Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter II - Ray Johnson's Life

"Ray wasn't a person; he was a collage or a sculpture, a living sculpture. He was Ray Johnson's creation." - Billy Name
Ray Johnson was an intensely private person so there is not a great deal known about his childhood or early career. Even his close friends felt that they did not truly know him. The following is what is known and documented about Johnson's life. Ray Johnson was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 16, 1927 to Eino and Lorraine Johnson.[1] He had no siblings. He kept extensive scrapbooks and these give a small glimpse into his youth. While we can get an idea of Johnson’s academic and social activities through his scrapbooks there is no known record of his personal thoughts or feelings.
He attended Loren M. Post Intermediate School in Detroit and kept his certificate of admission to high school. He then continued on to Cass Technical High School and kept his admission ticket to the commencement exercises, dated January 31, 1945 as well as his certificates of winning first and second place in various poster contests. He kept information on taking summer art classes at Oxbow art school in Saugatuck, Michigan, being a high school member of the Red Cross and doing work at the Civilian Defense Volunteer Office in Detroit during the war years.[2] He painted animals on the wall of the children's wing of the Kiefer Hospital in Detroit.[3] In addition to this he was vice president of his school's Advertising Art Club and a member of the Junior Art Club.[4] It seems he had much going on for a teenager, whether prodded by his parents or done on his own is not known. Although considering the vast amount of artwork he would turn out in his life it would seem that he was on the ambitious side.[5]
Johnson attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina sometime between 1945 and 1948.[6] Black Mountain College can best described as an experiment in art education that combined all areas of the arts such as music, dance, poetry and studio arts. It was an incredible feat that such a place was able to exist at all in the conservative American south at that time in history. In the documentary, Fully Awake, Black Mountain College, it was said that, “An influx of artists and intellectuals came through not only to teach, but also to work collaboratively on their own projects.” The faculty consisted of a number of the most respected artists in the twentieth century, such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, Willem De Kooning, Jacob Lawrence and Robert Motherwell.[7]
Black Mountain differed from other colleges in that the faculty owned and operated the school.[8] Another difference that set Black Mountain College apart from others can only be described as an experiment in communal living as students and faculty worked together on everything from farming their own food to constructing the buildings.[9] Black Mountain College had only 1,200 students during the time it was open from 1933 to 1956.[10] An important aspect of the teaching philosophy there was the emphasis on making no distinction between work and play and learning was to constantly take place in and out of the classroom.[11] This notion of the student being in a perpetual state of learning had significant meaning to Johnson and introduced him to the concept of the lack of a distinct line between art and life for an artist. Johnson would soon come to believe that art should always be taking place, even throughout mundane day to day activities. It was to be the ruling philosophy throughout his entire life.
During his time at Black Mountain College, Johnson took classes taught by Josef Albers and met artist Richard Lippold, with whom he would have a twenty-five year intimate relationship.[12] John Cage, who would have a powerful influence over Johnson and the Fluxus movement, was teaching at Black Mountain while Johnson was there.[13] Cage’s ideas of Zen Buddhism applied to music affected the way Johnson thought about life and he would eventually apply Zen Buddhist philosophies to his own art.
When Ray Johnson came to New York in 1948 it was possibly the one of the very few places in America for the nurturing of a young avant-garde artist. There was an immense amount of pressure in the United States at that time to conform to society which was in large part due to the Cold War and fear of Communism. In the late 1940s the American government started their blacklisting of anyone that they considered part of or sympathetic towards communism. A majority of those on the list were in the movie industry and included actors, writers, directors and musicians. Whether their involvement was real or imagined did not matter as once someone’s name appeared on the list it became next to impossible for them to find work. People were being threatened with incarceration and were socially shunned for the political beliefs they held or were thought to hold. In the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked the fires of Communist fears and began accusing any politically left leaning public figures of being Communists. When this type of oppressiveness is put in effect in a “free” country there will be a complete inability to contain the inevitable counter-movement. It was against this social background that Fluxus, Happenings and Johnson’s Nothings were born.
When Johnson came to New York City he moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side.[14] John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Lippold also lived in the same building.[15] They not only lived in the same building but they also socialized with each other. The combination of talents and ideas exchanged between these men certainly benefited them all. Although Cage seemed to be the driving influence for Johnson and many Fluxus artists, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Lippold all likely affected each others’ works. Some of Cunningham's dances had certain Zen, yoga-like qualities to them. Lippold’s sculptures had elements of spirituality. The golden wires in his works looked like rays of light. The works of Johns and Rauschenberg included humor and used mixed media combinations. These aspects all have a place in Johnson's art.[16]
In addition to those living in his building Johnson also corresponded, performed and exhibited with other known artists of the day such as Andy Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Joseph Cornell, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt and more. Certainly, they were stimulated by each other creatively and by the energy of the city. In an interview Johnson stated, "…you're not just influenced by artists. You're influenced by places and years and other people and irritations and problems."[17] The combination of artists, dancers, musicians and writers and the concentration of them in New York City at that time in history created a fertile ground for the next avant-garde movement.

Scott Watson, ed., Ray Johnson: How Sad I am Today…, (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2001) 134.
Photocopies of Ray Johnson’s original scrapbooks from the collection of William Wilson, December 2007.
Muffet Jones, Ray Johnson: Correspondences, ed. Donna de Salvo and Catherine Gudis, (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 202.
Cass Technical High School 1945 yearbook, Detroit, Michigan.
5 William S. Wilson’s collection of images of Ray Johnson's scrapbook and yearbook. 
Jones, 1999, 202.
American Masters: Black Mountain College, (accessed June 17, 2008).
Black Mountain College, an Introduction, (accessed June 30, 2008).
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Fully Awake, Black Mountain College, DVD, a film by Cathryn Davis Zommer and Neeley House, (Elon, NC: Elondocs Production, 2007).
12 Ibid.
13 Frederick A. Horowitz, Brenda Danilowitz, Josef Albers, the Bauhaus, Black Montain College and Yale, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2006), 34.
14 Ibid.
15 Jones, 2001, 32.
16 Michael Kimmelman, "A Collage in Which Life = Art = Death," The New York Times, October 6, 2002, (accessed September 22, 2007). 
 17 Sevim Fesci, "An Interview with Ray Johnson, 17 April 1968," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3/4. (2000), 20. (accessed May 25,2007).

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