Something Else Entirely
Ray Johnson, Dick Higgins + the making of The Paper Snake
The summer 2015 show at the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville presented newly re-discovered archives of publication material for Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake, designed and published by Ray’s good friend Dick Higgins in 1965 as the second title from Higgins’ Something Else Press. Curator Michael Von Uchtrup found the production material in a large brown paper envelope among the many items in William S. Wilson’s Ray Johnson archive. The envelope lay unopened for 50 years. The exhibit displays original collages, design proofs, an autographed copy of the very rare first printing, and various related material, including hilarious “promotion flyers” produced by Ray for the book. The show came on the heels of the reprinting of The Paper Snake by Siglio Press in 2014.
“The show is full of mysteries,” stated Von Uchtrup at the opening reception on June 5, 2015. The Paper Snake is nearly as much about Dick Higgins’ “translation” of Ray Johnson’s ideas as it is a record of one stream of Ray’s voluminous sendings. Higgins selected and sometimes altered the material, often to Ray’s dismay. Many of the proof pages and original art for the book showed significant differences from the final book, and a few bits of the text seemed to be written by Higgins. Still, the book and the show are filled with lists, tiny plays, letters, quotes from reading, and all the other unique fusions of art, communication and humor found in Ray Johnson’s work.
This was a show to read more than to view. Though greatly enhanced by several early collages on loan from Bill Wilson, the bulk of the show was devoted to images directly related to The Paper Snake. Large proofs sequenced on the wall enabled one to actually stand and read the book in proof form.The display tables held much dense typescript that usually rewarded closer inspection. A special treat was the audio-visuals: three audio-cassette records of performance works by Ray Johnson, a Dick Higgins poem recitation, and 1965 8mm films of Ray. Even the book selection on the sales shelf offered a wide and valuable range of titles relevant to the show, including of course, the book itself. The reprint was issued in the same print run as the original, 1840 copies. Siglio Press calls it a “vertiginous,mind-bending artist’s book … far ahead of its time.”
The events surrounding the show not only illuminated the book but also presented a fine example of the wonderful work done by the BMCMAC staff and its presenters in providing context and local artistic collaboration to deepen our connection to Black Mountain College. The day after the reception, the curator was joined by Julie J. Thomson for a freely flowing discussion based on slide images of the career and artistic significance of Ray Johnson. Julie has set herself the task of discovering “how one becomes an artist like Ray Johnson,” and her close reading of resonances within the book and her honest embrace of the ambiguity and occasional frustration of dissecting Ray’s inscrutable processes made for a fascinating sharing. Michael Von Uchtrup is working on a biography of Ray, and he emphasized many learnable moments derived from close attention to the materials in his discovery. Julie and Michael’s reminiscences of interviews and anecdotes echoed a strong theme in the documentary film about Ray: no one really knew Ray Johnson, or everyone knew a different side of him. Julie and Michael’s perspectives on the show were offered in full length essays in the large brochure accompanying the show.
On July 3rd, a full audience enjoyed the presentation of “In the Arm of Flowers”, a performance by Megan Ransmeier and Julia Rich. The themes of correspondence, communication over space, and isolation played out in dance movements, readings and evocative vocalizations by the two artists. Their performance was based on three years of correspondence, and was dedicated to Ray’s work. In the exhibit’s final public event Alice Sebrell gave a strong introduction to the screening of “How to Draw a Bunny“, the award-winning 2002 documentary featuring 1995 interviews with Christo, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and others.
This array of features was capped by the publication of Volume 8 of Black Mountain College Studies, which was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Paper Snake as well as the exhibit under discussion. It includes essays, interviews, and many topics for further exploration. With Sebastian Matthew’s 2010 show on Ray’s early years, the BMCMAC has provided a Ray J fan (and past correspondent) like myself with a rich set of experiences and learning opportunities. This exhibit provided the general and artistic community with another window into the unique and ground-breaking work that emerged from BMC. It took some fairly esoteric and technical materials and turned them into a show and event schedule that provided for a very enriching summer at the BMCMAC.