Ray Johnson: Tracking Deep Currents
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!!