Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter IX - Nothings

“Your work is to discover you work and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”
– Prince Gautama Siddharta, Buddha

                Johnson did not align himself with any group.  While he may have agreed with certain Fluxus ideas he went about things in his own way.  His Nothings were generally less publicized than Fluxus events or Happenings.  His work was more intimate yet more intellectual.  He did not proclaim lofty ideas in manifestoes the way that George Maciunas did but he did have reservations about the way that the business of art was run.  He had his own ideas on how to get his artwork out to the public while at the same time making a gibe towards galleries and art dealers.  He spoke about it in a 1980 interview,
         " can buy my work in a gallery, and see it in many museums’
            famous collections as artworks in frames. My last show of portraits 
            sells from eight hundred to three thousand ... dollars, or, you can 
            get all this material from me by mail for free, if I decide to send it to 
            you. There was talk at one time of my undermining the whole art 
            economy by my ‘giving away’ That is you got a very beautiful 
               collage or drawing just mailed to you, so, I decree whether
                         I give this to you, or that I sell it to you."[1]

This was Johnson's way of making the existence of galleries and museums obsolete but he did it on his terms and without the attention-grabbing, ostentatious display of Maciunas.  He quietly injected his little digs towards the artistic establishment of museums, critics, galleries and collectors.  Johnson generally was not about loud protests, politics or strictly adhering to manifestos.  His protests were more personal and they always involved humor.
            In the documentary on Ray Johnson, How to Draw a Bunny, collector Morton Janklow tells the story of how Johnson offered to do his portrait, Johnson ended up doing twenty-six collage portraits from a profile tracing he took of Janklow.  Each collage was different but they all contained the profile tracing of Janklow which was sometimes not easily recognizable as it was completely incorporated in with various scraps of papers, sketched images and words.  What follows is a typical example of the absurd conditions Johnson would put into play when he dealt with the possibility of a sale of his work.  He offered to sell the portraits to Janklow for $42,400.  Janklow refused and they bartered back and forth with Johnson discounting the price yet subtracting certain pieces from the series.  Johnson would add to or remove certain parts of certain portraits and then send a letter to Janklow with new prices, all of which were refused.  At one point he wrote a letter to Janklow saying he had added portraits of Paloma Picasso to Janklow's portraits but would now have to charge him double the original price which Janklow had already been unprepared to pay.  He was playing with Janklow and this humorous negotiation process was as much a part of his artwork as the actual portraits were. 
Johnson was known as, "The most famous unknown artist in New York," a name given to him in article written by Grace Glueck in the New York Times in 1965.[2]  This was due to the fact that while he was no stranger to other New York artists of the time he was not well known among the public.  His impressive oeuvre consists of innumerable collages, pieces of mail art, and performances.  Performance art was what suited Johnson and his artistic ideals best.  In the early 1960s Johnson started to call his performances "Nothings".  His Nothings were about the ephemeral, the spiritual, transformation, the fact that everything is temporary and eventually there is nothing.  He was interested in what went unseen or unsaid.  In a 1968 interview he discussed his interests with Sevim Fesci.  Fesci asked, “Wherever you go are you always on alert for visual stimulants, because in your works, you know, there are so many different things, and you must have taken them from so many different sources.”  Johnson responded, "I'm interested in things and things that disintegrate or fall apart, things that grow or have additions, things that grow out of things and processes of the way things actually happen to me."[3]  The medium of performance emphasized the qualities of change, intangibility and impermanence and was well suited to express the perpetual transformation of life. 
Early on, during his years as a student at Black Mountain, Johnson painted abstract Albers-inspired squares on canvas but he later shredded his early paintings and recycled the fragments in his collages.[4]  He also burned some of his early collages in Cy Twombly's fireplace as a performance.[5]  The act of burning things as performance was something Johnson did more than once; in the 1950s he had also burned all of the notes he took while attending classes taught by Josef Albers.[6]  These acts exemplify what interested Johnson as an artist and what his performances were about; the transformation of one thing to another, the ending of a piece of art, the turning of something into nothing.  At the same time they seem a symbolic way of freeing himself from his immature artistic past and represented him truly finding his artistic self.  These performances also involve his paintings and work on paper as part of the performance which is important as Johnson considered all of his art as being interconnected.  In other words, his work was not to be sectioned off as performance, collage, painting, it was all incorporated and connected as one and his art always referred back to itself in some way.
Johnson was an intensely private individual and this need for privacy and the unwillingness to allow people to ever truly know him spilled over into his work.  In his performances he would often incorporate the viewer as part of his piece but he never handed control over to the viewer; he kept control and kept the viewer at arm’s length.  He never let anyone have total access and there was no raw emotion in his work.  It was always cerebral; people had to think when they were involved in a piece by Johnson.  Things were always done on his terms.
Johnson’s Nothings were not as planned out or scripted as Happenings or many Fluxus performances and sometimes his pieces were completely unscripted with no planning at all.  There was a minimalist quality to Johnson’s performances and he used the element of chance more often than Happenings or Fluxus artists did.  He would sometimes perform spur of the moment for whoever was around, even if it was only one person.
In my email correspondence with Coco Gordon she recounted one of Johnson's intimate, spontaneous, performances.  While she was on a ladder installing one of her pieces at the Central Hall Gallery in SOHO in 1982 for John Cage's 70th birthday celebration, Ray climbed up the ladder behind her and instructed her to not look right then but he had just put down her back his, "most important nothing."  He then instructed her to look at it when she got off the ladder and to, "keep it, take care of it."  When she looked she discovered a, "hand torn piece of paper about six by seven inches that had the word Nothing scribbled in his writing, rearranged to read "noihtng."[7] [sic]  This small and intimate Nothing shows just how personal some pieces were with Johnson.  He did not need large, publicized events in order to do a piece that he considered an important work.  In this case it was a shared artistic experience that involved only the artist and one viewer, yet it is still a performance by Ray Johnson.  It is just as relevant as any other one of his performances
Johnson’s Nothings were an answer to Happenings; however Johnson considered his art to be more of an “attitude as opposed to a happening."[8]  This is because Johnson’s art never stopped and if he was performing a Nothing he was simply using a different attitude than he would in other areas of his art.  His life was his art and he made no distinction between the two.  Almost every friend or acquaintance of Johnson’s to whom I spoke made it clear to me that there was no separation for Johnson between his art and his life.  It was all one, everything he did was art.  Every action, word or deed that made up his life made up his art as well.  Johnson’s intimate companion Richard Lippold said of him, "It would be very hard for me to separate him as a person from his work; I don't think I could do that."[9]  Johnson took the ideas of Duchamp, Cage and Fluxus a step further; anything and everything could be art including the entire life of a person.  Coco Gordon, artist and close friend of Johnson, shared her feelings on him, "I honestly really felt he didn't, never ate food…one of these people that train themselves to live on nothing."[10]  It was as if he had reached such a state that he fused into one with art in such a spiritual way that food was no longer necessary.  He had become art. 

[1] "Ray Johnson (Conversation with R. Pieper)”, Mail, Etc. Art, (University of Colorado, Tyler School of Art) 1980.
[2] Grace Glueck, “What Happened? Nothing,” New York Times, 11 April 1965, sec. Art Notes.
[3] Fesci, 19.
[4] De Salvo, 1999, 18.
[5] Watson, 2001,134.
[6] De Salvo, 1999, 17.
[7] Email from Coco Gordon, May 29,2007.
[8] William S. Wilson, Muffet Jones, Ray Johnson: En Rapport, (New York: Richard L. Feigen & Co.), 11.
[9] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[10] Walter, Moore, DVD.

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