The BMC conference in October 2010 at UNC-A offered a wide range of wonderful BMC nuggets, but having put off posting about it so long, I’m sticking with the Ray Johnson material which is always my main priority. A big highlight was John Held’s mail art show and talk about mail art and the early days of the NY Correspondance School.
Ray’s inscrutable, radical but disarming approach to art has clearly led to a rich but fairly specialized body of critical writing and thinking about his work, immeshed but not entangled in the large “fan” following evident online. The main points of the former relate to Black Mountain College influences, the main thrust of the latter is mail art and performance art. Ray did not appear to observe such distinctions, but one thing I gained in the last two years of learning from BMCM+AC venues for Ray J work is that Ray Johnson was a major artist in the tradition of DuChamp, Miro, and Klee. Slowly, a body of academic work is relating his truly astonishing accomplishments both in the mainstream tradition of painting and his unique and irresistible gift and mandate: “Steal beauty from the mundane.”
The conference presentations offered delicious details about Ray’s process. Sebastian Matthews provided the quote above as he compared Ray’s obsession with found images to the “image collage” of Frank O’Hara poem “A Step away From Them.” Sebastian also elucidated with great insight about Ray’s Moticos, the secret embeddings and abrupt juxtapositions that Ray created in response to his environment. For Sebastian, Ray is a zen master of art, always indirect though immediate, balancing inward and outward by being aware of the act of being aware. Like O’Hara, a New York School poet, Ray scoured the city for images that enabled him to subvert and reconnect meanings.
Louly Peacock described how Ray subverted Pop Art (and pre-dated Warhol with celebrity portraits), teasing the major figures as in labeling Pollock “Action Jackson,” a nomiker that stuck. Her survey of phallic imagery in Ray’s work made her yet again the most entertaining speaker at the conference. Julie Thomson helped frame Ray’s performance art in showing the relationship between Ray and George Brecht of Fluxus fame, who” began to imagine a more modest, slyly provocative kind of art that would focus attention on the perceptual and cognitive experience of the viewer.” Brecht created “instructions for a toward event,” and along with Alan Kaprow paved the way for the Happenings – not to speak of Ray’s Nothings. Johanna Gosse portrayed Ray as a renegade of the gallery art world, deliberately obfuscating the market process, living in the “osmotic fluid flow” of daily aesthetic experiences, where the experience is the end, the process is the product.
Kate Dempsey revealed more of her discoveries about Albers’ fascination with pre-Columbian culture and how the Mayan hieroglyphs – still mysteries at the time- helped develop Ray’s sensitivity to text as an image source. Ray retained a geometric precision even as he evolved out of painting, and his love of codes, puns and multiple meanings ties together his early and late work.
The best insights into Ray were to be found at the talk by John Held while sorrounded by his mail art show. He walks the walk with mail art to this day and had much to share. He confirmed something also mentioned in the panel discussions – Ray’s moticos were featured in the very first Village Voice in 1955. He also described the importance of the 1970 correspondence art exhibit at The Whitney. He made it convincingly clear that Ray’s correspondence art was “not about the postal system,” but about “how you communicate aesthetics over a long distance.” Held stated that “Ray was building a community,’ and used no judgment or selection with his mailing lists.
The mail art show he exhibited had 170 entries from over 40 countries. It was impressive, entertaining, and a great tribute to the ongoing spirit of the NY Correspondance School. Ray Johnson continues to generate not only interest and academic attention, but exciting participatory tributes and art directly tracable to his genius.
One fun event I should share about from last fall is the presentation of a new BMC Wall in downtown Asheville. A large mural and several interesting installations grace an alley just off Broadway.
Several of the writers mentioned above are featured with Ray Johnson articles in an upcoming issue of the
Sebastian Matthew’s Ray J show essay with lots of Ray J images!
Jeffery Beam’s rich and varied literary contributions have been recognized here before, but his recent reading at the UNC Botanical garden was a found treasure. He was surrounded by friends and presented not only botanical poems from his latest book, Gospel Earth , but sang, remininsced, and read favorite passages from the poets who have influenced him. Jeffery’s wonderful voice, his energy, and his exuberant love for natural beauty made his reading a meditation and a spiritual sharing.
Gospel Earth is described on the Regulator Bookstore site as a “a collection of monostitches, micropoems, American sentences, small stones, small poem sequences, & minimalist poetry.” It begins with a plentitude of short quotes, almost all gemstones of thought from many different sources. Just as he shared his influences in the reading, his book says up front: here I stand, the earth my image, love my fuel, all the beauty I have been given is part of me. Those are my words and show Jeffery’s effect on one: spiritual and mindful.
Gospel Earth moves from the quotes to extremely short responses to images, many one line or even two or three words. The literary devices are almost invisible behind the strong zen and monastic distillations of pure meaning. The natural images shine for themselves in Jeffery’s deft and delicate frames. The Botanical Garden says Gospel Earth is
”a big book of little poems, [it] has already received acclaim for its transcendent, lush beauty; its minimal sacrament; and its simplicity and physicality. Described by the poet as a work intended to “invigorate the startling propulsion of haiku’s accessible simplicity and minimalism, while creating a more active canvas.”
The book does contain larger pieces, including a prose meditation on birding dedicated to Jonathan Williams (more about him below). One of my favorite pieces is a poem with notes that constitute an essay called “The Green Man’s Man.” The poem finds Jeffery immersed in Nature but always open to the philosophical notes in her song: ” I open Nature’s book/finding:/The more I know/The less I know.” The notes were written specifically for a different Botanical Garden event, and delve into the mythological image of the Green man. Jeffery tells us
The Green Man is not separate from us, he is our source, emphasizing & celebrating the positive creative laws of Nature, the native intelligence that shepherds and protects this world, and the ecological rightness that guides us.
Jeffery continues to enact and support the spirit of Black Mountain College in many ways and I hope to learn more of his scholarship regarding Jonathan Williams. He has presented numerous times about him, and is working on a bibliography. He has also shared manuscripts and links that make it clear he is a leading authority on the man’s life and significance.
Parts of this book also existed in online and pamphlet versions:
”to make open the eyes” Josef Albers All work of Ray Johnson on this site is used by permission of The Ray Johnson Estate
Ray Johnson was probably the most enigmatic and least appreciated artist of his importance in the 20th century. He was a man of many many layers, not so much depth, on first impression, just layers, fairly random factors that underlie and overlay his work. The show just ended at The Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center had many layers itself, over multiple valuable events, and provided a greatly needed showcase and explication for this “seminal figure of Pop Art” whose collages “influenced a generation of contemporary artists.”
The show and especially its catalogue were already reviewed here, but several subsequent events have enriched the impact of the show. Dr. Francis F. L. Beatty (quoted and seen above), a curator who works with the Ray Johnson Estate, gave a lecture at the BMCM+AC on May 21, using parallel slides to show that Ray displays elements in his collages that link him to the major artistic trends of the day. His wit, humor and intense communications of all kinds were highly stimulating but hard to classify, but his collages and the palette he created out of found and encountered material can be seen as fully in the tradition of Klee’ as well as Albers, while partaking of the humor of Dada. “I don’t make pop art. I make chop art.” Ray’s statement refers to his use of old work in new, and Dr. Beatty skillfully elucidated the way in which Ray’s “chop art” (often meticulous geometric constructions) came right out of his Black Mountain experience. She makes a point that reverberated through this show: the liberation of American education happening at Black Mountain served as well to “liberate Ray Johnson.” He found himself, and he found the principle that best illuminates the breadth of his work for me: images standing in for words, words become imagery.
Yet Ray remains enigmatic. Dr. Beatty spent much time on the 55 Moticos – huge intricate collages – which Ray made and destroyed, calling them “some of the earliest and most significant examples of Pop Art.” She recounted many personal interactions with Ray, such as the time he approached her and finally wanted to do a gallery display – of “Nothings.” Beyond his inscrutability, his avoidance of the commercial process, Dr. Beatty makes a simple but important point – the small scale of Ray’s visual work limited his gallery prospects and indirectly his artistic stature.
The scale of Ray’s imagination and willingness to live his life for art was unbounded, of course. The final night of the show, orchestrated by curator Sebastian Matthews, was a truly wild and wonderful event that did much to reflect Ray’s spirit. Music, poetry, and spoken word all filled the space.
“We have to seize the things we need to create.” These words were spoken in Picasso’s voice by Keith Flynt, one of the closing night performers (seen below).
Earl Bragg, seen above, offered a nine-eleven poem that featured number names – worthy of Ray’s glyphs and puns. His political themes and passionate phrases made for an excellent reading.
Local dramatists staged a reading of a collaged piece incorporating Ray’s play inside a play about Ray discussing a play with pink James Dean.
The final word has to go to Sebastian Matthews, who did such a magnificent job not only of putting on the show but of staying in touch with Ray’s spirit the whole time. He evoked and nurtured the image of Ray as filled with humor, energy – and a total lack of any sense of propriety. About the “chop art” and “lost art” which was so prominent in the show, he says: “Ray loved to make things up, kill them off, and resurrect them.”
The Ray show is dead, long live the Ray show.
The Ray Johnson show at the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville opened February 19th and will run through June 12, 2010. The opening was spectacular, the show is rich, varied and informative. For Ray J fans like me, the catalogue and it’s essays, assembled by show curator Sebastian Matthews, is the real treasure. Sebastian spent over a year studying Ray’s life and work, making connections with important people in Ray’s life (Ray passed in an act of suicide in 1995), and establishing his own perspective on the evolution of Ray’s art from a young art student in Detroit through a strong experience at Black Mountain College to an important role in the art scene of East Village in the 60′s and 70′s. The show displays extensive early work, including fairly typical ink doodles of 14 year old Ray, but also hilarious cards and visual puns from this period that presage his later work.
The show also reveals the aspect of Ray’s work I most needed to learn myself – that Ray came of age as an artist in the painterly traditions BMC and Josef Albers provided, and did lots of wonderful work as he evolved from painting to collage and then on to the correspondence work or “postal performances,” as Isa Bloom calls them, which made him most famous. The show focuses on Ray’s emergence out of Black Mountain College into the New York scene immersed in the ideas of his BMC mentors but prepared to follow Alber’s dictum: “to follow me, follow yourself.” As Sebastian Matthews says in his catalogue essay, “Ray was ripe for the challenges and experiences Manhattan had to offer.” He became one of the most intriguing and complex artists of the 20th century, and this show delineates many of the roots and threads that set him on his path.
The opening of the show was well attended and featured some aspects Ray might have liked very much, though he generally was quite ambivalent about exhibiting or selling or even saving his work. Poetix Vanguard offered spoken word performances during the event, and an open mike followed at a bar nearby. The BMCM+AC library, with many Ray J items prominent, provided a nice context for the highly varied show. Several of Hazel Larsen Archer’s gorgeous photos of Ray at BMC were on display. And Sebastian Matthews, collage artist himself and so clearly a Really Great Guy, presided with enthusiasm over the many energies he had gathered to celebrate the amazing career of Ray Johnson.
The catalogue contains 46 color plates, over a dozen images in the text, and several of Archer’s photographs. It also contains an interactive feature: a pair of postcards bound in as endpapers which the reader is invited to alter as desired and send off: one to a friend and one back to The Black Mountain Museum and Arts Center, whose program director Alice Sebrell is credited by Sebastian as being integral and vital to the process of creating the show. Five essays offer views of Ray that are remarkably varied and complementary.
Sebastian Matthews presents his curatorial essay as nine journal notes written while building the show. He elaborates his basic point: that Ray Johnson “used Black Mountain College as a springboard to propell himself into the Manhattan art world.” He also does a remarkable job, with his intense self-examinations, numerous concrete biographical insights, and constant awareness of Ray’s own probable intent to be inscrutable, of helping us have a “fuller sense of what Ray attempts when he sits down to make art, when he prepares to send out the work to be received, passed on, altered.” The quote is what Sebastian hopes to accomplish with the show, and I think he got there. He also truly transformed my personal sense of Ray J by portraying the intense, painterly, quite technical control Ray exerted over his collage work.
Ray Johnson’s career had many layers, and two essays by old friends of Ray offer insight into his early days in Detroit and his heyday in the East Village. Arthur Secunda contributed much material for the show and portrays in his recollection “Ray Johnson’s intelligence, mysterious youthful verve and artistic ingenuity.” William S. Wilson, the primary lender of the collage works, and one of Ray’s long-time art buddies, makes his essay a tour de force in Ray J style quirkiness and abrupt juxtapositions. He says “Ray Johnson was a student of the imaginations of other people.” He ably describes Ray’s focus not on abstract ideas but direct concrete responses, because Ray “worked to remain within immanences, eluding transcendentals.”
Two academic writers share their ideas about the inportance and significance of Ray’s work. Julie J. Thomson thoroughly documents the large and lasting influence Josef Albers had on Ray’s work. She also describes the way Ray’s work related to the “Happenings” and other art trends of the times. Kate Erin Dempsey, in “Code Word:Ray,” shared a long excerpt from her work in progress about Ray and his reaction to and use of the fad for secret codes and hidden messages raging in the 1950s. Expanding on the fascinating work she shared at the BMC conference, she convincingly demonstrates Ray’s fascination with language and its manipulation for artistic purposes. Furthermore, she follows this thread from radio show decoder rings through the Mayan hieroglyphics and glyphs revered at BMC, to Ray’s mature use of found images – giving them a “new lease on life - enhancing or altering their meaning entirely by arranging them in novel ways.” Kate’s work at the BMC conference, this essay, and hopefully her future book will all warrant future Ray J posts.
The kernel I found that connected all these essay? Nothings – empty shells of meaning – e.g. nonsense – that serve as markers and triggers for the kind of nonlinear art experience Ray Johnson wanted you to have. William S. Wilson talks of “the surface concealed only by another surface.” Julie J. Thomson finds their roots in “the gap, an element emphasized by Albers in his teaching,” and makes the valid and often repeated connection between Ray’s study of Taoism and these ideas. Kate Dempsey makes it clear Ray wanted to avoid specific meanings, sending messages in bottles to be partly constructed by the finder. Sebastian reminds us that Ray was “an autodidact student of Buddhism and a self-described disciple of John Cage’s cultivation of chance occurrence. “ Julie Thomson describes the performances Ray created entitled “Nothings:” they “interrupted the Happenings, opening up a space amidst the busy environments and experiences of the Happenings.” Ray brought Zen and his unique fusion of life and art into American art, and made his mark with great gifts and energy.
Sebastian Matthews has provided an amazing set of Ray Johnson experiences to me , starting with the BMC conference, many kind and enthusiastic interactions, and now this multiple-event, long-running show. He did all the myriad tasks and jumped through all the hoops to make this show happen, but he clearly handled the situation as a working artist and remained beautifully true to the spirit of Ray Johnson with everything he did as a result. See this show and then follow Sebastian’s advice:
Don’t get too caught up in finding meaning in every little detail. You need to first catch a drift of the mood and follow it back in. Let the work show you how to see. Let Ray work his magic. Sebastian Matthews, from BMC to NYC
The event was a blast and was just the beginning. Remember the show runs til June 12th, and there are lots of special events to help motivate the trip. A collage workshop by Krista Franklin had occurred by this post, a screening of How to Draw a Bunny, an award-winning Ray J documentary will take place on April 8, and Dr. Francis F. L. Beatty, a curator who works with the Ray Johnson Estate, will speak about Ray’s work on May 21. The show will celebrate its closing with a poetry reading on June 12th. The Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, sponsor of all events, has just announced a fascinating weekend event at the old dining hall building on the BMC campus. Sounds fun! BMC lives!!
Black Mountain College and BMC+AC, the Asheville museum and art center devoted to its memory and influence, continue to generate artistic and literary responses that reverberate with the powerful cultural forces that coursed through the college until 1957. An upcoming show at the Asheville center will feature Ray Johnson, whose personal correspondence with me is described on my Black Mountain page. I am looking forward to attending and writing about the show, whose curator, Sebastian Matthews, was so welcoming and enthusiastic at the recent BMC conference. He started a blog just for this show and it’s full of wonderful Ray J images and stories. Much more about Ray Johnson before and after the show in February.
Jeffery Beam, UNC botanical librarian and Hillsborough poet, has made a major contribution to Black Mountain documentation with his recently posted Jonathan Williams archive, which gathers a wide selection of photography, poetry and essays in order to capture the unique vision of Jonathan Williams. Jeffery and Richard describe the scope of the project below.
The work he produced for more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other. He is never only a poet or photographer, an essayist or publisher. What we find instead in the figure of Williams is a continuity that cuts across these practices — something we might call a poetics of gathering. All of his efforts are linked through an unswerving desire to collect and preserve, harvest and distribute.
The project, which resides at Jacket Magazine, includes a photo essay, past essays and new pieces in response to Williams’ death in 2008 or commissioned for this project. More details from Jeffery:
You’ll also discover 26 portraits of Jonathan from the age of about 12 up until 2005 – with other images scattered throughout the essays, 24 photographs by Jonathan – a number of which have never been published, works of art in honor of Jonathan, an unpublished interview with Jonathan by editor Richard Owens, a complete Jargon bibliography by Owens, and a selected Jonathan Williams publications bibliography compiled by me from a forthcoming complete bibliography. Jeffery Beam
Raleigh has some small claims to fame relative to Black Mountain lore. Long before Glenwood South became known as an art center, Gilliam & Peden Art Gallery on Glenwood Avenue organized a show, curated by Ben Williams, called Black Mountain Connection. It featured Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as many others as seen below. This is my copy of the prospectus for the 1987 show.
(click to enlarge)
The NC Museum of Art hosted a major exhibition of BMC material in 1987. In conjunction with this show, which also traveled to Annandale-on-Hudson and New York City, New York, , MIT Press published a truly sumptuous volume entitled The Arts at Black Mountain College by Mary Emma Harris. The book is wonderful, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t now come now with the checklist of the exhibition which is tucked inside my copy from the show. Looking over it, I recall the intense immediacy evoked by the multitude of so many different kinds of objects in that show. There were architectural models, prints, oils and products of every imaginable drawing device and surface; announcements, bulletins, programs, photographs, glyphs, scores, weavings, calligraphy, letterpress printings and bound books. You got a sense of the interspersing and practical (yet clearly micro-utopian) productivity of this self-contained culture studying culture. The exhibition, The Arts at Black Mountain College 1933-1957 was organized by the Edith C. Blum Art Institute of Bard College and contained 219 items.
NCSU’s Gregg Museum has also done its part for BMC. Anni Albers was featured in a 2007 lecture (links to pdf) by Mary Emma Harris (who had previously lectured there about the architecture of Black Mountain). The NCSU Colleges of Textile and Design offers specialized degrees combining design and technology through the Anni Albers Scholars Program, which “is named for a designer who exemplifies the ideals and goals to which the program aspires: textile designer and artist Anni Albers.”
Yet another local connection to the threads of BMC influence is Margret Kentgens-Craig, part-time Raleigh resident (and fondly remembered stalwart supporter of my Paper Plant bookstore), whose book The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts 1919-1936 delineates the major connections between the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. Walter Gropius, a nine year director of the Bauhaus, lectured at the college, but also “tried continually to secure a teaching position at Harvard for Josef Albers.” Lucky for BMC he didn’t! Albers, according to Kentgens-Craig, “was the first Bauhaus master to acquire a position at an American educational institution, Black Mountain College. His wife Anni, who was Jewish, joined him.” The book describes the enormous impact Bauhaus ideas had on American architecture, and credits Lawrence Kocher, a BMC instructor, with creating opportunities for the dissemination of those ideas.
A final BMC note: Jeff Davis posted recently at his blog Natures previewing the Charles Olson Centenary Conference, taking place at Simon Fraser University in Briitish Columbia June 4-10, 2010. Jeff will be in Vancouver “to make a presentation on Olson’s curricular projects.”