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.
Late September 2014 brought the 6th edition of Re Viewing: Black Mountain College, and my experience, as always, was to be re-invigorated with the vast lessons to be learned from attention to the process and people who inhabited that magical place between 1933 and 1957. This year’s conference had writing as its theme, but the over-all thrust of the events took us well beyond the Olson era at the end of the college’s life, which is usually the focus of BMC literary topics.
The conference is sponsored by the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, whose reception for an art show of Dan Rice’s work is seen above. The BMCMAC is growing fast, with a growing permanent collection of BMC art and a newly announced expansion in downtown Asheville. Their conference has been held past two years at UNC-A’s Reuter Center, a lifelong learning institute which serves as a slightly cramped but otherwise excellent venue. It was well attended by presenters from across the country, with a small international contingent as well. A special feature of the conference is the appearance of individuals directly connected to the college, and this year’s prize was Ted Dreier, Jr, who spent his childhood there as his father Ted Sr. played a major role in college life and the business/finances of BMC. Ted Jr. shared many stories during the Sunday campus tour. It was also a great pleasure to meet the grandson of John Dewey, whose educational philosophy was a foundation of BMC.
The simultaneous events always means selection and rejection (or sneaking out and listening a bit). I started with electing for a writing workshop with Jeff Davis, who helped inspire the cut-up project pictured at the top of this post. Jeff had us participants write two words on a deck of 52 cards he provided. Then we dealt ten out and built poems with the selection using a couple of different procedures. We were emulating the “procedural writing” process used by BMC alumnus Jonathan Williams in writing his poem “Mahler: for Symphony No. 7 in B Minor.” It was fun and Jeff offered enthusiastic appreciation for the ironies and amusing juxtapositions in the poems as we shared them. Jonathan’s press, Jargon Society, is now under the auspices of the BMCMAC.
The next session also drew me to a decidedly non-academic presentation, where Ted Pope offered his unique brand of performance poetry. After a mesmerizing rendition of intricate classical guitar by his son, Ted set the tone for his own work by whipping his arrangement of antlers on a tree stump. This was followed by several energetic rants, including one that gave BMCMAC vice-chairman J. Richard Gruber “a whole new perspective on my home state of Kentucky.” Ted’s anarchic approach brings to life some of the spirit of the college, but also evokes a rich sense of the mountain man, wily and cultured in his own way, and helps define the sense of place that was a thread throughout the conference.
Mary Emma Harris, preeminent BMC researcher, and Vincent Katz, keynote speaker, focused on the growing international recognition of the importance and value of Black Mountain College studies and the profound model of experiential and self-directed education its history represents. The editors of the upcoming Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry discussed their criteria, reflecting the strong literary importance of Olson and the Black Mountain poets as well as the diverse examples of good writing that permeated the entire span of the college’s existence. Ray Johnson, my default interest at all conferences, is included in the anthology, and his writing is also featured in two newly published books: a new printing of Paper Snake and Not Nothing: Selected Writings, 1954-1994, both from Siglio Press. I honestly did not attend enough hard core lectures to report on the literary ideas at the conference, but instead continued my trend of taking in the active and participatory opportunities. They continued to be very rewarding.
When I walked into “Notes for Time and Place, an Improvisational Drawing Performance,” I not only did not know what to expect, I did not recognize the mechanism sitting on the presenter’s table. I might have, because I had seen a much earlier version. Mercedes Teixido has arranged the construction of a Jeffersonian copy machine, built in consultation with the curators of Monticello, and she uses this marvelous machine in her art endeavors. We were given written instructions (in duplicate copies), to peruse the Black Mountain College titles spread out on the table, and to read a passage aloud when the impulse struck us. The written “rules” stated that if we read a passage, she would make a drawing, and we could have one. As a group, we took a little warming up but eventually all of the audience read something aloud, and just as with Jeff Davis’s “Chance of Magic” workshop, there were fun juxtapositions with and reactions to the readings.
Mercedes herself just listened and worked quietly. She patiently placed twin sheets of paper into her marvelous machine after each drawing, and after some time she spread out the twin line drawings for display. We were invited to take one of a pair, leaving her with a documentary set. It was a truly unique experience, and we all bonded a bit through listening to each other read. It was one of the best acts of artistic community-building I have ever seen, and highly appropriate to this conference about a college where art and life, the interior mind and the artistic act, were irrevocably entertwined.
The culmination of my conference experiences came with Re Weaving, a theatrical reading of letters between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Monika’s work attempts to expand our perspective on theater through unusual spaces, modes, or interactions between actors and audience. This performance drew on the powerful phrases of the original exchanges between Duncan and Levertov, but also enacted the spirit of BMC itself with its fresh approach and innovative techniques. The selection, repetition and rhythm of the words built an amazing dynamic between two very powerful and convincing characters ensconced in a stripped down, yet utterly convincing physical set.
This was another performance offered as an alternative to the academic presentations, this one outside on a patio of the Reuter Center, with the readers/actors under a rustic wooden trellis filled with vines. A few simple props (most magnificently exemplified by a manual typewriter) served to evoke the personal spaces of two people who send their thoughts and feelings across the continent. At times, they react in real time to each other’s missives, at times the rapid exchanges represent an argument: there were no limiting rules in the creation of this dialogue. The power of the characters seems enhanced when they take their inner thoughts outside of the defined theatrical space: when David Novak stalks the character of Robert Duncan up the landscaped slope outside the trellis, it is as if he has left the theatrical space but taken us with him, witness to his silent but fully projected thoughts. Monika, who also stepped away as seen above, did her own magic with space, joining the audience and thrusting her hand up like a precocious schoolgirl at the famous Mr. Duncan, asking him the questions that beleaguered this passionate but probably unconsummated intellectual couple. It was a strong, effective and moving performance, honoring and exploring the range of artistic modes that characterize Black Mountain College.
But wait! Hang in there for the BMC campus and farm tour!
For me, the best was last this year. I finally took the Sunday tour, mainly because David Silver had asked me to read for his farm tour and I was thrilled to contribute, in a way however small, to this wonderful event. Mary Emma Harris started us with a tour of the original resort bought by Black Mountain College in 1941. Midway through her exposition of the dining hall and its central role in college life, Ted Dreier, Jr and his wife arrived, and Ms. Harris (as did David Silver later) graciously conceded the speaking stick to this true alumnus of BMC college life, as faculty kid and later as student. He shared wonderful memories about being allowed to sit at meals with students, about the tragedy of his brother’s accidental death and the memorial construction of the Quiet House, and the communal exchange of the bulletin board in the student-constructed Study Hall.
The property purchased by the college is now divided: Camp Rockmount continues to host hundreds of boys each summer, but the upper reaches, including several original cabins and the farm area, still belong to the family who purchased the land from BMC in 1947. The son-in-law of that family, Leigh Maher, is on the BMCMAC board, and joined us for the tour of his part of property.
David Silver followed up his amazing multimedia event at the Hunt Library with a bang-up tour of the farm. He had several people read relevant passages as we stood in front of the barn and silo. Silver’s numerous presentations have made it clear that the the farm was central to the life and very existence of the college, and that its abandonment in the final years not only left the students hungry enough to eat frog legs, but signaled the coming doom of the end. And yet, as Mary Emma Harris said, the real point is that it lasted as long as it did on such precarious financial ground, and lasted long enough to generate waves of students and ideas that permeate American art culture to this day.
Looking forward to attending the BMC conference at UNC-A’s Reuter Center Sept. 26-28. Last year I did a silkscreen of an ancient motif – this year I am responding to the writing theme of this year’s event with a give-away piece of hand-laid paper incorporating randomized sentences cut from a variety of sources.
I cut hundreds of sentences from some old paperback books lining my letterpress shop – the criteria being variety and nothing post-dating the lifetime of the college. These were spread out and “shuffled” thoroughly, then dropped into the vat of pulp a few at the time as I formed the sheets. Minor lifting and adjusting did not interfere with the groupings and each sheet has fun juxtapositions with occasional strong ironies. I made 52 to take to the conference.
The use of chance and spontaneous order is characteristic of some of the best-known BMC artists. I look forward to learning more about its use by Jonathan Williams in a writing workshop conducted by Jeff Davis, where he
“will replicate in brief form the procedure Jonathan Williams developed when he wrote the section in in his long poem Mahler for Symphony No. 7 in B Minor. After steeping himself in Mahler’s work, he availed himself of an “hallucinatory deck” of cards, and wrote on those cards the 110 words that were the “private and most meaningful words of [his]poetic vocabulary,” and then, using different rules for each of the movements, he wrote the amazing poem!
The cards I made have already helped me engender a long list of favorite phrases and it will be fun to distribute them to the wonderful folks that attend these conferences. Long live the spirit of BMC!
David Silver, a USF professor who studies media and urban agriculture, used NCSU’s Hunt Library and its magnificent IT and media resources to provide a unique and invaluable review of the farm at Black Mountain College, and how it invigorated the sense of community, the work ethic and the physical bodies of everyone on campus. Silver, who was featured in my last BMC post, has spent countless hours poring over the images and papers in the BMC archives at the NC Western Regional Archives in Asheville. He, with the help of numerous staff members and students at the Hunt Library, created a stunning array of images in four of the library’s presentation venues. The movement, the change of scale and David’s infectious energy all made for a highly stimulating “lecture” that transcended standard academic formats.
Black Mountain College began in the Depression in 1933 and lasted until 1956. For most of those years, farm activities, conducted primarily by students, provided substantial and sometimes crucial food for the college community. The farm also helped enact the progressive ideas of the founder, John Rice, who involved students in all decision-making processes about curriculum and campus life. During the war years, the predominately female population continued and developed the farm and also construction projects on the new Lake Eden campus. In the last years before closing, the end of the farm program led to some hungry times for the nearly destitute institution. Silver showed how the farm and the preparation of its food is a research thread that reveals issues ranging from racially progressive views to education as doing, from the empowering of female students to environmental conservation.
The trek through Hunt Library started in the lobby’s iPearl Immersion Theater and then moved to the classroom above, where we turned around to each wall as it illuminated with new images. The format fit David’s active style perfectly. The sense of landscape, the huge size of the student-built barn, the humor David found in so many images, all were enhanced by the settings.
Professor Silver was generous in his praise for all the staff and students with whom we had worked at the Hunt Library. He also was effusive (as are all BMC scholars) about Heather South, archivist at the Western Regional Archives, who below watches David present.
These columns of imagery, set in the curved wall of a large work area, formed my favorite venue. A few scattered students were around, the crowd was put at ease by the vast expanses, and people could move around and come and go as they wished. I won’t try to convey much of David’s BMC specifics. He has published much and will continue to lead us all to a better awareness of how the farm influenced the education experience at Black Mountain College.
This library really is gorgeous and mind-blowing. Its namesake visited this day, but hurried right past the BMC presentation!
The 2013 Black Mountain College conference, held at UNC-Asheville, covered much ground, as always, with reflections and insights regarding the methods, influence and legacy of the experimental college that is both revered and obscured in the history of 20th century education and art. I always come away with one or more real breakthroughs in my thoughts about these topics, and this year the BMC farm program really came to light in the presentation of David Silver. Tom Murphy spoke of the print shop and letterpress operations, and both of these sessions offered rich, practical examinations of the processes and their implications. As always, the foundation of factual knowledge and interpretation laid down by Mary Emma Harris in her 1987 book, The Arts of Black Mountain College, is acknowledged and utilized by all presenters. Ms Harris continues to lead BMC research efforts, and presented this year about BMC approaches to material studies. She showed how the low-budget humble materials used by Anni Albers and others provided a freedom and at the same time an enforced discipline on the students. “You mustn’t forbid the possibilities of the materials,” and in the notes of Ruth Asawa from Josef Alber’s class, “the whole cosmos is entertaining”. These topics were applied to Asawa, BMC sculptural artist, by Jason Andrew, who showed how Ruth Asawa’s zero-based explorations of the culture of handicraft, and her highly artistic use of negative and positive space, helped lift craft into the perceived realm of art in the mid twentieth century. Christopher Benfey, the featured speaker whose ideas I discussed in the previous post, gave a keynote speech which emphasized a similar theme: “Starting at Zero!” Get your hands involved with available material. Then make an honest response to the materials, including the industrial process involved. The conference highlighted the synergy and profound influence derived from the joining of the design philosophy of Albers and the progressive education ideals of John Rice. Experiential education and the approach of design as a “form of justice between man and material” made BMC the birthing place of many new currents in American art.
The BMC farm was a rich source of experiential education, surely, and its operations offered many practical lessons in form and design. David Silver of the University of San Francisco described how students, with Ted Dreier’s supportive oversight, had a huge influence on the development of the farm. From Harris’s book: “In the first year  a vegetable garden was started by Norman Weston [BMC student and “treasurer”] and other interested community members. The college leased a 25 acre farm with a vineyard and apple orchard…” John Rice was not enthusiastic but didn’t mind as long as faculty obligations were not needed. In 1938 the farm went to the future Lake Eden, was expanded in 1941 and by 1944 “was producing most of the beef, pork, potatoes, eggs, dairy products and some vegetables used by the college” (Harris again). Last year and this, Silver offered rich detail into how the farm emblemized the integrated systems, the balance of discipline and freedom, and the “use what you find” attitude that characterized much of the college’s history. His research anecdotes, from local farmers such as Bass Allen, who taught the students how to farm, to the very Albers-like egg lists that recorded every oval, both entertain and enlighten. Mistakes, both horrible and hilarious, were made. But students gained invaluable experiences, including the closest thing BMC offered in the way of physical education. Molly Gregory, who taught woodworking and maintained the mechanical shop, took over the farm in the later years of the college and operated it at a profit. Silver’s admiring portrayal of her BMC work showed that, like Asawa, she helped create an atmosphere that bridged the gap between artisan and artist, that found a space for sublime work of the hands.
Of particular interest to me was my own arena of artisanry; the letterpress printing and other book arts that were pursued at BMC. Tom Murphy from Texas A&M Corpus Christi recounted printing efforts that were of practical help to the college but eventually played a role in the establishment of literary forces and the Black Mountain Poets as important threads in the history of BMC. Again with the support of Harris’s history, he described how Xanti Schawinsky, a noted graphic designer, helped obtain type and a press for a print shop in Lee Hall on the first Blue Ridge campus. The bulletins printed were “not flashy’ and in fact were conventional products that advertised the best face of the college to outsiders. Students like Ed Dorn and John McCandless received hands-on learning and were able to design and effect their own projects. The print shop had a long hiatus before and during the war, but in 1946 was resurrected as part of the wood shop and used in writing projects involving Jimmy Tite, Harry Weitzer, and Ann Mayer. A visit by Anais Nin in 1947 was the catalyst for new literary publications, including Poems by M.C. Richards in 1948. This set the scene for the Olson years, when BMC nurtured energies that traveled to the west coast, Paris, and North Carolina’s own Jargon Press, published by Jonathan Williams. (A fun footnote to the latter is that the BMCM+AC has acquired the imprint and publications of the Jargon Society!)
All of these insights need fuel themselves to become realized. The first session of the conference highlighted the newly emerging resources for such work. UNC-A’s Ramsey Library is digitizing and organizing web pages for several BMC collections. The Western Regional Archive continues to add collections,including the BMC Project papers, generated and collected by Mary Emma Harris. The state archive has selected BMC documents in their online archive. The Black Mountain Studies Journal offers ongoing scholarship in the field. Rich resources indeed!
Design is not decoration, design means an understandable order. It is understandibility. It is not beauty. If it is understandable, it is beautiful. Josef Albers
Book arts came up in one last surprising setting – Julie Thomson‘s highly stimulating talk on Ray Johnson’s commercial design work. She offered the quote above and astounded the audience with images of standard New Direction titles whose covers were designed by Johnson and one of his mentors, Alan Lustig. She pointed out that Ray J had done prize-winning poster work back in Detroit, was a perfectly competent graphic designer – and helped promote the idea of integrating typography with visual art and design.
Congrats to the BMCM+AC for another great conference!