Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Most Famous Unknown Artist

What type of artist stages a protest outside of his own one man exhibition or send hate mail to the Whitney Museum? The enigmatic Ray Johnson did just that. Best known for being unknown, Ray Johnson was part of the New York City art scene which founded the pop art movement and staged happenings. Notorious for backing out of exhibitions, few know his name, but Johnson made collages of Elvis and Lucky Strike cigarettes before Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, delving into pop culture in the late fifties while everyone else was still doing large scale abstract expressionism.
Perhaps best known for his school of correspondence, Johnson was an avid letter writer and receiver. Johnson was well known in post offices all along Nassau County's north shore. In fact, I recently asked students to create collages and mail them to me in memory of Ray Johnson. One student struck up a conversation with a postal clerk who said he remembered Johnson well, since Johnson had his own bin due to the volume of mail he received. It wasn't until I started receiving the students' mail that I understood Ray Johnson's school of thought; it is the joy of receiving the piece of mail that becomes part of the art experience. I truly love some of Ray Johnson's work with text. His bunnies, portraits of sorts, contain all sorts of references to other artists and gallery owners, charming and sardonic all at the same time.
I had the pleasure of taking part in several of Ray Johnson's events-- called 'Nothings'. Here I am at his cutting party with underwear on my head at the age of 16, where clothes were cut off our bodies. Another time Johnson walked across a rooftop with a green ladder, where nothing else really happened. Artist and filmmaker Nick Maravell took up documenting several of these experiences with Ray Johnson, which are now available on DVD and became part of the documentary on Johnson, How to Draw a Bunny. Johnson and his work, who died in 1995 after swimming out to sea off the coast of Sag Harbor on a winter day, remains as relevant and as fascinating as ever.

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