Human collage, mail art, and punning with the nothing master Ray Johnson.
Almost twenty years after his death, Ray Johnson continues to be revealed as one of the most consequential figures in American contemporary art. The progenitor of correspondence art and an influential pioneer of pop art and conceptual art (though he eschewed all of these monikers), Johnson’s curiosity resulted in an immense body of work that spans collage, correspondence, performance, sculpture, drawing, painting, and book arts. For better or worse, he embodied that over-glorified and under-recognized role of “the artist’s artist.” Johnson’s dynamic life-art unfolded within a nexus of artists and media that read as a who’s who and what’s what of American art from the 1950s through 1970s, and yet he systematically refused or flouted all opportunities to popularize his work through mainstream art commerce.
Grace Glueck once wrote to me that Johnson sent letters to academics and journalists in the art world whose attention he wanted. Maybe, but it certainly wasn’t fame he was after. So I guess the question is, what kind of attention? From what I can tell, Johnson was highly selective about whom in the art establishment he tried to engage. He sent letters to academic figures who he thought could and hopefully would correspond with him the way he wanted—persons who might match his intellect and interests, and parry with his acerbic wit; persons who might be game to enter into an alternative kind of correspondence via the oblique and contiguous relationships of words, ideas, and images. Clive Phillpot was one such favorite correspondent and friend of Ray Johnson’s. Since Johnson’s death, Phillpot has become one of the foremost scholars of his work. It was an honor to be able to talk with Clive and plumb his unique and illuminating insight into Johnson’s art and person.
Elizabeth Zuba How did you meet Ray or first come to know his work?
Clive Phillpot In April 1966 I saw the inaugural issue of Mario Amaya’s new magazine, Art & Artists. There was an essay by Bill Wilson with an image that stayed in my mind—a deadpan photo of Ray in front of a Howard Johnson sign. I saw some of his work in London at a pop art exhibition, then in a one-man show featuring his “Potato Masher” works at the Angela Flowers Gallery in 1973. At that stage I did not really respond to the collages.
I moved to New York and probably came across Ray’s work here and there. Then in October 1980 John Russell wrote about me in a column in The New York Times, alongside a portrait photo. I think this, together with publicity from Franklin Furnace Archive, put me into Ray’s orbit. He sent me an envelope containing several pages stamped: Please add to and return to Ray Johnson. I responded and seemed to have acquitted myself respectably since more mail followed. And the final piece of our connection came together when I actually met Ray while I was visiting the “Writing and Reading” exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in September 1981, which included his work. I spotted him among the vitrines and introduced myself.
EZ Was the article in the Times on your scholarship on artist's books or your work at MoMA? Would you venture to surmise what guided Ray in his choices to pull someone into his orbit?
CP It was related to both in a way. In his column, Russell stated that I was the librarian of MoMA, but he was focusing on a show I had done for Franklin Furnace on artists’ magazines that accompanied earlier modern movements, including Surrealism and Dada. I think Ray picked up on these movements, on the museum, on Franklin Furnace, and the fact that I was talking about the “body language of movement magazines.” He would respond to stories about people in the press, in the movies, on television, and write to them out of the blue—as he did with me.
He would also write to people he found in phone books who had interesting names, or others who were also named Johnson. He would write to people with a certain status like Joan Mondale, or movie stars like Joan Crawford, often without any introduction. He also wrote to such people as Jacques Derrida, though I imagine that the 1988 letter addressed to Derrida in your book was never actually sent to him. In September 1991 Ray told me he had just sent his first letter to Derrida after agonizing for ages. But the biggest galaxy of correspondents collected and connected by Ray was the art world: artists, critics, curators, dealers, et cetera, and many of these correspondences were among the longest lasting.
EZ Did he say why he agonized over writing to Derrida? That seems very unlike Ray to think twice about writing to someone. It makes me muse on why Derrida may have been of particular importance to him, but perhaps you have more concrete insight?
CP Two things seem relevant. One of them is that, I believe, Ray became friendly with Derrida’s translator, Alan Bass (whose name, Ray said, made him a “sitting patsy”). The other is that he got hold of Derrida’s book, The Post Card. He later told me he had finally sent his first letter to Derrida via Alan Bass and that he had heard back that Derrida was interested in corresponding. Ray was working on a piece about him in the summer of 1991, and soon after seems to have had the possibility of actually meeting the writer, but he said, “I’m shy about meeting him.” I don’t know if it ever took place.
EZ Can you tell us a little about your correspondence with Ray? A sense of the communication? Any particularly memorable exchanges?
CP I was in Moscow in August 1991 for a conference. After three uneventful days, President Gorbachev disappeared. For three days his whereabouts were unknown, because a coup had occurred. I sent a postcard to Ray (and others) from Red Square, saying that, though surrounded by tanks and military vehicles, I was okay. When I got back to the US and related my adventures to Ray, he sent me a bunny head containing my name—dropped out white on black, as usual—but with my name running vertically, which was not the usual way. When I asked him about this he reminded me that I had reproduced a bunny head of Karl Marx in the Philadelphia exhibition catalogue for “More Works By Ray Johnson” vertically, and had misunderstood that the head should have been horizontal, in reference to all the toppled statues (actually mostly of Lenin) in Eastern Europe. The fact that the Karl Marx head was horizontally augmented with Please send to Barnett Newman should have alerted me, but KARL MARX went the other way—and so did I. Thereafter Clive Phillpot bunny heads uniquely had the name running upwards. And just to add another wrinkle, the reference to Barnett Newman had, I think, something to do with “black marks.”
EZ Ha! So, “black marks” as in Newman's vertical black marks (here toppled) and also Marx as in McCarthyism's black(listed) Marx?
CP I have just remembered a source of the “black marks.” In 1992 Ray sent me an envelope of pages that included one like that reproduced in your book, also dominated by DE/AR in blue, stacked like a Robert Indiana, but with black overprinting. Also in the envelope was a page just bearing the letters TA/BM in green. This mystified me, but fortunately Ray had included a card which said, TA/BM = is thrown away black marks, which, I think, conflates two references to his work, one of them by the writer Marco Livingstone. There was also a reference to Chou En-Lai, but that’s another story. Your response to all this is exactly right. A whirlwind of associations out of one or two Johnsonian juxtapositions!
EZ Wait, what is the Chou En-Lai story?
CP I had noticed Anna May Wong’s recurrence in his work and simply thought that it must be that her name appealed to Ray, and I’m sure it did—just like Wanda Gag. However, I finally asked him why he referred to her so often. Although I didn’t get a direct answer, he told me that she had appeared in a Marlene Dietrich film, in a train compartment. He seemed well aware of her career since he also told me that she played an Eskimo in her last film.
Anyway, months of regular correspondence went by, then out of the blue—as usual—I received an envelope from Ray containing just one sheet with a bunny head bearing the name Anna May Shun and the message: Clive Phillpot: Who is Anna May Shun? I pondered. Then I looked up a picture of Chou En-Lai, made a photocopy, and added long black ears like Goofy. I captioned the new picture Chou En-Gum, and added: Anna May Shun is the half-sister of Chou En-Gum.
Within a few days back came another envelope and inside were two bunny heads. The left one said Judy Garland (her name upside down), and the right one said Chou-En Gum. Underneath: Clive. Call me about this, please. I was stumped. So I did as requested, and when we connected the first thing I said was, “Why is Judy Garland next to Chou En-Gum.” And Ray said, “Because her real name is Frances Gumm!”
Simple. Yet not.
EZ The endless whirlwind! One can get lost forever in the multiple references and possible significations. Dick Higgins talks about how certain words or phrases in Ray's works take on new or alternate, sometimes even prescient, meanings as time passes—how they feel alive to the present despite their very specific loci (references, dates, names). Have you had this kind of experience with Ray's work?
CP My take on Ray’s mail art, as well as his reliefs and drawings, is not so much to find them addressing the present but rather that something from the past occasionally detonates into my present—in particular, having a penny drop for me after so many years have passed or belatedly realizing the significance of a detail I missed at the time. For example, there is a mail art piece in which Ray has taken a photographic image of James Dean and added a black pipe to his profile. Under the head are three lines of graphic moticos. When I first saw this image I immediately thought of René Magritte, but what I missed then was an apostrophe in the second batch of moticos. This was the clue to the riddle of the composite image, for Ray had disguised the French Ceci n’est pas une pipe with the abstract black shapes.
A rather different case concerns my puzzlement at Ray’s relief that includes a photo of Ed Ruscha captioned Keir Dullea Gone Tomorrow. What was the connection between these two? It only made sense years after I first saw it when an American friend spoke the title and pronounced Dullea, not as Dull-ee-a, but Dull-ay. This not only drew attention to the mispronunciation of Ed Ruscha’s name, as in Ed Russia, but once I got it right, made sense of it as “here today gone tomorrow.” Satori!
EZ Hidden words inside words, meanings through meanings. Mark Bloch recently alerted me to the thread of Duchamp's Why not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy in Ray's work, and I suddenly started seeing it everywhere, in all kinds of exciting contexts. But I wanted to talk about Ray's “Throwaway Art” and the origins of that phrase. What do you think constituted Throwaway Art for Ray?
CP My hunch is that someone once described his mail art in this way, perhaps in a review, or in a conversation, and Ray’s response was to make the phrase his own, just as he took over and continued to promote the remark about him possibly being “New York’s most famous unknown artist.” He also incorporated the phrase “Throwaway Gesture” into his mail art. But another context is performance. In 1978 he did the “‘Throwaway Gesture’ Performance” at the Walker Art Center, and then followed this a month later with “‘The Thoreau Away Gesture’ Performance” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I can’t quite remember if it was on one of these occasions that he stripped and streaked the auditorium.
EZ Yes, the streaking was at Walker Art Center, I think. Do you see this as related to Ray's concept/medium of “Nothing”? You've written extensively on Nothing in Voids: A Retrospective (JRP/Ringier, 2009) and elsewhere, but perhaps you could give us a brief description and background of this foundation of nothingness for Ray and his work?
CP I said earlier that “A Throwaway Gesture” appeared in Ray’s mailings. The one I was thinking of has the written word THROOOOOWAWAY extended in the middle by a drawing of a pipe-like object, which is then doubled—as is the word Gesture—all sitting over the words SHAKUHACHI and SHIGEKO KUBOTA, also doubled. I mention this because I had never before investigated shakuhachi: I now find that it is a Japanese flute used by certain Zen monks. Shigeko Kubota is the Japanese-American artist close to Fluxus—and wife of Nam June Paik.
My contention is that Ray became well-acquainted with Asian religions and philosophy, including Zen, in the 1950s and 1960s by several routes: Black Mountain College and John Cage, Ray’s friend Norman Solomon, and Ray’s part-time job at the Orientalia Bookstore in New York. His prime Nothing piece was at George Maciunas’s AG Gallery in 1961. There are several accounts of this event, or concert, which disagree over details but which suggest the core of the piece was that Ray, situated in a near-empty gallery to which people had come to witness his Nothing, suddenly threw a handful of short dowels from the second floor down the stairs to the first. It was also very dark and it would seem that some visitors were startled. It was all over so quickly amid some confusion that it became almost a mythical event. From this point on, having achieved almost the antithesis of a happening and a work subject to rumor and misunderstanding, Ray ran with the concept. He held meetings, usually of the New York Correspondence School, during which Nothing happened. He announced a “Ray Johnson Nothing” at “no gallery” in the art section of The New York Times, and more and more used Nothing in his mail art, often in bunny heads. Thus perhaps it is possible to bring together Throwing Away– emptying out—and Nothing through Zen practice.
EZ WAWAY as in WeiWei? Or maybe Wu Wei—the Taoist concept of non-action, non-doing? It is curious how emptying or voiding was the central concept of Ray's work and yet he was one of the most exhaustingly prolific artists of the second half of the twentieth century, certainly in terms of his correspondence art. One of the most illuminating moments for me was your report in that essay in Voids that Ray dated both his work in Nothing and his work in mail art to the same year, 1943. What do you make of that? Is this a case of it taking the visible to perceive the invisible?
CP One of the few early facts about Ray is that he started corresponding with his friend Arthur Secunda while they were both at technical school in Detroit, and that with Arthur’s move to New York in 1943 their illustrated correspondence increased. Ray was rather embarrassed when letters to Arthur appeared in the North Carolina catalogue. Re-reading these letters I find no suggestion of Nothing, or even much introspection. It is difficult to look into the mind of a fifteen/sixteen year-old boy, and we may have to wait for the biography to attempt that, but perhaps his separation from his friend left a void?
EZ THROWAWAY but also THRONAWAY. It's interesting how the O is making the pipe to AWAY; it reminds me of his later circular cut-outs (“Mail Art Thought”) and “o Art.” As to Nothing and mail art, what I meant was that in 1993, Ray talks about celebrating fifty years of Nothing and also fifty years of mail art. That sounds like a telling equation, and makes me think that rather than Nothing being a concept consciously explored through his art (though it was that) Ray saw Nothing as a medium.
CP Was 1943 a special year? Am I wrong in looking for a biographical trigger? Perhaps you are right that mail art and Nothing are intertwined, and that Nothing was not really articulated at the time. Perhaps he was simply provoked by Ben Vautier’s festival commemorating thirty years of Nothing and responded with a ballpark figure for his own lengthy preoccupation? For me Ray’s Nothing is more of a thing—albeit a no thing. Around the time Ray made this statement I wrote a jokey letter to Ben Vautier also in response to his announcement, in which I referred to Ray as a “nothing master” and included a photocopy of a page from the Japanese booklet published to accompany a Noh play in Tokyo, as a little noh thing from me. I also sent Ray a copy. Within a few days Ray sent me a letter that began Dear Clive Phillpot, but he followed this with his redrawing of a whole page of the Japanese script about the Noh play! Then where one might have expected a signature there was: NOTHING / CAIRO, ILLINOIS. He had also traced out the word CAIRO in his greeting at the top of the letter. For Ray, something nearly always leads to an apparently disparate other.
EZ I love that my brain is going to spend the next few weeks trying to put together Noh theater, Nothing, and Cairo, Illinois. When and how did you get into mail art? Was it that first correspondence with Ray in 1980?
CP I guess I might have caught the scent of mail art when I started work in London at the Chelsea School of Art in 1970. But a specific encounter occurred after I had been offered the chance to write a monthly column in the magazine Studio International in 1972. This column, entitled “Feedback,” was intended to draw attention to publications that did not get noticed in the regular book review sections of magazines. So it reported on other art magazines, artists’ magazines, art exhibition catalogues, and pamphlets and small booklets by artists that I soon nominated book art. But in my first column I ranged more widely still and mentioned two just-published Rolling Stone articles on “Correspondence Art” by Thomas Albright. The simple fact that I cited these articles opened up my mailbox to mail artists—primarily from the US and Canada. But I did not subsequently jump on the mail art merry-go-round, rather I paid attention and occasionally made reference to it in my column. Then over the years I would sometimes respond in a non-traditional way to a communication from an artist who provoked me—as Ray was to do later.
EZ Speaking of book arts, would you tell us a little about the Book About Modern Art? And Ray's artist books, in general?
CP I have written about the Book About Modern Art at some length in my book Booktrek (RP/Ringier, 2013). The title is a glancing reference to Ray’s Book About Death, which appeared in installments from 1963 to 1965. This earlier so-called book was a sequence of legal-size graphic sheets variously numbered. Ray mailed them to correspondents, but he said that few people received all the pages. The Book About Modern Art was also a sequence of graphic sheets but these were sent to me at—and for—the Museum of Modern Art in 1990, where they now reside. Every few days I would receive a mailing that usually contained a cover letter and four “pages” of the book. Ray originally intended to send twenty-six parts, each of twenty-six pages. (The number 26 might relate to my frequent banging on about Ed Ruscha’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations?) But Ray, being Ray, gave up on the series at the end of the second part. It is difficult to summarize the contents but they certainly revolve, in a Johnsonian way, around the modern art that is at the core of MoMA. Despite the process, and the format, Ray was actually interested in commercial publication. Perhaps the work is a kind of printout of Ray’s meditations on, and personal experience of, modern art?
As for Ray’s other artist books, in the 1950s he made some beautiful, irregular, and unique books that related closely to his moticos, as well as a couple of little offset booklets with wordplay. Some of these books were the result of Ray seeing a Bruno Munari exhibition at MoMA in 1955. I often suggested to him that he make more books, and in 1992 he sent me a photocopy of some photos of about ten pages of a little book he called the No Exit book, laid out on the ground, though I don’t know if these dated from that year. Maybe these graphic pages are now in the Ray Johnson Archive? I would love to see them posthumously published.
EZ Can you say more about “the Johnsonian way” that the Book About Modern Art revolved around the collection at MoMA? I am guessing that rather than the pages generally being so much about anything, they likely tend to expand kind of contiguously, through oblique associations and multiple meanings, out into totally unexpected territories. Also, can you highlight page one for us? And your thoughts on that Nothing?
Maybe what is most interesting about Book About Modern Art is not what it is, or just that it splutters to a premature close, but that it then continues as A Book About Cranky Ant and in several other guises. These various books might more rewardingly be considered as a whole, documenting the twists and turns in Ray’s creative process.
EZ That kind-of macro purview is something that seemed necessary in Not Nothing as well—not that you can ever get out of the density enough to really see the forest, but you do see some trees begin to coalesce and take shape in terms of certain of Ray's gestures, articulations, and voices. Let's talk more about those twists and turns in terms of language. How do you see the text (language, typing/typography, names, et cetera.) working in Ray's work?
CP This is a vast topic. The early pages in your book illustrate some letters that are fairly conventional in their presentation, just as sometimes a phrase in an early relief is just a title and not really part of the composition. But Ray quickly moves into making the words live as visual elements, in either a sheet of mail art or a relief. His brilliant draughtsmanship and calligraphic skills unite words and images in dynamic interrelationships. One of my enthusiasms is visual poetry and some of Ray’s texts, even quite early on, have at least an idiosyncratic connection with many such works. There is his “Poem for George Brecht’s Dog” in the Fluxus newspaper cc V Tre, which goes “Tp Tp Tp Tp ...” and “K K K K K ...” But I cannot now recall where I once found others. Then again there is his minimal co-authored “Laughter Poem for James Waring” in An Anthology, which goes “ha ha, ha ha, ha ha ...” and so on. Furthermore we can go on to Ray’s play with simple texts, such as PALS/SLAP, SURF/FURS, TAOIST/TOAST and, of course, his derivation of Moticos from Osmotic, before sidestepping into ideograms like his rabbit/duck drawings. And I’ve only just started. His jokes and puns for example are priceless to me.
EZ Ray submitted a number of those kinds of sound/visual poems, like the “Poem for George Brecht's Dog” you mentioned, to a number of poetry journals over the years. But he also submitted things like a drawing of a chair to poetry journals! It seems to me that for Ray, in Charles Olson's words, “what IS is no longer things but what happens BETWEEN things”; not only for the way he communicates with and experiences language, but also images, in terms of his visual work and gesture, in terms of his meetings and performance work. Does that resonate for you too?
CP Very nicely put. As for “BETWEEN,” this certainly seems relevant to me in the visual work. Ray always seems highly aware of the effect of the white spaces in his reliefs and his graphic work. What comes to mind as an exemplification is the vase shape generated by two human profiles; it would surely be appealing to Ray? Ray’s invented serial biomorphic shapes, for example, have this double quality. The edges are electric—and seem to imply other complimentary forms hovering around the black shapes. Even in the marvelous, constantly reworked, late works, what remains of white shapes in the density of the compositions are still more than leftover spaces. Their forms are strong in their own right, even in the gloom of constant layering.
EZ I see this in his writings as well. The silent-negative spaces sometimes literally cut from the page, or just gaping, electric space between words or ideas, sometimes indicated with parentheses, as in ( ). They are definitively their own conduits. I was also thinking of collage in a general way, all the exchange, the coming and going, the relationships and activity between things rather than a focus on any foregrounded thing. You've written about some of Ray's NYCS meetings, how participants have characterized them as a collage of sorts, for which nothing was planned or preconceived by Ray, but instead the event was simply a mingling of unrelated peoples suddenly finding themselves together in the room (or on the page), all waiting for something to happen. Can you say more about this?
CP The meetings were human collages. It would seem to me that it was no accident that the first meeting of the NYCS was held in a Quaker meeting house in Manhattan. Ray himself said that his meetings were meetings of friends and that this was a pun on Quaker meetings. But while the people in the Correspondence School had a connectivity through him, when his “friends” gathered together many were previously unknown to each other, and so they made new friends. Indeed many people spoke of the warmth generated by these meetings of strangers. Ray went on to memorialize some of the meetings with seating plans in which all the names were laid out in a grid on a flat surface. Thus he juxtaposed people on these plans like tesserae on his reliefs. However, I don’t think we should regard these plans as recording actual placings—or even actual events. This was brought home to me after Ray died when a friend sent me a plan which included my name but about which I had known nothing. What is more, in my corner of the meeting Clive Phillpot (Cee-Pee) was sitting next to Camille Paglia (Cee-Pee), who was sitting next to Pee-wee Herman. Yet again, these connections dawned on me suddenly much later.
EZ The correspondences in Ray's work feel like friends, like homophone friends or graphic friends. I wonder if collage (including visual, text, human/meetings) extends from Nothing for Ray? They frequently seem intimately related, as in this example of his meetings.
CP Friends—and/or families? I think there is a third term that one might interpose between collage and nothing, and that is death. Ray once reported to me that his own death had occurred in 1966! Then again he produced a well-known mailing in which he gave his dates as 1927 to 1989, setting these in a large black triangle, also filled in with smaller triangles, at the height of the AIDS crisis. He also commonly included other people’s birth and death dates in his collages. I’ve just realized that he made several memorial collages specifically in 1971, probably for the exhibition “Dollar Bills and Famous People Memorials.” These include Anna May Wong, Yukio Mishima, Diane Arbus, René Magritte, and Janis Joplin, even though only one of them died in that year. I’m probably stretching this a bit, but these collages might serve as icons—even small tombstones—erected in the face of Nothing.
Elizabeth Zuba is an editor and translator working at the coordinates of visual art and literature. She is the editor of Not Nothing, Selected Writings of Ray Johnson, 1954-94; and is currently translating the writings of Marcel Broodthaers for his estate.