas Franzke
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press

The Reserve of Dead Swiss 1990 Christian Boltanski born 1944 Presented by the Fondation Cartier 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06605

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Lorna Simpson

The daughter of…, 2015
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

The daughter of…, 2015 (detail)
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

Artist Lorna Simpson Returns to Her Favorite Subject—Hair—With Exclusive New Works
Mackenzie Wagoner’s picture
MARCH 31, 2016 3:25 PM
by MACKENZIE WAGONER

In a video currently playing in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Nothing Personal” exhibition, two women silently and simultaneously perform their morning rituals, their skin-care and makeup routines and hairstyles providing clues to their social roles, their place and time. The work is by New York–based artist Lorna Simpson, who has spent much of her nearly 40-year career exploring visual identity—namely the language of hair. Take, for example, Wigs, where a long blond tumble of curls hangs bodiless on a white backdrop, nearby a stretch of braid is neatly coiled just below a frothy cloud of disembodied afro; or Twenty Questions, which features four gelatin silver prints of an obsidian bob shining against equally dark skin and the collar of a soft white tank top—between each image, plaques propose interpretations, from “Is she as pretty as a picture” to “or sharp as a razor.”

From the sprays of updos in Stereo Styles to the chronologically organized ropes of braids in 1978–88, Simpson seems to suggest that if we wear our history, it’s on top of our heads. From birth, the texture and color of our hair alone speak volumes about centuries of heritage, while length and style become culturally coded symbols of sex, location, musical preferences, and professions. “Hair is a cipher of identity,” said Simpson over the phone recently, speaking about her fascination with the material. “I had questions about representation and what we learn about the subject.”

They are questions she leaves open-ended. Without a voice and often faceless, Simpson’s portraits instead confront us, the audience, with our own preconceived notions about race and gender as they’re tied to beauty, a theme that became more prominent in her later collage work, in which found photographs of anonymous African American women (and occasionally men) were stripped of their original coifs and surrounded, instead, by swirls of Simpson’s free-form ink paintings that she has likened to Rorschach tests. There, the forward-facing gazes seem to ask, “Who do you think I am?” and “Why?”


Ultra Violet 1, 2015
collage, and ink on paper 14.6 x 18.5 inches (37.1 x 47 cm) unframed 19.25 x 15.4 x 1.5 (48.9 x 39.7 x 4 cm) inches framed


Tulip, 2014
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

Now, her subjects are more liberated than ever. Above, in a new exclusive series for Vogue.com, Simpson has lifted the faces of 12 women from “very mundane” ’60s and ’70s advertisements in Ebony magazine—the culture and politics monthly she grew up with that “informed my sense of thinking about being black in America”—and paired them with illustrations of geological and astrological forms from a 1931 textbook. Stripped of any fundamental context, the women provide no origin story and no identifying characteristics. The geometric shapes replacing their hair weren’t chosen for their resemblance to, say, Nefertiti’s crown or Erykah Badu’s emerald head wrap—references that may spring to mind as you look at them—but rather for the same reason you might cut, color, or change the texture of your hair: simply because, says Simpson, “I thought they were beautiful.”

https://www.vogue.com

http://www.lsimpsonstudio.com

Lucas Samaras

Box #61 1967 Lucas Samaras born 1936 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07151

Box #61 1967 Lucas Samaras born 1936 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07151

Inside this box is a photograph of the artist’s face with pins stuck at regular intervals along the contours of his cheek, moustache and mouth. According to Samaras ‘the pins are lines, marks and dots, they create a net pattern which gives a strange illusion’. For Samaras, the box represents an equivalent to the human body. He sees making one of his boxes as a series of ‘erotic gestures. In Greece, where I was born, the words for lick and sculpt are the same.’

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Box 1963 Lucas Samaras born 1936 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07186

Box 1963 Lucas Samaras born 1936 Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07186

Samaras began making boxes using found objects and materials in the early 1960s. His father was a shoemaker and, as a child, Samaras often played in his aunt’s dress shop: ’The pin is to an extent a part of the family’, he once said, referring to the frequent use of pins in his work. His boxes frequently contain both soft and sharp materials. Here shards of glass both repel and attract. Samaras has said, ’this force to touch or not touch, destroy or caress, has always been with me’.

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Catherine Opie

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Catherine Opie was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1961. Opie investigates the ways in which photographs both document and give voice to social phenomena in America today, registering people’s attitudes and relationships to themselves and others, and the ways in which they occupy the landscape. At the core of her investigations are perplexing questions about relationships to community, which she explores on multiple levels across all her bodies of work. Working between conceptual and documentary approaches to image making, Opie examines familiar genres—portraiture, landscape, and studio photography—in surprising uses of serial images, unexpected compositions, and the pursuit of radically different subject matters in parallel. Many of her works capture the expression of individual identity through groups (couples, teams, crowds) and reveal an undercurrent of her own biography vis-à-vis her subjects. Whether documenting political movements, queer subcultures, or urban transformation, Opie’s images of contemporary life comprise a portrait of our time in America, which she often considers in relation to a discourse of opposition. Her work resonates with formal ideas that convey the importance of “the way things should look,” evidence of the influence of her early exposure to the history of art and painting. Catherine Opie received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (1985), an MFA from CalArts (1988), and since 2001 has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has received many awards, including the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2009); United States Artists Fellowship (2006); Larry Aldrich Award (2004); and the CalArts Alpert Award in the Arts (2003). Her work has appeared in major exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2011); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2010); Guggenheim Museum, New York (2008); MCA Chicago (2006); and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2002). Catherine Opie lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

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Catherine Opie_2

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http://www.pbs.org/art21

Binh Danh

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Binh Danh received his MFA from Stanford University in 2004 and has emerged as an artist of national importance with work that investigates his Vietnamese heritage and our collective memory of war, both in Viet Nam and Cambodia—work that, in his own words, deals with “mortality, memory, history, landscape, justice, evidence, and spirituality.” His technique incorporates his invention of the chlorophyll printing process, in which photographic images appear embedded in leaves through the action of photosynthesis. His newer body of work focuses on the Daguerreotype process.

Binh Danh has been included in important exhibitions at museums across the country, as well as the collections of the Corcoran Art Gallery, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the deYoung Museum, and the George Eastman House, among many others. He received the 2010 Eureka Fellowship from the Fleishhacker Foundation and is represented by Haines Gallery in San Francisco, CA and Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ.

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http://binhdanh.com