THE PAPER SNAKE
As new exhibitions in the US prompt the opportunity to revisit his work and legacy, Mail Art pioneer Ray Johnson is unpacked from a new, more intimate perspective. Behind the obsessive notes scrawled on letters and postcards, what emerges is every artist’s eternal paradox—one between existential struggle and social anxiety, creative urgency and the desire to be seen.
The most powerful thing about the Ray Johnson exhibition, “WHAT A DUMP,” is its overwhelming feeling of loneliness. Even in the white cube, the late artist’s works are powerfully emotive, seemingly at war with their surroundings. There’s something perverse about seeing his art in the context that he dreamed it would be in. The works in the show at David Zwirner feel small and scared, drowning in wallspace. They’re not diminutive or cute, but obsessive, worked over, overworked. On the walls and in vitrines, his tactile letters and postcards are laid out like the evidence collected from a dying man, “Here lies Ray Johnson.” There’s something desperate about it—a transparent desire not only to be liked, but also recognized, and celebrated. All of the materials on display were planted by him before his death, seeding his own legend and cult status as an outsider. In the end, Johnson played the long hustle with his career, toiling in obscurity, and waiting for fame after death. But alone in the gallery, with a paper mask stuck to my sweaty face, it felt kind of pointless. The work doesn’t belong on the wall or in a vitrine. It exists in the intimate space between people.
Johnson’s drawings and collages are about celebrity, both big and small. They are memes and repetitive works with glaring redundancies. Like Warhol, he chose his figures well—James Dean and Elvis for the most part, men’s men. On the other hand, his works also explore a more localized idea of fame and notoriety.
“Johnson’s drawings and collages are about celebrity, both big and small. They are memes and repetitive works with glaring redundancies. Like Warhol, he chose his figures well.”
Like yearbook pictures, Johnson carefully took note of his contemporaries, capturing them as drawings of bunnies labeled with names like Chuck Close, Saul Steinberg, Agnes Martin, and Pablo Picasso. For Ray Johnson, there is still a sense of childishness to his love of celebrity. In his time, unlike the era we are living in now, it was uncommon for people to lust after fame and insert themselves into alien social contexts in the fantastic way that he did. In that sense, he was a pioneer.
A lot of people will say that Ray Johnson resisted fame. He lived outside of New York City, was reclusive, and would often thwart his own success. But I contend that even in light of these facts, the most significant theme within his work is a desire to communicate, to be seen, and to be accepted into a community with status and influence. Some works are obsessive and messy—pieces of paper scrawled in layered marks like a stamped library card. Others look more like Warhol replicas—flat and tightly silk-screened rectangles that could be posters for a post-punk band. Graphic design is part of his repertoire, an effective method of mark-making that abides by its own loose logic of appropriation and fakery. There are fixed icons, a discrete set of symbols, marks, and a signature typeface—all stylistic trappings of commercial work—set against the melodrama of handwritten notes and manic scrawling.
Although incredibly personal, the layering effect of Johnson’s collaborative works was cumulative, blurring the artist’s hand in circulation. By passing them around, his letters became greater than the sum of their parts, and the community that he both imagined and sustained, became another markmaking tool at his disposal.
The variables in his work are decidedly limited, and his finite lexicon of symbols and glyphs gets exploited in permutations. One smiley face is labeled “Cher,” and has squiggly little hairs on her head. Another is called “Escher,” and sports a rainbow high top fade. The works are simultaneously social, and antisocial. They’re dreams kept aloft by the heat of human hands and the vapors of expressing and communicating. But they’re also the grasping works of someone who couldn’t quite find their way into the real-life situation. It’s all present.
It might sound like I’m being critical, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting fame. In fact, there is something pure about wanting to be known, and seen. Toying with the spotlight and dealing with the anxiety of success, performance, and notoriety is a struggle that every artist faces. The successful ones (famous ones), are chastised for their social skills and ridiculed for embracing fame. In celebrity, they find something better than art. At the same time, those who fail to find their way into the collective consciousness struggle financially, and existentially. Can you be an artist and not want fame? Does that ambition taint your work?
The reality of wanting to be seen is that the greater your awareness of the world around you, the greater that desire grows. This creates a loop that defines most artists’ careers.
“Can you be an artist and not want fame? Johnson was exceptional in his ability to make art about the art industry, to take on the anxiety of having a career and make it the subject of his career”
They make work about the art world and contend with the figures of modern art and culture. Their ideas bounce up and rub against those before them. In this way, Modern art is endlessly self-referential, exhaustingly repetitive, incestual, and still, it’s taboo to deal with this subject head-on. Johnson was exceptional in his ability to make art about the art industry, to take on the anxiety of having a career (or not), and make it the principal subject of his career.
Soon, Johnson will have a retrospective at The Art Institute of Chicago, bringing him even deeper into the fine art canon. In time, he will be indistinguishable from his peers as their successes swirl together into one blurry, mushy, blue chip pool of muck. But Johnson was quite unlike his peers. He was a fan and a speculator. Most great writers and artists are witnesses to culture around them, more voyeurs than participants. The people fixated on the lives of those around them become the recordkeepers, and through their adoration we see a rough portrait of their time. Johnson’s adoration for his contemporaries made them his peers. In time and through much effort, Johnson was able to foist himself upon the art world and drag all the messiness of life in with him.