Should an eyelash
An Interview with Ray Johnson by Henry Martin*
Poetica, February 1984)
I did one of
my most bizarre lectures up at the Rhode
Island School of Design. It consisted of my trying to move a piano
across a stage, and people kept coming up to ask if they could help,
and I said "Certainly not! I mean the point is that I can't move this
piano, and I'm struggling to move it, and it's obviously not going to
get moved across the stage, and I'm putting out a great exertion of
energy, and I'm on a public platform, and you are all viewing me, which
is the whole point of this thing." I said, "you figure it out".
Ray Johnson has
always been involved in two different kinds of work, one of which is
the New York Correspondance School
and the other of which is the making of collages. But the collages -
especially in the 1950s - have frequently been known to get cut apart
and sent out in the mail to friends, and the Correspondence School is
a vast sea of objects, images, and information that the collages often
take as material to be worked on. Both activities are alive with a heady
and uncontainable poetry that's voted to taking the world for exactly
what it seems to be: Ray Johnson's individual consciousness would appear
to be his only criterion of continuity, and the world becomes tantamount
to all the odds and ends and fragments of experience that are all that
any of us can truly say we know it to be, even though we may have the
habit of thinking that it is something more than that. Ray Johnson makes
collages that rhyme with the way that consciousness is itself a collage,
and when it's not a collage it's a dynamic flow of inter-relating sensations,
which is the central metaphor of the New York Correspondence School.
But the energy
released by accepting consciousness as incomplete can be channeled into
a striving to make it whole. Consciousness is a web to be woven of experience,
and experience is to be made as vast and as full as possible. It's to
be investigated and provoked and pulled into meaningful though constantly
shifting shape, and if that's a life's activity, it is all of a life's
activity, and that's what it is for Ray Johnson. He is quick and quixotic,
and he is generous with his time, but he's also impatient with the loss
of it. He has a self-appointed task to do, and he is always about it.
He doesn't like to think useless thoughts, and he shies away from being
involved in talk that's based on dull and uninteresting theories of
meaning. He explains himself only in the very same ways that he expresses
himself, and getting an interview from him means accepting potluck.
His present always contains fragments of his past, since parts of the
past and present seem to him constantly to refer to one another, but
it's useless to try to make him tell some ordinarily ordered narrative
of his past since he's always anyway trying to draw his experience into
the only kind of order that makes sense for him. His life is a constant
happening, and being involved with him means becoming involved with
his sense of the way it happens. When I told him that I wanted him to
give me the story of his life and work, he replied, "Do you really think
that I'm going to tell?" At another point he remarked that he hates
But it's not that
he's indifferent to history, it's rather that he has his own very particular
ideas about it.
Part of what's
presented here as an interview was not in fact an interview at all.
Ray invited me to go along with him on a "visit" (which is itself something
of one of his special art form) and the purpose of this visit was to
show a series of collages to Mrs. Jean Levy, the surviving widow of
the Surrealist art dealer, Julien Levy. Julien Levy had been one of
the dealers of the work of Joseph
Cornell, with whom Ray too had been friends and sometimes had gone
to see, and the catalog for the Sotheby's
sale of the Levy estate contained a reproduction of a minor collage
that Cornell had made around a book illustration of a print of a cave-man
in 1933. This collage had always been in Levy's private collection and
Ray had never seen it until the appearance of this Sotheby catalog in
1982, but when he did see it, he realized that he himself had used the
very same, and somewhat obscure, book illustration in a collage of 1955.
was enough to kick Ray off into "a new batch of cave-man
works", and Ray, at the time of this visit to Mrs. Levy, was also showing
a group of collages at the Gabrielle Bryers gallery in a group show
called "Homage to Joseph Cornell". Ray may also have had other reasons
for wanting to show a selection of his works to Mrs. Levy, but, if so,
he didn't explain them to me. Visits such as these are what Ray describes
as his favorite way of showing his work - "the classical, typical, Ray
Johnson cardboard-box viewing". He arrives with a series of his collages
packed into a cardboard box, and proceeds to set them up on whatever
surface is available: a chair, a sofa, a table-top, a stool. He has
whole lists of people to whom he wants to show particular selections
of his work for particular and personal reasons. In 1956, Ray wrote
a letter to the director of a Japanese magazine in which he explained:
"Most of my work is collage work which I call MOTICOS. I send out monthly
newsletters about the work that I am doing which takes the place of
formal exhibitions. The works cannot be exhibited in the usual way,
because they continually change, like the news in the paper or the images
on a movie screen". The era in which Ray was adamant about refusing
to show his work in galleries is now long past, but keeping his work
and its presentation fluid is still very much on his mind. As he explained
various details of his collages to Mrs. Levy, she at one point remarked,
"You should make a little tape to go along with these, so that when
people buy them and show them to their friends, they'll also get a little
bit of you and your marvellous humour". Ray's reply was, "Well, these
collages are really like playing cards, and everybody gets a different
selection; so everytime they're shown, they're reshuffled and become
a different story, a different tape. We've just been talking, for example,
about Cornell's brother, Robert, and the rabbits he drew, but the next
time these works are shuffled and shown, they'll bring up other people
and images and ideas. It's constantly and kaleidoscopically different."
all of the collages shown to Mrs. Levy to be connected to the theme
of Cornell's cave-man, but the range of imagery in these twenty or so
works was enormous. Ray associates images and ideas with considerable
freedom (even though one wouldn't quite want to call it "free association")
and cave-man figures in one collages became buddha figures in another.
Stalagtites turned into communicating vases that turned into pairs of
outlines of pregnant women, where a body associated with some personality
might bear the head of another personality in Ray's own version of "exquisite-corpsism".
Gargoyle figures were accompanied by "garboy" figures, one saw images
of the gargoyle's underwear, of Joseph Cornell's underwear, and of Clement
Greenberg's underwear, which was green. Another collage had passages
of red and green since Cornell was born on Christmas
that after doing a series called "everybody's underwear", he's now beginning
to do famous people's bath-tubs, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt
Hemingway, and Emily
Dickinson, among others, even though Whitman didn't have a bath-tub.
A daffodil sketched in Nyack at Joseph Cornell's grave turned in another
collage into a Venus Fly Trap, stalagmites turned into hair-combs, noses
turned into snakes, snakes turned into turtles, and Ray remarked that
snakes and turtles and swans and rabbits are constants in his work.
One collage contained the toe of a bloody sock in the midst of a Buddha
head with top-knot, actually the outline of the head of David Butterman,
the television personality, and Ray described this works as "a Buddha
head in the Greco-Christian Pop Art tradition". A collage with an image
of James Dean
and the word "cacophony" brought the information that Ray has also done
a series of works depicting people's "favorite words". There were also
a few portraits, of Ada Katz, Joseph Cornell, and David
Bourdon, and Ray remarked that his favorite portrait painter of
all is Giuseppe Archimboldo, the sixteenth century Italian painter whose
portraits dissolve his subjects' heads into arrangements of fruit and
vegetables and foliage. Ray Johnson's collages are likewise accretions,
and his subject matter is self-proliferating. What matters is the way
he works on it, drawing together constellations of images that are a
moment's definition of a possible theme.
The.rest of the
interview that follows was taped on two separate occasions once at a
milk-bar in Soho, and once at the Gabrielle Bryers' "Homage
to Joseph Cornell" exhibition. Most of my questions were directed
to the New York Correspondence School, and I was particularly interested
in finding out how Ray reacts to the recent spate of "mail art" that
seems to have found its inspiration in the New York Correspondence School,
but without really respecting the spirit that makes the School unique.
My own impression is that the homage that's generally given to Ray Johnson
as the "founder" of this "mail-art movement" has obscured a clearer
perception of the specific nature of the mailing activities in which
he himself has been involved. The motivations for his work with correspondence
don't, for example, seem to be in any way explicitely ideological, and
whatever sociological importance his work may have as a child of its
time and as an alternative to the commercial art world is something
to which he refers only very obliquely. He has no revolution to theorize
since he's constantly in the midst of the practice of one, and even
though he's an inveterate organizer of meetings and a prolific founder
of clubs meetings some of which have been entirely without a
program and to which people were simply invited to meet there's
nothing in any way clannish about his activity. The Brown Eyes Club
of the New York Correspondence School was organized to keep its members
from feeling slighted by their exclusion from the Blue Eyes Club, which
was once known to enroll Willem
de Kooning's dog. To me, Ray Johnson's Correspondence School seems
simply an attempt to establish as many significantly human relationships
with as many individual people as possible. All of the relationships
of which the School is made are personal relationships: relationships
with a tendency towards intimacy : relationships where true experiences
are truly shared and were what makes an experience true is its real
participation in a secret libidinal charge.
And the relationships
that the artist values so highly are something he attempts to pass on
to others. The classical exhortation in a Ray Johnson mailing is "please
send to ...". Person A will receive an
object or an image and be asked to pass it on person B, and the image
will probably be appropriate to these two different people in two entirely
different ways, or in terms of two entirely different chains of association.
It thus becomes a kind of totem that can connect them, and whatever
latent relationship may possibly exist between person A and person B
becomes a little less latent and a little more real.
It's a beginning
of an uncommon sense of community, and this sense of community grows
as persons A and B send something back through Ray to each other, or
through each other back to Ray. And then the game itself will
swell through Ray's addition of still other images and person C
and D and E...
of possible relationship will always be constantly shifting, but the
more they shift, the more the very fact of such possibilities will itself
grow solid. It's a game that's played with a good deal of levity and
wit, but it also has an air of deadly seriousness. This fluid web of
interrelationships can be felt as the very stuff of which psychic life
is made, and it hovers as though in a void. Ray is a kind of image of
the demiurge, always making something out of nothing, substance out
One of the things I've been wanting to ask you is how you feel about
all these new Schnabel kinds of people: that's not really an interview
Sure it is. And my only feeling is that Schnabel is on my list of people
to do a portrait of. I'd like to do a portrait drawing of him as a person.
But as a person he interests me more than in any other way. I don't
know if I've ever even seen a painting of his, and I wouldn't go out
of my way to see a painting of his. I was recently at the Whitney
Museum and must have laid my eyes on one, but anything I may have
seen didn't at all impress me as an art work, neither as an art work
in itself nor as an art work by a personality.
HM: I imagine
that goes not only for Schnabel, but for all the rest of these people
as well, the new Germans, the new Italians, the new "Fauves", the entirety
of "the international trans-avantgarde".
I never see them.
never see them and don't care to.
in driving into the city today, I was looking at all the graffiti, which
I find boring and depressing, and I thought of becoming a graffiti artist
myself. I thought of getting a white spray can, or a red spray can,
and spraying the word "shit" over it all, declaring the entire graffiti
phenomenon as "shit". I'd just add to the shit by calling it shit, and
I think that would be a beautiful thing to do. Everybody is supposed
to be free to be a graffiti artist, and so that would be my own sense
of how to use this freedom.
interesting that what you say about Schnabel is so close to something
you said to me once many years ago when I asked you how you felt about
It was the same answer, that you were interested in him vaguely as a
phenomenon but that the art didn't have any particular meaning for you.
you are talking about specific individuals and it's not as though I
were always unresponsive to art works. When I was recently up to the
there were any number of art works there that I found impressive
one of those old Giacometti women with the big club feet, a tiny and
strikingly eloquent Giacometti
which was a painted bronze only about one foot by one foot and I squatted
down to get a good look at it, the Francis Bacon sphinx, if you'd asked
me about Francis
Bacon, I'd have replied, "Oh, that beautiful sphinx". But I think
it's the sphinx that interests me more than the Francis Bacon painting
of the sphinx, because I recently saw a photograph of the sphinx seen
in profile, which was the first time I had ever seen it that way, it's
usually seen frontally and in profile it looks like some odd kind of
puppet shape. It's very deformed and people always photograph the sphinx
as they look at it frontally because one tries to see form rather than
unform like a portraiture concept of the nineteenth century,
of Grecian wholeness, which is one view point but the unform
is there as well.
a whole new generation of "mail artists" now, and they seem to think
of you as their spiritual father. I wonder if you really accept that
at this point, I'm just sick of hearing about it. An artist who specializes
in making postage stamps recently called me up, for example, and wanted
me to be in some show, and I said no; and he said would I do this or
would I do that, and I said no. And then he went on about how I was
this and that and I was the first and the father of mail
art or something, and how important mail art is, and I said "But
that's such a cliché. I'm sick of hearing that, it's just such
a cliché". And then I immediately sat down and sent him a cliché
collage. I have a dictionary where words in English are explained in
Yiddish and I looked up the word "cliché" and cut it out and
sent it to him. I took this put down of having told him that he was
talking in clichés and immediately made it into an art work,
and that's the very same thing that I'd be doing with the spraying of
the word "shit" onto somebody's graffiti. I'd be making it instantly
into some kind of work by Ray Johnson, something designed by Ray Johnson,
a Ray Johnson calligraphy.
think that all of these people just have different purposes than you
ever did with the New York Correspondence School?
no, it's just that...They obviously admire me, and they were obviously
influenced by me, and I see it in print or am verbally told that they
have a certain respect for me, and so I say "thank-you" for the compliment,
but I think it should get to the point where they go and do their own...
well, whatever they really have to get on with doing. I mean I got to
where I do what I do through my studio work, through being a practicing
artist. Art News published an article once in which Paul Gardner asked
people "what is your secret vice?" and my reply was that my secret vice
is "making collages by Joseph Cornell". I have a rubber stamp that says
"Collage by Joseph Cornell", and I use it with this same Yiddish dictionary
that I found in an old loft. I cut out blocks of information in Yiddish,
glue them down and then stamp them "Collage by Joseph Cornell", and
I either give them away or mail them off or sell them or do whatever
I do with them. One of them, for example, is the Tailor Bird, there's
this beatiful illustration of the Tailor Bird, which builds a kind of
nest that's oddly cup-shaped, and they nest in this thing, two little
birds are looking out, and then I found the Mastodon illustration, captioned
in Yiddish, so I'm cutting these things out block by block and doing
Yiddish dictionary information the way I did the American dictionary,
which was long before Kosuth,
I methodically went from A to Z and simply cut out these blocks of information
and endlessly glued them down or attached them with scotch tape and
the people who have them now remark that they're all falling apart,
but that's in the nature of scotch tape.
me how you got into correspondence in the first place. You said that
it was a kind of extension of your studio work.
no, that's not really how it was at all. The
North Carolina catalog in 1976 I had a show of correspondence
at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh well, that catalog
reproduced letters from 1943 that were submitted by Arthur
Secunda, who's someone I went to high school with. I have to give
my thanks to Richard C. for that since he's the person who did that
catalog and who published and exhibited all of these early and embarassing
letters from my high school days what dance I was going to, and
what cheerleaders I was running around with, all of that embarassing
drivel - but I can see its interest or its value because... well, the
drawing I just made for John, for your baby son John when he was at
the door, I made a drawing for him and said, "Here, this is for you",
and that was a 1943 drawing, it was only two eyes and a nose and a mouth,
but it was just a 1943, "here's a drawing" kind of thing. There was
that clipping that someone recently sent me from l'Espresso magazine
where they talk about the beginnings of my mail art in the 1970s, and
Ed Plunkett is on record as saying that it started in the 1960s, but,
for myself, I think 1 should declare that it actually began in 1943,
which is the actual date on those very first letters with drawings and
all the other sort of things that I'm still doing today. That was really
the infancy of the activity. And I myself, in fact, never called it
a "school" or talked about "mail art", I mean I never used those terms
did they come from?
from other people. They've talked about "correspondence art", "mail
art", and I've just seen an announcement for a show of "fe-mail art",
and there's "post-tale art" and of course the New York Correspondence
School, which, as Ed Plunkett said in his
article in the College Art Journal, is a term that originated with
him. He was the one who gave that name to the things that I was doing,
and I accepted it and adopted it since I thought that using that title
would be an amusing vehicle or a joke, and it was, in fact, a convenient
way of describing this activity that I was involved with. And then,
when the school began to die it has died so many times and then
been reborn from its death I decided to give up on calling it
the New York Correspondence School. I was angry with FILE Magazine,
so I thought I would call it "Buddha
University". They were being the New
York Corresponge Dance School of Vancouver, they were being copy-cats,
so I thought, "Well let them copy Buddha University". And now it's many
years later, but just about a month and a half ago I began to get postcards
from an archive information center in Budapest
Hungary, and they've transformed "Buddha University" into "Buddha Pest".
I've traced that back to the CDO group in Parma, Italy. They thought
that was very cute, and they went to all the trouble of organizing this
thing in Budapest. There was another time too when the CDO group in
Parma came up with an idea for a manifesto that they were going to drop
on something like the Venice Biennale.
But they had a
very strange idea since they sent me all this stuff about the importance
of mail art and said that they were doing this manifesto in my honor,
and then they asked me to sign the manifesto, and I thought one doesn't
really sign a manifesto honoring oneself. And especially since this
was the second time that they wanted to honor me, because the first
time was when they asked me for something for an
exhibiton in my honor and I wrote back "nothing"
on a blank page, and this was what I had to contribute, the word "nothing"
on a blank page. But they seemed to like that and to think that it was
probably amusing or interesting even though what I gave them was no
statement, no image, no nothing.
we started taping, you said that there was a kind of anger in your reaction
to that little note that Francesco Vincitorio published in l'Espresso.
You were angry about the way he talked about your founding a "mail
art movement" that he then lumped together into a whole list of
"movements" like conceptual
art, body art, performance
art, and so forth.
I was angry, and I still am angry, and I think that anger is a justifiable
emotion for me, an emotion that helps me to do my work. I got up this
morning at six o'clock because of something that made me angry and I
started to work on three new drawings. But that's a little different.
And it's not quite the way you put it, what I was angry about is....
Well, I have two sources of anger, now, and one of them is the Mike
Crane "A Brief History of Correspondence Art" book. It was advertised
to appear in the spring of 1981, and it still hasn't been seen, and
I just wrote a letter the other day saying "where where where is this
book?" I keep on writing them letters all the time saying "where is
this book?" because I want to see it. At the very beginning, when Mike
Crane sent me his letters they were form letters requesting
information about my mail art activity, my immediate response was not
to respond at all. From the way the questions were being asked, I just
thought, "Oh, I have nothing to say". And then he sent me a copy of
something of mine that he'd found and wanted to use in his book, I don't
remember exactly what happened, but he sent me a copy of a letter that
I had once sent to David Bourdon
and I remark in that letter that the New York Correspondence School
has no history, only a present, which was a pun, of course, on present
as now, and present as a gift, a pun on my way of giving information
and objects or whatever in letterform. So he sent that thing to me,
and I immediately said, "Well, I'm consulting my lawyer, and all of
my work is copyrighted" and I gave him a very rough time. I was suddenly
very huffy and rude, and rushing to my lawyer about copyright problems,
and I don't remember exactly what I said or did, but it was a genuine
gut response to every-thing and so I was uncooperative, deliberately
uncooperative, I didn't like the way he was doing his investigations,
I didn't like his way of conceiving of this book, he was sending out
questionnaires asking, like, "how many letters do you get a week?" things
like some Kinsey report or some survey for Playboy magazine, and also
I had never met this person.
And anyway I'd
like to do my own book.
I'd like to do
my own history as to what I think happened. Every time I get any publicity
or press everybody has a different version as to when anything happened
or as to what anything was and I myself don't even know when anything
happened, or what happened, or I don't even know what year I did anything
in except that I now keep insisting that 1943 was wery important because
I found a document in my mother's scrap book from 1943 and decided that
the things I'd been doing then ought to be cataloged.
you saying then that your work as an artist who makes paintings and
as an artist who makes letters all began at one and the same time?
just saying that history is a very loose subject in which anybody can
declare that anything happened at any time at all; and maybe that will
be accurate information and maybe it won't be, and maybe that won't
make a difference. I'm saying that history can be written in a very
slanted fashion, and that one can emphasize anything one wants to in
history, which was my own experience when I did an exhibit called "Ray
Johnson's History of the Betty Parsons Gallery". That was my own kind
of attempt to deal with Betty's history as an art dealer, and what I
did was very different from the kind of history that Lawrence Alloway
is now writing of the Betty Parsons Gallery.
My whole concept
of a history was to take one catalog that listed all the artists she
had shown, and I did homage works about them and made bunny lists
lists of their names where every name is under one of my little drawings
of a rabbit. And Betty never asked me to do her history, and what I
did was never officially perceived in any fashion whatsoever. I just
simply had the idea that I wanted to do a work, an exhibit, that had
the word "history" in it. Like with Gertrude Stein. There's a title
Stein uses somewhere, something she calls a history of something.
The Making of Americans she said that she wanted to make a history of
and my portrait work is subtitled "The Snaking of Americans", which
is a very oblique S & M reference, Sade in Japan, Made in Japan,
Making and Snaking, S & M and M& S.
just not interested in anybody else's history of the New York Correspondence
RJ: I have
simply had to accept the fact that out of a life necessity I have written
a lot of letters, and given away a lot of material and information,
and it has been a compulsion. And as I've done this, it has become historical.
It's my resumé, it's my biography, it's my history, it's my life.
And now, people always come up and say, "oh, you're the father, you're
the father of mail art, and everybody got the idea of it from you, or
was influenced by you" and so I keep on thinking that if I just had
the time or the interest I could... Like one of the first mail art shows
was in Sacramento when I went out there to lecture and did a "Raffaele"
of a live duck, of a duck named Andy, which was a raffle, and they organized
an exhibit and I went out there and lectured, I specified that I had
to be under a pink light and I had a text that I wrote, and this was
one of the beginnings of all these performances and lectures and exhibits,
and then I say to my friend Toby Spiselman, "like, what year was that?"
It's as though people imagine that the importance of that is because
it was done in that particular year since it was a year or so later
that people everywhere in Universities and Colleges began getting this
idea that you simply write out a lot of letters to people and you get
all this stuff and you exhibit it in a gallery, which is what I did
at the Whitney
Museum, which was in 1970, which I think it was in 1970. And now
I'm wondering if I've answered your question or if there's something
that's still not clear.
you tell me how the various past activities of the Correspondence School
have related to your collages?
I don't really see that "collage" is very exact as a capsule classification
of what I do. My collages also have painted areas that's quite
clear, for example in these "Homage to Joseph Cornell" works, which
are on masonite and painted elements have always been in the
work, painting and washing and water colors and acrylics or whatever.
When I was cutting things up into strips and gluing them down right
next to one another I'd go over the surfaces with a brush, with washes
of ink or color or paint, and then in subsequent years I went into sand-papering
them, or crayoning them, or covering them again in some way. They build
up into layers of multiple coverings, and technically they're collages
since they're glued surfaces, but they're also assemblage and they're
sculptural too, in the sense that they're bas-reliefs that have subtle
cast shadows, like Ben
Nicholson's reliefs. That's something that very few people have
ever appreciated, very few people have ever understood that my works
are in the tradition of Ben Nicholson, believe it or not. I have build-ups,
and intricate layerings, and little pyramids in my work, and these are
all raised surfaces that create shallow sculptural shadows, and so the
works are dimensional. Or they can be dimensional, or are often dimensional
since some of my works are in fact just flat glued things, just glue-downs
or slap-downs, but it's only really because of the necessity for classifications
that we have this idea of "Ray Johnson collages". My collages are also
very painterly, and drawings is probably an even more important aspect
of my work.
drawing with pen and ink and nibs. All the surfaces are intricately
drawn, either in india ink or washes or colored inks, and there's always
a variety of techniques in each specific work. And I can say this is
how this part was done, and this is how that part was done because they're
apt to be from different years. One piece will be from one year's work
and another from another year's work since my works get made and then
chopped up, and then reglued and remade, and then chopped up again,
the whole thing is really endless.
I talk to.people about your work, I always find it difficult to deal
sufficiently with the complexity of it. I'm very aware of your procedures,
of your printing, of your calligraphy, of the way you cut things up
and glue them down, and then take them off, and sandpaper, and draw,
of all the ways you make your collages and then interfere with them,
and keep on changing them. But after I try to explain that sort of thing,
I always feel that people also want to hear something about the images
They want to define
the importance of the images, to define their importance in terms of
their sources; and there are so many sources. There's a pop
art area of popular imagery, a Dada
area of imagery, a cartoon area of imagery, an art world area of references,
a fetish area of references, an obsession with numbers, a level of pure
cryptic shapes, and all sorts of other things as well. It's hard to
make it clear that the density of the whole system of references is
itself more than the various specific things referred to, and that individual
references can lie at any number of different levels of importance.
You might find a help in what I call my major work of the last seven
years, which is a project for a series of potraits. I'm dealing with
an emphatic, specific, portraiture idea of the human head, and that's
an extension of the basic "moticos" idea. The moticos
were the little black silhouettes I did, and they were a miniature cataloging
of actual free-form collage fragments. I'd take a box of fragments,
which were all different shapes, and then I would draw each thing in
India ink. Each fragment was about ten inches high, and the drawing
would reduce it to about one inch high, and I'd cover whole pages with
them. They're also on the faces of the Elvis Presleys and all the other
people in those early movie star collages.
The photos of
the movie stars would be partly covered by these moticos listings and
catalogings of collage shapes. So figures that might look, say, like
the outline of a bust of Mozart could appear in some of these early
works, Mozart or horses or cows or animal or squares or 'T's or houses
in flattened silhouettes or cookie shapes. And now I've perfected this
into the art of silhouette portraiture. In 1978 and 1979, I was doing
life-sized heads, but since then I've reduced them to about four and
a half inches high, I do that photographically and just do zap zap zap
on a copy machine that reduces my original drawings, which are drawings
that I make from life if the people themselves are alive and from photos
or previous silhouettes if they're not. And I deal with people's heads
not just as black shapes on white, but rather in terms of Archimboldian
encrustations of fragments of collage that I apply to the surfaces of
their silhouettes. It's exactly the same thing as Elvis with the moticos,
I'm now just taking the collage fragment itself and sticking it on.
I can take anything that I do and just stick it onto the side of a person's
head. I've even done some where I've blown them up, so you have them
fluctuating. The head becomes merely a vehicle for me, or an excuse
for me to put a Ray Johnson onto a head. And my concept of portraiture
is to do thirty to forty variations on each person's head, so I do a
whole exhibit of each person. And now I've done about 300 people, so
I have forty John Russells, forty Arakawas, forty Peter Beards, forty
Closes, which is the way I try to do a complete portrait. But that
got completely out of hand because I simply couldn't deal with so many
different works, and that's why I began to do the heads smaller and
with several heads on a page. So now, if I'm lucky, I get off with doing
only fifteen to twenty works for each person, like this summer I did
maybe fifteen or twenty Dore
Ashtons and fifteen or twenty Xavier Fourcades.
do you choose the people that you want to portraiture?
it's like letter writing. Who do I decide to write a letter to? I showed
you a book that just arrived, for example, it's from a man in Switzerland
who saw my Naples exhibition and decided to send me his poems, and now
I'll write to him. I'll ping-pong back to him and do a whole Belt Club
about him, because of his name, which is Beltrametti
he'll be the Spam Beltrametti Club, just like Cavellini
got into some of my cave man collages because the first four letters
of his name are CAVE. There's a reason to write to him, to thank him
for his book, but he also gets involved in other things because of some
combination of alphabetical letters and names. If Mr. Beltrametti name
had been Jones, my reaction would have been different and he wouldn't
have gotten connected to the Spam Belt Club or the Spam Radio Club,
which dates back to when Mike Belt was given to the Correspondence School.
He was honored with the rubber stamps of the Spam Belt Club and the
Spam Radio Club, and that was one of the objects of the New York Correspondence
School. That's still another thing about the Correspondence School,
it's not just the letters, the postcards, the drawings, the poems, it's
also the New York Correspondence School objects. The Spam radio, for
example, was a radio in the shape of a Spam can,. which had a little
handle on it, it was a thing the Spam Corporation made one year as an
advertising gimmick. It was something they gave to people, and you could
go to the beach with your Spam radio, and play your radio on the beach,
it was a little radio inside of a Spam can, and I didn't really treasure
it very much so I gave it to Jim Bohn.
did you turn it into a fan club?
But it wasn't a fan club; it was a belt and radio club. There was the
Picasso Fan Club, a little while later, and also the Claude
Picasso Fan Club; his sister was being honored and so he had to
be honored too, especially since they both got the inheritance. But
to get back to that radio, I gave it to Jim Bohn which is BOHN
and not BONE and the following week he was in Soho walking around
with his wife and carrying the Spam radio as a kind of prize trophy.
He was taking it out for a walk, and the minute I saw him with it I
realized that he had given it some kind of notoriety and importance,
and I was intensely jealous that he was walking around with the Spam
radio and that I hadn't thought of walking around with a Spam radio,
like the time I had once walked around with the head of Candy
Darling in a plastic bag. So still another week later, I was in
Soho again and went to the supermarket and bought a real can of Spam
and put a little handle on it, and then I was walking around with that.
And then came the day when I had to go and do my lecture in Baltimore,
and I'd decided that whatever arrived in the mail that morning would
be the subject of the lecture, and one of the things that came was the
Arturo Schwarz "exquisite corpse" catalog,
so I took the fake Spam radio, which was really a real can of Spam,
along with me, and what I did when I got there was a chance radio event.
I'd driven all the way from here to Baltimore and I'd been listening
to the car radio, so I was doing these John
Cage kinds of radio pieces where I'd turn on a radio and get a snatch
of music or a snatch of words and then I'd turn the radio off and relate
what I'd heard to my text. It was like instant Jean
sort of text were you reading?
was all assorted papers of the New York Correspondence School. I always
have these bundles of papers that I either throw up in the air and let
them scatter as I did in Minneapolis when I did my "throw-away gesture"
lecture, or otherwise I just have them on hand to read. I generally
just read one sentence and then go on to the next sheet of paper and
read two sentences, and after reading from each sheet of paper I tear
it in half.
or persistently pursue no logical thread or idea, I just simply throw
this stuff out and let it fall where it may. So this fake Spam radio
was on my lectern and I had a heckler and a streaker, which was before
I did my own streak at the Walker
streaked at the Walker Art Center?
yes. When I showed at the Walker Art Center I also went out there to
do my "throw-away- gesture" lecture, and in the course of that I streaked.
just ran naked through the gallery?
I took off all my clothes and I streaked, just did an old-fashioned
streak, which was sort of amusing since it was years after anybody had
been streaking. There was a very nice English curator there and he was
to give me an introduction, so I asked him to introduce me as "Ray Johnson,
the master of the throw-away gesture". That was straight out of Art
in America magazine since this critic there said that I was the "master
of the throw-away gesture" so I really picked up on that and began doing
throw-away gestures all over the place. I did a whole one hour presentation
of throw-away gestures, including my throwing away my clothes, and then
I came back dressed. But the person who streaked at my Baltimore lecture
is what I was talking about, and he was a very strange young man. As
he was streaking, in fact, he came up and grabbed the Spam radio and
abducted it. He just grabbed it and ran, stole it right off the stage,
right from in front of me, and that became immediately "The Abduction
of the Spam Radio Baby".
The Spam can I
was carrying was a little smaller than the original Spam radio, so it
became a baby and I did a printed page about how Jim Bohn and I had
had a baby Spam. His wife was very puzzled as to how these two men could
have had a baby, a baby Spam can, and I never bothered to explain, I
just recorded the fact that Jim Bohn and I had given birth to this baby
Spam can which was abducted in Baltimore. And after the abduction, I
simply continued the lecture by being very upset and starting to say
things like, "Where is my baby Spam?... They've stolen my baby Spam...
I want my baby Spam back". So then the other night, I showed Jean Levy
a collage with two women figures in it, these women figures that look
pregnant, and one of them was full of garden rakes. And Jean Levy remarked,
"Oh, she's going to give birth to a rake". Well, I wrote that down on
my table, yesterday. "The birth of a rake". I even wondered why I was
writing it down. I thought of The Rake's Progress, but I also thought
of Veronica Rake, because Jean Levy also asked me if they liked Sade
in Japan, which requires explanation since it gets involved as well
with a work by Frederick Kiesler, called "The Birth of a Lake" which
is a kind of splotchy bronze sculpture that depicts a waterfall. It's
up at the Knox-Albright
Museum and I'd made a note of that too, a note for future work and
future reference, I have all sorts of ideas and bits of information
either on pieces of paper or on file cards or in envelopes, but also
in my head and in my dream world.
So that remark
about the birth of a rake got involved with Japanese 'R's and 'L's
like the Blue Eyes Club of the New York
Correspondence School also has a Japanese division called the Brue Eyes
Crub, and those are two specific rubber stamps and so now I'll
do a whole slew of these women with rakes giving birth to lakes, and
Veronica Rake's Mother's Potato Masher will be depicted, and so you
can see how the subject matter is just endless. It goes from nuance
to nuance and from object to image, I started out talking about the
Spam radio and so many New York Correspondence School objects have been
like that, the watermelons, the objects found in the streets, the Norman
Solomon hunks of lead, the Lucille Valenti shoe, all these fetish objects
from people's lives. When John
Dowd moved to California he came to my house with nine cardboard
boxes full of all his letters end papers back to his high school days.
He just dumped them on me and I was stuck with his whole life: all his
personal affairs, the love letters and photographs, and greeting cards
and Christmas cards, the baby pictures and everything else like that.
And then I myself recycle it all. There were certain years when Alison
Knowles and Dick
Higgins got box after box of this stuff from me, I'd haul it across
town to their loft and say, "Here's another box". They got a whole stockpile.
There was the listing of the neckties, the Kline's dollar neckties,
I used to have these necktie clubs and now all of these neckties go
to Julius Vitali out in Sea Cliff, he gets whole boxes of them. And
on Valentine's day a couple of years ago, I went to see Coco
Gordon, who's a friend and a poet and a paper-maker, and she got
five really big boxes with an absolutely incredible amount of Correspondence
School documents. I'd done a real house-cleaning and put all this stuff
in boxes and drove over to her house and said "Here, this is for you".
I was lucky she didn't have a nervous breakdown. It took her months
though to open them and she was beautiful about it. She investigated
each box, very slowly and very methodically, and she distributed all
these things I'd given her into little islands that were scattered around
her house. She classified them and made little charts as to what these
things were, she made her own arrangement out of this archive of mine.
At one point I thought it was simply too much for her and told her to
go and just throw it all out into the water, she lives in a house out
by the water, I just told her to throw it all away and get rid of it.
that's something that you would never do, just throw it all away?
I've done things like that for May
Wilson, and documented it.
One New Year's
Eve, when all the horns were honking, I did a water disposal event in
honor. These were all wooden and metal objects that I inventoried and
listed and then threw off into the water at midnight.
It was a cerimony.
And I went back a week later and some of them had beached, so I scooped
those up again. There was also the time I came into the city with a
dead raccoon. I sat in the street for two hours with this dead raccoon,
right across the street from the Spring Street Bar, and people would
come by and say "What is it?" and "Is it asleep?" and I called up Toby
Spiselman and told her to come right down with her camera. And maybe
it would be an interesting thing to use Toby's photos of the dead raccoon
to illustrate this interview because the whole point was 'What do you
do with a dead raccoon after the art event?' And the answer is that
we put it in a cardboard box and I said it was either dropping it into
the harbor or taking it up to May
Wilson, and we did in fact take it up to May Wilson, which was because
of the béche de mer days when I once had dinner with Arman
and he ordered béche de mer which is a kind of seafood delicacy
that wobbles like jello, and people only ate a little bit of it and
they were going to throw it out, and I said, "Oh, no. I'll take that
to May Wilson". So we went to May Wilson's and I said, "there, this
is for you, May", and she said, "Ooh, what's that?" and I said, "old
béche de mer ", and she said, "Ooh, it looks like shit" and then
she put it in her blender and it turned into a kind of brown liquid
and I explained to her what it was. So then we took her the dead raccoon,
and I said, "Here, this is for you, May" and she looked at it and said,
" Ugh, it smells just awful" and I said "Put it in your blender", and
she said, "Get that thing out of here", so then we took it down to the
harbor and dropped it in the water. There were also the Dorothy Podber
dead pig head days, or the dead kinkaju in my refrigerator, when I was
living on Dover Street.
So there's a whole
history, then, of objects that have been actually mailed or presented
or delivered, I left one of those pig's heads on somebody's door-step,
and all of this is a part of what I call the Correspondence School because
these objects are things that are exchanged for some reason, just as
before when Berty found a thing in the street and I found a thing in
the street, and there was a kind of communication between these objects,
a kind of communication of objects trouvés .
thing you said before we turned on the tape recorder is that so much
of this most recent generation of mail art has simply become an art
of communication that doesn't do any communicating. And what seems to
me to be missing in it is precisely this sense of things that you've
just been talking about this sense of a kind of objective exchange
through objects, this sense of things that are given, somehow or another,
because they've somehow or another been asked for.
in the past, I think the New York Correspondence School was an art of
communication that was truly communicative simply because I was able
to wheel the ping-pong paddle and to keep the ball on the move. A few
days ago, I had a phone conversation with Brian O'Doherty and he was
impressed with the North Carolina catalog, as a lot of people were,
simple because of the volume of the information that was dished out
through the Correspondence School. It was a full, daily, weekly, monthly
activity, year in and year out. I think it's Ellen Johnson, in one of
her books, who says something like, "Oh, Ray Johnson works eight to
twelve hours a day doing this correspondence of his", and there was
a time when that was true, and that's the kind of daily time it took
to keep it all in order, to keep it all functioning. And the whole thing
assumed global proportions and I found myself running a kind of international
organization but with no funding whatsoever. As a one person organization,
it was just impossible for me to keep up with it. There were times when
I felt that I had to kill it before it killed me, and there were times,
any number of times, when I've just broken down from the sheer complexity
of the activity.
we were visiting with Jean Levy, you told her how you had once written
a letter to the obituary department of the New York Times to announce
that the Correspondence School had died on a beach along with a large
that was the first really big death of the New York Correspondence School.
It was at one of those points where one gets to experience some of the
pleasures of death and collapse, and all sorts of things that go with
that. It was a kind of metamorphose sort of a tremor of energy, like
something I was talking about not too long ago with a woman artist who's
a friend of mine.
We were at a health
club, at noon, getting something to eat, and I told her about the experience
I had in Chicago when I was there for the opening of a show at the Feigen
Gallery. I'd had so much champagne and lobster newburgh for lunch
that day that I had to go back to my hotel to go to bed and and I somehow
got my foot stuck in the blankets in a way that gave me a cramp. I suddenly
woke up, and a muscle bulged way out of my leg, and it was extremely
painful. I didn't at all know what to do, but what I did, in any case,
was to try to push the muscle back into place, which was even more painful,
so painful that I fainted from it and fell out of bed and I lay on the
floor unconscious. There had been all that champagne, lots of rich food,
and too much exhaustion and excitement. And as I was lying on the floor,
I became aware of something that was going off from my chest and out
into vast amounts of space. Something like a thread or a light, or something
that was extending off, like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or like
some spirit that leaves the body at night. There were also green and
purple and bluish kinds of little sparks that were slowly spiralling
around this thread and going off into space along with it, and all of
this just took forever. I was just lying there and it was as though
my spirit were leaving my body. It was like some sort of calm death
experience, and if I had died right there, that would have been logical.
That's the way it would have been. But it just went on and on and on
for something like an hour and a half, and then I came out of it and
stumbled into the bathroom to get a glass of water and then fell down
again and banged my ear and head and was all bruised and black and blue,
and then I crawled back into bed and at four or five o'clock I decided
to get up and go on to the next party, on to the next event, on to the
So that was more
bizarre than this death of the New York Correspondence School, and what
I felt on the beach that day was just a great sadness. I was alone on
the beach and it was close to sunset and everything seemed sad and desolate
and I encountered this bird, a sea bird, that was obviously about to
die. It was an old bird and it was dying and so I spoke to it and left
it there and come home and sat down at the typewriter and decided to
write an official letter to "Dear Deaths" at the New York Times. And
I signed it "Buddha University" which was like suddenly... well, it
was just all there. And of course they never published it. So, none
of the other deaths of the Correspondence School have ever again been
quite that dramatic, but I've often come to a point of extreme exhaustion
or tiredness or inability to run an international organization. And
now I get these endless things about still another "mail art" show,
and I don't even answer them. Or if I do, it's only the slightest gesture,
like one little bunny head on a thirty cent airmail letter. It's not
at all a cliché when I say that I have a kind of natural generosity
and that this was the real basis of the New York Correspondence School,
and this natural generosity of image and idea and information is something
that I can only extend so far. I don't have the time any more. And the
information by itself would just keep on accelerating, it just keeps
on accelerating and expanding. The Correspondence School was a question
of always typing away at more and more of those letters, mailing out
more and more of that information, xeroxing up all of that stuff, doing
meetings and communications and all the rest of it, there was all of
this stuff that way always going on. And in a way it still goes on,
and still, in a way, in the very same way, but more subliminally. Things
now go into cardboard boxes more than they do into actual distribution,
endless cardboard boxes that just pile up in my house.
that what you were always doing with the collages, in any case? I've
always had the feeling that they were a kind of final resting place
for all the information that you had flowing into and out of the mails
- that their function, almost, was to be a place in which all this information
technically, yes, with the strips and the layerings and the whole archeology
theme that's a part of them, and there's always the idea of recycling
them. I'm working still today on those 1958 works, I still chop them
up and add to them and now I'm doing these composition which have various
dates in them: this segment here is 1958, this is the 1960s, this is
the 70s this is the 80s so any one picture plane has the possibility
of various years of layerings and archeologies and things added to it
or things that get built up. I can take anything at all that I've done
in the past, and it can be signed and dated and framed or under acetate
or whatever, and I decide to just chop it in half. That's my procedure.
Chop it in half and sign it 1982 to depict the act of the decapitation
of the work, to depict whatever reason there may be for the decapitation
of the work. And there's always the sand papering, which I'm doing to
all of my 1978 portraits, because I've found a new sandpaper that really
lets me dig into the paint and really grind it all off. So 1982 will
document areas of removal of debris from things that were, conceptually,
already pictures. These things were painted and have texture, surface,
imagery, patina, you know, whatever it is that went into them to make
them completed pictures. But then, in the blank spaces, I simply grind
away back to the basis brown masonite and stick a 1982 onto a 1978.
Not too long ago, I showed some things to some people who are doing
a book on international collage for Thames
and Hudson; they're Joan and John Digby, he's an English artist
and she's poet, and so I showed them things and they interviewed me,
and they were particularly concerned about technique, and preservation,
and like why do I use such cheap materials, and why don't I use good
papers, and all of that sort of thing, all of which I answered by saying
that I'm simply not concerned with things like that.
They also wanted
a statement from me about art, and the man made a hand gesture that
made me think he saw a statement as maybe four or five paragraphs on
a page in a book, but the statement I came up with was "should an eyelash
last forever?" I do these Korean eyelash collages with these woman shapes
that you've seen and that are standing in silhouette for a kind of anatomy
study where you look through into the interior of the body, and then
I put eyelashes here and eyelashes there, which is sort of like pubic
hair. These are works that are very anatomically and sexually referential.
So when these people were leaving, and they were like so terribly serious,
sitting there writing down their notes, asking their questions, and
they were like writing this book. So as they were leaving I said, "By
the way, here's one of these little women that I do". And this woman,
Joan Digby, just broke up. It just hit her right in the gut and she
said, "Because they're eyelashes!" You know, I'd been trying to tell
them about Schwitters
and Dada and
but mainly, I was talking about Arp because they had brought up Schwitters,
and she had a true dada experience with these eyelashes. So I thought,
well there's my statement, "Should an eyelash last forever?" And then
I thought of the possibility of asking the question "Should half an
eyelash last forever?" The eyelash could be cut in half because these
eyelashes are composed of individual hairs, maybe even as many as a
hundred of them, that somebody in Korea glued down to a strip of adhesive,
so should the whole thing collectively last forever, or for one month,
or should have of it last for that period of time, or one eyelash hair,
should one eyelash hair last forever? Which then gets down to the point
of no eyelash and "Should nothing last forever?" Which is pure Taoism,
pure Zen when you
get down to that, which is a point that I often get to in my work. I
used to do events called "nothings"
and I'm involved with just absolute space, with no art, no eyelashes,
no statement, no nothing.
are involved in a idea of Zen nothingness and yet your life is a kind
of constant happening.
yes. And I also continue to ponder that idea I have for graffiti,
and spray cans, for using a white spray can to write the world "shit"
on the graffiti. And I don't quite know how I would do this. But perhaps
I would do it and then document it, in a photo or a series of photos
in which I'd be seen as I walk up to a choice piece of graffiti, and
then it would all be in the way I'd make that 'S' with my spray can,
and then I'd write the word "shit" and cross the 'T' and dot the I,
and this calligraphy would relate to the graffiti calligraphy. I've
thought already about any number of possibilities and I wouldn't, for
example, put white on white graffiti, but I'd put white on colored graffiti,
there'd have to be various planes involved, and then I was wondering
what I'd do with my friend Richard Hambleton who does these life-sized
black figures that he puts on the sides of buildings. I thought for
example that it might be interesting to write "shit" like running up
and down instead of horizontally, like down the figure and across the
torso. You'll remember that I showed you one of his things the other
night when we were on our way to Jean Levy's.
something else I've been wanting to ask you about, Ray. That visit to
see Jean Levy was all about Cornell and now you're in this show that's
a homage to Cornell, and I've been wondering why he's so important for
to answer your question, he's not all that important for me.
there any artists who are really important for you?
what you mean by important?
say, whom you particularly respect, or whom you feel to have a particular
relationship to your work, or who are involved in the same kind of total
activity that you're involved in.
Yes. All the graffiti artists.
* This interview
results from conversations that were taped in New York City at the end
of November and beginning of December, 1982. <>