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Lawrence ALLOWAY: Ray Johnson

(Art Journal, Spring 1977)

Technically the art of Ray Johnson can be viewed as a special kind of collaboration. It can take the form of unilateral appropriation, in which case the originator of a quote or reference may never know of his or her contribution. Or it can take the form of an invitation to the recipient of one of Johnson's letters to respond, to continue the action. The letter can be sent on to a third party, on Johnson's instructions, or on the initiative of the respondent. Or you can write back. Nicolas and Elena Calas have commented that "Ray Johnson is to the letter what Cornell is to the box." Both artists come out of the collage tradition but both have expanded it drastically. Johnson's original letters often consist of several loose bits and pieces. In collages, including Johnson's own, these are pasted down onto a single plane, but in their envelopes the pieces are discrete, sorted but not joined.

The sense of the temporary containment of diverse parts corresponds to the scatter of Johnson's recipients, all of whom see the work on a one-to-one basis. His letters obviously depend on that section of the communication system administered by the Post Office. Now that his work is better known it has entered a second stage in the system, that of multiple reproduction, notably in Correspondence, the catalogue of last year's exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. In reproduction the separateness of parts is lost though the works become more consultable. Dick Higgins annotations in the catalogue are very useful in the decipherment of what are, after all, other people's letters. "From 1959 to 1964 Johnson inventoried and otherwise used the theme of neckties for a number of works.... The necktie theme was transferred to the neck, which he represented as a letter V...Instead of inventorying his neckties, he then inventoried his necks (or Vs) for a while."

A few years ago I started to write about Johnson but I got so confused by glimpses of such themes as Higgins states clearly, in bundles of letters spread all over the city, that I gave up, to my regret now. in 1971 Johnson said of his correspondence school that "it is secret, private, and without any rule," but there is a disconcerting precision in his letters. Recognition of his sinuous continuities is not the only way to appreciate Johnson, however, especially as the letters are being published and the epistolary becomes public property. Johnson's art arises from the texture of the New York art world society. He has referred to a collage series of 1972, "Ray Johnson's History of the Betty Parsons Gallery" as "name dropping". The names are from Johnson's lexicon of friends and from a cast of hundreds in the art world. Consider his rows of elephant heads or shoes or benign killroys or stereotyped heads (derived from classic comic strips), captioned with such names as: "Sari Dienes, Robert Rauschenberg, Chryssa, Edouardo Paolozzi, Tako Sinoda." These names are of artists who have shown at Parsons, but without that fact the words are as exotic as a Babylonian laundry list or an Ellis Island register. Johnson's collages are intricate and discursive, a nest of associations and clues. They are to be read, no less than his letters.

The kind of discourse that Johnson developed has been picked up widely, in the U.S. and in Europe, but his work has a specific character. He has resisted the cliches of post-Minimal documentary, of topographical charts and schedules that dominate Mail art. Johnson has instead forced us to accept a graphic style and a personalized sociology that do not depend for their justification on the current operating procedures of art. His art is independent and not peeroriented despite the shower of peer-names. Hence Johnson's ability to celebrate is not merely an optimistic reflex but a disciplined choice. Thus to view his work, zigzagging among amiable, intimate, and personal matters is to watch non-ressentiment as a policy, as the key to a bright labyrinthine discourse.

Ray Johnson can be regarded as a poet of non-ressentiment, a term which covers all the strains between individuals and the social institutions they regard as hostile or repressive. On the contrary, he celebrates the interconnections between himself and his respondents, between himself and various layers of information that emanate from different institutions. He draws on a blyth spectrum of Americana, gossip, and mass communications. His correspondence school spans the mailing lists of the art world and the exchanges of chatty friends; he goes from straight quotation to parodistic babble. His allusions vary from nostalgic to clannish, from cryptic to topical. Word games throw up coinages like "Taoist toast." Professional conversations, youth culture references, and nursery animals collide in a way that cuts across the tastes of any one of these groups taken singly. He has a sharp eye and a neat hand for what passes as current in signs and symbols. This power to condense topical images opposes the risk of diffuseness in his capacious sources. The nonchalant pact of visual and verbal references conceals a play of recurrent allusions and motifs, but also embodies effervescent profiles of everybody in a message-rich, post-ressentiment society.

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