Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Selected Bibliography

Boudaille, Georges. Gustave Courbet: Painter in Protest, Greenwich: New York Graphic
            Society Ltd. 1969.

Cage, John. Silence, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Coffin, Judith G., Robert C. Stacey, Robert E. Lerner, Standish Meacham. Western Civilizations:
            Their History and Their Culture. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.

Dachay, Marc. Dada, the Revolt of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2006.

De Salvo, Donna, Catherine Gudis ed. Ray Johnson, Correspondences. Columbus:
Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999.

Fesci, Sevim. "An Interview with Ray Johnson, 17 April 1968." Archives of American

Fowlie, Wallace. trans., ed., Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, A Bilingual Edition.
 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Gamard, Elizabeth Burns. Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: the Cathedral of Erotic Misery.
            New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Glueck, Grace. “What Happened? Nothing.” New York Times. 11 April 1965, sec. Art

Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998.

Goldberg, Rose Lee. “Performance – Art for All?” Art Journal, Vol. 40, No. ½, Autumn-Winter
1980. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/stable/776603?&Search=yes&term=performance&term=art&term=goldberg&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dperformance%2Bart%2Bfor%2Ball%2Bgoldberg%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dperformance%2Bart%2Bfor%2Ball%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=2&ttl=5038&returnArticleService=showArticle.

Hendricks, Geoffrey. Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance, Intermedia and
            Rutgers University 1958-1972. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Hendricks, Jon. Fluxus Codex. Detroit: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1998.

Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus Experience. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California
            Press, 2002.

Hindman, James T. "Self-Performance: Allan Kaprow's Activities." The Drama Review:
 TDR. Vol. 23, No. 1, (March, 1979).

Horowitz, Frederick A., Brenda Danilowitz. Josef Albers, the Bauhaus, Black Montain
 College and Yale. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2006.

Johnson, Ray.  Radio interview by Shirley Samberg for, "That's Interesting." 9/13/84,
            transcribed by John Walter.

Johnson, Ray. Interview by R. Pieper. In Mail, Etc. University of Colorado, Tyler School
 of Art, etc., 1980.

Kimmelman, Michael. "A Collage in Which Life = Art = Death." The New York Times.

Kirby, Michael. "Allan Kaprow's "Eat"," The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2,

Kirby, Michael.  Futurist Performance. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. 1971.

Kaplan, Janet A., Bracken Hendricks, Geoffrey Hendricks, Hannah Higgins, Alison
            Knowles. “Flux Generations.” Art Journal. Vol. 59, No. 2. (Summer 2000),

Marks, Peter. "Friends of an Enigmatic Artist See a Riddle in His Death." New York

Marter, Joan. Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963. New
            Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Martin, Henry. “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An interview with Ray Johnson by
            Henry Martin.” La Poetica, Feb. 1984.

Motherwell, Robert. The Dada Painters and Poets, an Anthology. Cambridge: The
 Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Naumann, Francis M., Marcel Duchamp. "Affecteusement Marcel: Ten Letters from
            Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti." Archives of American
            Art Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1982, 13.

Orin, Michael. "Anti-Art as the End of Cultural History." Performing Arts Journal. Vol.

Phillpot, Clive, Jon Hendricks. Fluxus:Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman
 Collection. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.

Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Cambridge: The
            Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968.

Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1997.

Santina, Peter Della. The Tree of Enlightenment. Tapei: The Corporate Body of the Buddha
            Educational Foundation, 1997.

Schwitters, Kurt. Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics. trans. and ed. Jerome
 Rothenberg, Pierre Joris. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2002.

Silberman, Robert. “In the Spirit of Fluxus, Minneapolis” The Burlington Magazine, Vol.
 135., No. 1083, (June 1993), www.jstor.org.

Smith, Owen. Fluxus: the History of an Attitude. San Diego: San Diego State University
            Press, 1998.

Spiselman, Toby R. "Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings and Objects…." Art Journal.
 Vol. 36, No. 3, (Spring 1977),

Spodarek, Diane,  Randy Delbeke, "Interview with Ray Johnson," Detroit Artists

Suiter, John. "Last Post." The London Independent. June 4, 2000.

Tzara, Tristan. "Aproximate Man" and other Writings. With a foreward by Mary Ann
            Caws. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2005.

Wallach, Amei. ed. “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One.” New York Times. Feb.
28, 1999. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B00E6DA113DF93BA15751C0A96F958260&scp=1&sq=dear%20friends%20of%20ray%20audiences%20of%20one&st=cse.

Watson, Scott, ed. Ray Johnson: How Sad I am Today…. Vancouver: Morris and Helen
            Belkin Art Gallery, 2001.

William Wilson. Ray Johnson: En Rapport. New York: Feigen Contemporary, 2006.

How to Draw a Bunny. Directed by John Walter. New York, NY: Palm Pictures LLC,
            2000. DVD.

Fully Awake, Black Mountain College, Film by Cathryn Davis Zommer, Neeley House. Elon,
            NC, ElonDocs Production, 2007. DVD.

The Ray Johnson Videos, Nicholas Maravell. 2007.

Chapter XIII - Conclusion

“Life is not easy to live for a modest man with high values, free from attachment, humble
                of right livelihood, and clear vision.” – Buddha[1]

            Before Johnson's death on Friday, January 13, 1995 he had been in touch with several people to whom he was close, including Frances Beatty of Richard Feigen and Co.  She had made attempts over the years to have Johnson exhibit his work with Richard Feigen and Co.  Beatty recalled, “He called me about five days before he died, and he said: ‘You know, Frances, I think I’m finished doing this Nothing I’m involved in. I’m going to do Something, and you’re going to be able to do the show.’ And then he laughed this sweet Ray laugh, and then he jumped off the bridge.  It was a complete performance.”[2]  When Richard L. Feigen & Co. did get to do a Ray Johnson show it would sadly be a memorial exhibition.[3]
            There were no witnesses to Johnson's leap from the bridge into the icy cold January waters of Sag Harbor.  However, there were two teenage girls near the bridge at that time who heard a splash and then saw someone in the water doing what appeared to be the backstroke.  The girls went to the police station to report what they saw but the station was closed for the night.  Ray Johnson’s body was found by the police the next day and they would eventually rule it a suicide.[4]  Was this the final and most important performance in Johnson's career?  It certainly contained all of the important elements of his artwork.  It was a final transformation of something to nothing.  He transformed himself.  Although Johnson's suicide was shocking to his friends it fits perfectly with his philosophies on life and art being one.  It seems certain that his suicide was the spectacular ending of the long performance that was his life.  Bill Wilson, Johnson’s close friend, wrote, “Very few people can accept that Ray killed himself, but he was planning that when I met him in 1956.  Ray lived on behalf of religio-philosophic meanings and he died on behalf of those meanings.”[5]
            There are provocative clues that lead one to believe that Johnson’s suicide was in fact a performance.  As mentioned earlier it was a notion entertained by Frances Beatty and it was also a belief of Bill Wilson.  Wilson stated, “He called me from Orient Point at 4’o’clock the day he died – collect, so the phone call is recorded on my phone bill.”[6]  Johnson had wanted the Orient Point to show up on Wilson’s phone bill as one of his last cryptic references to the connectedness of everything in his life and work.  Johnson waited until Friday the thirteenth to kill himself and he was sixty-seven.  Six plus seven equals thirteen.  The river he jumped into was a possible symbol of the Buddha’s teachings on the constant change and transformation in life as well as a symbol of Johnson’s final transformation to death.  It is almost unimaginable that his suicide was not a performance when one considers the way he lived his life.  Marinetti seemed to be foretelling of Ray Johnson when he wrote, “Thanks to us, the time will come when life will no longer be a simple matter of bread and labour, nor a life of idleness either, but a work of art.[7]  Ray Johnson was the realization of this statement. 
            Johnson raised art to another level.  He made it a part of his life as no other previous artist had.  He was perpetually in performance mode.  His dedication was unparalleled and allowed him to contribute the longest, most involved piece of art to the world: his life.  From his time at Black Mountain College up until his final day he did not waver in his commitment to truly living his art.  Even in death he left us with a puzzle to solve, the question of what exactly just happened.  That is surely the way he wanted it.
Johnson’s secretive ways and self-protectiveness leave an unfortunate hole in his history that even his close friends cannot fill.  Even those that were closest to him such as Richard Lippold stated, "You know, now that I think of him more, after his death, I don't really think I knew who he was.  It's very hard for me to say that but who was this man?  He kept so much of himself to himself."[8]  What he did leave us with was the knowledge of how he tenaciously adhered to his own philosophy in life and in death.   Perhaps that was his final message to everyone.  Even in his death he left us with a humorous performance, backstroking his way to Nirvana.

[1] Ananda Maitreya, trans., The Dhammapada, (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1995) 69.
[2] Wallach, 4.
[3] Wilson, 12.
[4] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[5] Wallach, 2.
[6] Ibid.
[7] RoseLee Goldberg, “Performance – Art for All?” Art Journal, Vol. 40, No. ½, Autumn- Winter 1980, 376. www.jstor.org/stable/776603. (accessed  July 10, 2008).  
[8] Walter, Moore, DVD.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter XII - Mail Art

I feel that Johnson’s mail art must be delved into slightly here as it ties into other areas of his work.  While this area of his art may be considered a separate entity from his performances, what it may actually be is the longest lasting, largest performance piece ever, involving hundreds of people throughout the world and the global postal system.  His mail art would come to be known as the New York Correspondence School, or NYCS, a term that was coined by artist Ed Plunkett.[1]  Johnson changed the spelling of correspondence to correspondance to suggest movement and play.[2]  His extensive network evolved into an ever expanding entity that always retained the one on one intimacy that was Johnson's signature.  Artist James Rosenquist, who corresponded with Johnson, compared Johnson's work to that of his contemporaries, "Ray's work had a different kind of feeling than, say, Roy Lichtenstein's or Andy Warhol's or mine.  It was a much more personal, private experience."[3]  What other way of viewing art could be more private and personal than viewing a piece that was made especially for you alone in your own home? 
            It is not only the intimacy that this method of distributing his art embraced; it also let in other elements that interested Johnson.  Mail meant that Johnson could get his art out there and viewed by people of his choosing and this type of distribution of his work was making art a part of an everyday act.  He described his process of opening and responding to his mail art as being, "like prayer, it's a ritual for me, a ceremony."[4]  The mail art really speaks to the importance that Johnson put on having art permeate every part of life just as a religious devotee would have their beliefs as part of everything in life.  He brought art into areas of life where people generally do not think about art.  Mail art was able to successfully combine Johnson’s interests in control, the ephemeral, interconnectedness, the involvement of art in everyday life and humor.
             Many of Johnson’s mail pieces were collages or small drawings which he made with instructions to add something and send it on.  For example, in the late 1960s he sent out flyers requesting that people send slips to art critic and historian Lucy Lippard, and included her address at the bottom of the page. (fig. 12)  In an essay Lippard wrote on Johnson she recalled how she did receive slips including a silk one, and was unsure of why her name had been linked with the word slips by Johnson.[5]  She later heard from a friend that it had been due to a time that he had seen her dancing although she still was unsure if it was because she slipped or because she was not wearing a slip.[6]               
            Johnson was not the only artist who was working with mail art and it gained a bit of celebrity after File Magazine publicized this form of art which led to some other articles being published on the subject, especially one in Rolling Stone.  This publicity led Johnson to decide that the NYCS was dead.  He sent an obituary in to the New York Times in 1972 which read:
            Dear Deaths,
                       The New York Corraspondence [sic] School, described by critic 
                       Thomas Albright in "Rolling Stone" as the "oldest and most influential" 
                       died this afternoon before sunset on a beach where a large Canadian 
                       goose had settled down on it's Happy Hunting Ground,
                       was sitting there obviously very tired and ill and I said to it "Oh, 
                      you poor thing". It mustered up whatever strength it had and waddled 
                      away from me. "How Beautiful!" I thought. "How like a bird- about to 
                      die and yet having some courage to try to go on". And then it lifted it's
                      wings and shit out some black shit it was a large heavy bird it 
                      flapped it's [sic] wings and I studied the curve of the wings I thought
                     Anne Wilson would like to see them. It just wanted to be alone to die 
                     without a human standing there talking to it. I felt so bad. So it flew off 
                     and soon I was aware I couldn't see it anymore it had gone. Maybe
                     if I go back tomorrow, the tide will have washed up it's feathery body.
After this Johnson referred to his mail art as Buddha University.[8]     
            Johnson did not only send paper through the mail, he once sent Coco Gordon six cartons of correspondences along with various objects.  Along with these he included instructions that she was to float all of the wooden objects from the cartons out onto Huntington Bay in Long Island.  This was a performance piece directed off-site by Johnson and executed by Gordon.  The wood would eventually float away and nothing would be left in sight.[9]  Floating objects were another recurring subject in Johnson's art but still coming back to his concern with change and transformation.  Water is never completely still, anything floating on it is in constant motion and offers the possibilities of sinking or of floating off never to be seen again.  Gordon recalled a time when Johnson spoke about reading a newspaper article on a man who committed suicide by floating out into the Harbor.  Johnson had said that that image was so beautiful to him.[10]  Floating objects fascinated Johnson.  Unknown to any of his friends at the time was how that fascination would later relate to his suicide by drowning.
The instructions that Johnson sent out in his mail art are reminiscent of the wedding gift that Marcel Duchamp sent to his sister, The Unhappy Readymade.  The gift was a letter with instructions on how to execute and display a Ready-made, which consisted of a geometry book that was to be hung up by strings on the balcony of the newly-weds’ apartment.[11]  The wind could then, "go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages."[12] (fig. 13)  It would eventually be destroyed by the elements which must have been appealing to Johnson’s love of the concepts of nothing and change. 

[1] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[2] Email from Alanna Phelon of Richard L. Feigen & Co., November 11, 2008.
[3] Wallach, 2.
[4] Spodarek, 3.
[5] Lippard, 1999, 148.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. 131.
[8] Ibid. 9.
[9] Email from Coco Gordon, May 29, 2007.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp, "Affecteusement Marcel: Ten Letters from Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1982, 13, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/stable/1557298?&Search=yes&term=Naumann&term=Francis&term=M.&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DFrancis%2BM.%2BNaumann%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3DAffecteusement%2BMarcel%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=7&ttl=1245&returnArticleService=showArticle. (accessed Septembe 13, 2008).
[12] Ibid.

Chapter XI - Nothing Performances and Comparisons

There are conflicting reports on when exactly Johnson’s first Nothing was.  However, either the first or one of the first Nothings was in the spring of 1962 and performed at the Maidstone Gallery in New York, which was run by Maciunas.[1]  In a video taken by Nicholas Maravell Johnson described the performance himself and stated that this was one of his first performances as well as referring to it as a Nothing.[2]  He started the performance at 3:00 p.m. by throwing a box of wooden dowels down the stairs that led up to an empty gallery and that was it.  It was over within half a minute.  When more people showed up at 3:10 they asked him when the performance would start and he said it was done, so they asked if he would repeat it and he did.  However, he pointed out that the repeat performance was not as, “interesting or good as the first,” some of the original intention had to have been taken away from the piece by repeating it. 
            Johnson's choice of performance as his medium was central to the main concern in his work which was the ephemeral, that which fades away into nothing, that which ends and cannot be exactly duplicated ever again.  A completed performance that is not recorded simply ends and all that is left is the memory of it and memory itself fades and changes as time passes.  When he threw those dowels down the stairs that was an act that could only possibly last a matter of seconds.  That is then accentuated by the fleeting sounds that were made by the wooden dowels hitting and rolling down the steps.  Sound is always impermanent, it is there one second and gone the next as well as being changeable; it will fall upon each person’s ears in a different way depending on where someone is standing in relation to the point of sound.  There is then the change caused by the people who walked up the stairs and stepped on or moved the dowels from their original landing spots after they had been thrown.  The sound, placement of the dowels and the placement of the people are random and ephemeral.   
            When the performance was done a second time it emphasized the nature of the components that concerned Johnson.  The second performance would be different from the first by nature.  The first performance was only momentary and then gone, never to be seen in that same exact way again.  The second piece was also momentarily finished and never reproduced in the same way again.  This is a performance that incorporates the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and change.  It is also refers to Dada with the heavy reliance upon chance.  Johnson uses the viewer to contribute to the chance element by having them walk on the wooden dowels to get into the gallery.
If we look at the wooden dowel performance and compare it to a piece by Kaprow we can see how Johnson took a different path from his contemporaries.  Johnson’s piece was small scale and over with quickly, it involved a small number of viewers and there is a kind of spirituality to it through the sounds of wooden dowels echoing down an empty stairwell in an empty gallery.  Allan Kaprow’s Eat, (fig. 9) was performed in January 1964 and described and reviewed by Michael Kirby.[3]  It was termed as an "Environment," and took place over two weekends.  Visitors could make one hour reservations through the Smolin Gallery.  It took place in some caves in the Bronx which used to be part of an old brewery.  When the viewer walked in he was confronted with a man's voice repeating, "Get 'em!" over and over.  Next he would come upon two girls sitting on two wooden towers with their heads reaching the top of the cave, one holding a jug of red wine and one holding a jug of white wine, which they would pour and hand out in paper cups to the visitors if they were asked to.  The piece also involved banana bunches wrapped in plastic and unwrapped apples tied to strings and hanging from the ceiling, a girl frying bananas on a hot plate, bread and jam in an enclosure that one could only get to by climbing a ladder, as well as the man who was repeating, "Get 'em!," handing out pieces of salted boiled potatoes.  The viewer was free to eat any of the food in the exhibit according to Kirby.
Johnson’s wooden dowel piece was much simpler than Kaprow’s Eat.  It involved a smaller number of people and it was only a few seconds long.  The only other people involved besides Johnson were the viewers.  Kaprow’s piece had several others involved besides the viewer and the viewer did not have as much of an effect on Eat as they did on the piece by Johnson.  Kaprow’s piece had an earthiness that was not at all involved in Johnson’s piece which existed on more of a calm, incorporeal plane.  
Johnson repeatedly returned to that Zen-like state in his work.  In an interview done through email correspondence artist Alison Knowles recounted a Nothing at the Rene Block Gallery in New York though she does not remember the date,
“I arrived and there were two people in the room besides Ray.  We stood and
 looked at each other for a bit and then Ray came up to me where I was 
standing by the Easterly wall and asked me to move my position in the 
room. I did so, stayed for a while as we all did in silence looking about, 
and then left.”[4] 

This Nothing keeps with that enigmatic feel; four people in a room silently looking at each other brings to mind a spiritual or meditative state.  There was nothing said and nothing was left when the piece was over.
            The concept of nothingness was Johnson’s predominant focus.  Coco Gordon described a performance to me that Johnson did at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.  On a chalkboard Johnson wrote the word ‘SEND’ in chalk, then using ice cubes he wrote ‘Ray,’ backwards and drew a picture of a bunny head.  He then put the ice cubes in envelopes and handed them out to people in the audience.[5] (fig. 10)  This piece contained all of the elements that were important to Johnson.  There was humor, transformation, non-permanence and the final outcome of nothing.  The ice cubes start out as solid objects; the images they make on the board are perfectly visible.  As time goes on the images fade to nothing as the water evaporates.  At the same time the ice is melting, changing into water which will eventually evaporate and disappear.  Giving the ice out in envelopes as souvenirs to the audience is another symbol of impermanence as when the envelope is opened later it will contain nothing.  Then there is the nonsensical, comic-book like bunny head drawn on the chalkboard which is a reminder not to take anything too seriously.          
            Johnson was not secretive about how people should not take him too seriously.  A video taken by Nick Maravell shows Johnson at a barbeque discussing his performance art with two men he just met.  This was their conversation,
            "I am putting you both on, I am acting, I am performing….I am telling 
                you, like, something that's true but I'm also playing a role of an artist 
               who is, uh, talking about what, what he does, I'm, um, I'm playing with 
                you both by talking to you…I'm having fun by talking
about this…I have a Dead Pan club.  I do this with a deadpan, 
you know, expression like I'm really very serious but underneath it all, 
it’s a particular Dada joke."[6]

Johnson often toyed with his viewers and kept them at arm’s length.  He never allowed them to be totally at ease and he always gave himself the upper hand.  He left them wondering, about what just happened.  Johnson was performing, yet to the people to whom he was speaking it seemed as if they were just having a conversation up to a point and then they became unsure.  Johnson even had a “club” for his type of deadpan humor, the Dead Pan Club.  He stated in an interview, "I'm a great put-on artist, I'm the Dead Pan Club and you really shouldn't take anything I say too seriously although I am soberly serious but I'm also a put-on person."[7]  
A later Nothing, done in 1987, demonstrated Johnson’s sense of humor in his work.    There is a video of this piece taken by Nicholas Maravell.  In it Johnson stuffed several Reese's Peanut Butter Cups into his mouth at one time and then he began reading from Walt Whitman's Camden Conversations.  At first his mouth was so full he could not open it and he was just grunting and humming sounds.  As he chewed he started to make garbled sounds with his mouth open and eventually the sounds become understandable words as he finished eating the candy.  Although, he seemed to purposely mumble through parts of it even after it looks as if he had finished chewing.  At the end of the performance he took off his glasses looked at the camera and said, "Does this have sound?" and laughed.[8] 
            Although this piece involves the physical act of eating like Kaprow's Eat does, that is the only similarity between the pieces.  The Peanut Butter Cup reading is small and done only for an audience of two, Nicholas Maravell and the camera.  Johnson also involved his interest in the concepts of nothingness and transformation which is represented by the peanut butter cups.  They started out as two whole, solid pieces of food then were transformed through his chewing and finally were gone after he swallowed them. 
The piece is also full of interconnecting references such as location of the reading which was done in Huntington, Long Island which is the birthplace of Whitman.  Through my correspondence with Nicholas Maravell, who took the video of the performance, he relayed to me that they were standing across the street from the Long Islander, the newspaper Whitman founded and for which he wrote.[9]  It was important for Johnson to establish connections within the elements of his work regardless whether it was between people, places, images, words or sounds.  This network of connections is not always visible.  The viewer of the video would not likely know where the performance was taking place but the location was important to Johnson’s concern with interconnectedness.  This interconnection reflects the Zen philosophy of everyone and everything being a small part of the whole just like all parts of Johnson’s work and life were interconnected as a whole. 
            The Peanut Butter Cup reading typifies Johnson's signature humor.  Although his mouth was stuffed full of candy he was none the less reading something non-humorous in a serious tone.  He always juxtaposed the elements of seriousness with the humorous.  When he so calmly and soberly takes his glasses off at the end and looks into the camera only to crack a smile and ask if it has sound it truly brings the piece together.  This end statement reminds the viewer that this piece is serious and humorous together in one and reaffirms Johnson’s description of his ability to“…combine the tragic with the comic, the ridiculous with the sublime.”[10]
The Peanut Butter Cup Nothing was in complete contrast to the large Fluxus events that went on such as the1970 "Flux-mass."  Flux-mass was organized by Maciunas and included several other artists.  It was a meticulously planned, large event that took place at the Voorhees Chapel at Douglass College.[11]  It was described by Geoffrey Hendricks,
                        "The Priest's assistants wore gorilla costumes... Yoshimasa 
                                 Wada was the priest. The sacrament wine was in a plasma 
                                 tank with a hose. Wafers were laxative and blue urine cookies.  
                                The consecration of the bread, a giant loaf filled with sawdust, 
                                was done by a mechanical dove…which moved across 
                                overhead on a wire and dropped mud from a can onto the loaf.
                                Antiphonal "chanting" consisted of sound effects such as 
                                barking dogs and locomotives…The Lord’s prayer was said
                                in a dozen languages. Signal  flags were used. An inflated 
                                   Superman filled with wine was "Bled.""[12]

In addition there was the burning of a statue of the Madonna, blanks shot out of a gun by Wada, the spraying of audience members’ heads with perfumes and room deodorizers and the release of sneeze powder.[13]  The Flux-mass shows the difference, not only in scale and style between Johnson and Fluxus but the difference in their senses of humor.  The Flux-mass involves a darker Futurist-inspired sense of humor.  They sardonically mock the church while inside an actual chapel, courting a backlash of criticism.  They provoke a hostile reaction from the audience.
            Johnson did not hold any events this elaborate and while he often provoked people, it was in a non-derisive and non-confrontational manner.  He may not have let everyone in on his "jokes" but he did not leave them feeling slighted either.  His humor did not contain the contemptuous element that was portrayed in Fluxus works organized by Maciunas.  Johnson did not directly and openly take on large institutions such as the church.
            At another Fluxus event George Maciunas continued his quest to incite a reaction from his audience.  During a 1970 Fluxus festival, Maciunas sold tickets to various events in which either no ticket was needed, the event had already taken place or the event was non-existent.[14]  The involvement of a trick being played on the audience is somewhat comparable to Johnson's pieces but there a slightly cruel twist in the Fluxus event.  Maciunas wanted a reaction while Johnson tended to be looking to leave his audience with a puzzling feeling of, "what just happened?" which gave them an opportunity to put some thought into what his pieces were about. 
The tickets sold by Maciunas were similar to invitations and flyers that Johnson sent out for various fan clubs that he had created.  Johnson had invented many different "fan clubs" and would mail out flyers announcing meetings for these fan clubs.  Unlike the Fluxus tickets where the viewer showed up to find no event, Johnson was there to see the viewers' reactions to his invitations and there were specific reasons why he had organized a meeting of a group of people.  For example, he held a Paloma Picasso Fan Club Meeting at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York in 1974.[15]  When he discussed it afterwards he said, "Lots of glamorous people came to the meeting…..They wanted to know why they were there.  I told them I was trying to create a room with a certain number of people.  But magically the right number of people did not come."[16]  This is typical for a Johnson event, to bring up the expectations of people and then present them with the unexpected.  No one could assume anything as far as it related to Johnson.  He reveled in deconstructing assumptions.  In a correspondence with Nam June Paik in 1965 Johnson wrote, "I wait, not for time to finish my work, but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur."[17] 

[1] Jones, 1999, 204.
[2] The Ray Johnson Videos, DVD, directed by Nick Maravell.
[4] Email from Alison Knowles, August 20, 2008.
[5] Email from Coco Gordon,  May, 25 2007.
[6] Maravell, DVD.
[7] Diane Spodarek,  Randy Delbeke, "Interview with Ray Johnson," Detroit Artists Monthly, Feb. 1978, 9. http://www.jpallas.com/hh/rj/DAMintervw-RayJ.html. (accessed June 15, 2007).
[8] Maravell, DVD.
[9] Email from Nicholas Maravell, July 7, 2008.
[10] Wallach, 2.
[11] Smith, 204.
[12] Ibid., 205.
[13] Hendricks,148.
[14] Smith, 207.
[15] Jones, 1999, 207.
[16] Lippard, 1999, 145.
[17]Wilson, 1999, 167.

Chapter X - Zen Philosophies and Buddhism

Johnson had an avid interest in Eastern religion and philosophy.  The ideas of Buddhism and other eastern religions were interwoven in his work.  Nirvana, the goal of all Buddhists is sometimes translated as nothing-ness and this was certainly something that Johnson was aware of when he named his performances Nothings.  Early on in New York, in 1949, Johnson worked at the Orientalia book store which specialized in books on Eastern religion.[1]  This cemented in the ideas introduced by Cage and others at Black Mountain College about the application of Zen philosophy to art and life.  Basically, the Zen philosophy is that enlightenment can be attained through meditation and self-contemplation rather than through devotional acts.  One cannot ignore that the interests Johnson had, such as transformation, rebirth and the concept of nothingness are all major parts of the Buddhist religion.  In a 1984 interview with Henry Martin Johnson spoke about Zen as, “a point I often get to in my work.”[2] 
            The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism deal with the suffering of trying to hold onto something and say that impermanence is a part of life.  Nothing is lasting and it is futile to try to hold onto anything in life.  One has to let go of everything to be free.[3]  This was a substantial piece of what interested Johnson as an artist.  Impermanence, change, transformation; all of these are discussed within the Four Noble Truths.  All are present in Johnson’s work.  The fact that he used performance to get his art out there prominently speaks of impermanence being an important issue that he wished to explore.
An example of how Johnson put the Buddhist lessons about futility to work is talked about in the following anecdote from his interview with Henry Martin:
"I did one of my most bizarre lectures up at the Rhode Island School of Design.  It consisted of me trying to move a piano across the 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 the 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."[4]  
Johnson’s actions of trying to move the piano across the stage are done in vain.  The piano will never get moved and the desire to move the piano is getting him nowhere, if he lets go of his desire to move the piano and simply walks away, he will be free of that act that was causing him suffering. 
            In Buddhist practice there is the theory that meditation can lead one to “right-mindedness.”  This means that you are always aware of what is going on, always aware of every action you take.  A practitioner starts out by learning to meditate and the goal is to eventually perpetually obtain that mindset.  This can be applied to Johnson’s life/art.  Johnson started out painting and collaging but then through his learning at Black Mountain and continued interest in Eastern religion he was able to apply that philosophy to art.  So his painting and early education can be thought of as a beginner learning to meditate.  Then as time went on he applied art to other areas of his life and at some point he reached the enlightened state of mind where he was always completely aware of art and perpetually in the state of making art.
There are other areas of the teachings of Buddha that are also applicable to Johnson’s work and life.  When the Buddha became enlightened he realized the interconnectedness of all things and the links between life, death and rebirth.  If we take a look at all of Johnson’s work as a whole picture we can see it as one large web of interconnections.  Throughout all of his pieces, whether they are collage, mail art or performance, he is constantly referring back to his own work.  One piece in some way has to do with another; they are all part of a web that makes a whole.
            For instance, in 1969 Johnson participated in Charlotte Moorman's Avant-Garde festival on Wards Island.[5]  His idea was to drop sixty foot-long hotdogs out of a helicopter over the festival, which he did.[6]  Johnson said the relevance of the hotdogs had to do with their length, one foot, which tied into another work he was doing at the time called "feetings" where he would trace peoples' feet.[7]  This demonstrates how Johnson’s works were intricately tied into each other.  Even when the viewer cannot see a connection, there is some connection to something else, even if it is only apparent to Johnson.  That whole idea refers back to Buddhism and other eastern religions.       
In seeming opposition to the solemnity of Buddhism the other principal domain of Johnson’s work was his incorporation of humor.  He was able to combine serious, philosophical religious ideals with the absurd in a way that has yet to be matched by anyone else.  In a conversation with art critic Amei Wallach Johnson said that he managed to, “…combine the tragic with the comic, the ridiculous with the sublime.”[8]  He managed to present serious issues with humor and find sober aspects in the absurd.

[1] Jones, 1999, 202.
[2] Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An interview with Ray Johnson by Henry Martin,” La Poetica, Feb. 1984, 1. http://www.artpool.hu/Ray/Publications/Martin.html. (accessed June 16, 2007).
[3] Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59.
[4] Martin, 1.
[5] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ray Johnson,  radio interview by Shirley Samberg for, "That's Interesting," 9/13/84, transcribed by John Walter.
[8] Amei Wallach, ed., “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1999, 2. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B00E6DA113DF93BA15751C0A96F958260&scp=1&sq=dear%20friends%20of%20ray%20audiences%20of%20one&st=cse.  2(accessed January 19, 2008)