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Robert Pincus-Witten about Ray Johnson

(Art Journal, Spring 1977)

Ray Johnson asked me this November whether he might draw my silhouette for Silhouette University. Since Ray and I have been in touch - though hardly in close communication - for about a quarter of a century, I was happy to answer affirmatively to his request, knowing all the while that my silhouette, were ever limned, would look like that evolution from duck to bunny to pussy cat to guppy-like creature, all bearing the somewhat nervous speedball penpoint delineation of Ernie Bushmiller's characters - Nancy, Sluggo, and Fritzi Ritz. So, turning to my pile of deeply important postcards, I found a fellow with a small Edwardian moustache, and broken boater-brim - a "real" silhouette of the estival kind that were made in boardwalk stalls or in European spas at the turn-of-the-century - and noted how happy I would be were he to do my silhouette, even though I knew...Then a return phone call (alto woodwind voice) saying how appreciative he was of my deeply important postcard and how since he knew me so long, even though we see each other so rarely, how paternal he felt toward me. I stiffened slightly since I have never thought of Ray Johnson in a paternal light but rather, if anything, as an older step-brother with whom one has a relationship, neither close, nor formal, but, then again, not totally devoid of elements of concerned familiarity. We remain to one another the people we were when we first met - give or take some wrinkles, some hair, some avoir dupois.

All this, of course, put me into a retrospective frame of mind and I pondered how and when it was that I came to know Ray Johnson. He said, please Robert don't remember how he and Lippold, Johns, Rauschenberg, Cunningham and Twombly used to drive around the city in an old black hearse- so I won't since I already have in an old review. I remember being in high school and hanging out with dancers,and across one or then, Scipio Africanus Wallen, I must have been introduced to Ray. There was something about a girl, she had black hair and her name was Isabelle , she danced and she knew Scipio and she knew Ray. There is more about a New York adolescent winter and the Village and Washington Square and bare November trees of the very early 1950s, and Ray is somehow in that very sooty memory.

Some of this has got to be right because I look at the earliest envelopes and letters that Ray sent me concerning the New York Correspondence School (the leaflets and announcements I've saved over the years go back to 1965 when the envelopes were stuffed with collage detritus and expressionist punning, Merzbilder materiel, as it were, come loose from its background) are all addressed to me in my boyhood nickname, a form of address that only someone who knew me then would naturally use.

The letters and announcements, the xerox sheets, the clipped newspaper and magazine illustrations, the recycled envelopes themselves, the sheer fallout of white collar pilferage, the occasional squib, all this is multipliable by the numerous correspondents with whom Ray has entered into communication-the sheets and pieces of ephemera must amount to the hundreds of thousands.

All of this, when laid out, unexpectedly, is liable to a formalist description. The earliest letters are the most expressionistically handled, with the greatest amount of cropped and cut and eccentrically shaped clippings. By the 1970s, a much greater reliance on the xerox machine, on neat folding and stuffing, of bunny faces or Cheshire grins in minimal grid sequence as it were, each identified with those bizarre aristas that make reading names such fun, especially were one to find one's own name as caption to the animal mask. These rosters were (and remain to the present) of a certain mannerist profile, while birth and rank are surely lettres de patentes, Johnson's sense of loyalty and royalty will often lead to his own suites of underground and above-board mix. There is a smudging, inescapably self-serving tone of funny snobbishness.

Since it was not deep friendship, our acquaintance was able to survive strains of disloyalty. I find letters from the beginning of the decade inquiring after possibilities of bunny lists; I know that I did make up one such list but can well see that perhaps the Who's Who of Rosicrucian art of the 1890s was, even for Johnson, a smidge too esoteric and beyond the pale of bunny delineation, the heavy symbolist evocation in his work notwithstanding - Johnson's work often invokes a cult for les maudits, notably the boy Rimbaud.

Often enough Ray's resilience transformed adversity into triumph-though for Ray there is no real adversity, except perhaps that of aging. In a more pedagogic mood I rendered account of the comparative ranks of the great figures who emerged from the déconfiture of Pop sensibility, noting in terse phrases the positionings of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, and Jim Dine. Offhandedly I dispatched Wesselmann, Indiana, Marisol, and Johnson to the status of evaporations. That assessment appeared in May of 1970 and by the very end of that month, Johnson had already had a rubber stamp made up which read "evaporations by Ray Johnson" with which he franked all of the letters of the New York Correspondence School as well as a whole set of pictorial referents using that term.

The send-up is hard. In a funny way Dada postcards saying "I love Ray" or some clever quips for which I have little gift, avoid the problem of coming to terms with his work in an historical or critical way. By contrast to the monolithic masters of the'60s and'70s who have no truck with the seemingly trivial, Johnson's career has made a fetish of the trivial and the transitory, leading to an important misapprehension - that his work is somehow tainted, is trivial. Quite the opposite. There is a strong formal thread in his work and there are repeated analytical keys - the work is assimilable of formalist analysis, though his would be the first voice raised quietly to self-mockingly demur.

Risking bathos: Johnson has a kind of real staying power that enforces, if not today, then someday, the obligation of serious analysis. But for a long while before that monograph, the art world will make do with his indefatigable, if capricious, moral example.

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