Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chapter I - Graduate Thesis

by Tracy DiTolla
"The goal is serious, the way humorous. Or sarcastic. Or a game. Everybody's life is wholly like that, when lived without external coercion. We play until death takes us away."
-Kurt Schwitters, in a 1946 letter to Christof Spengemann. [1]
I. Introduction:
Ray Johnson had a prolific career that spanned six decades yet there is little written about him and his work. His ideas on art and life were shaped in the 1940s through the 1950s and came to fruition during the 1960s. He continued to work into the 1990s and then at age sixty-seven his life ended abruptly by his own hand. In this paper I will discuss the life and performance art of Ray Johnson, how it was affected by his associations with Fluxus and the Happenings artists as well as the historical setting of America in the late 1950s through the 1960s. I will focus on the performances by Johnson which he called Nothings. Johnson started these performances in the early 1960s when performance art was becoming the trend among young artists. They used performance as a way to protest the authority of museums and art galleries and as a way of rebelling against the aesthetic formalism of the Abstract Expressionists.
After extensive interviewing and corresponding with some of Johnson’s friends and acquaintances I will bring to light new information and thoughts on Johnson that have never been published, such as how his love of privacy affected his work and descriptions of intimate performances done for his friends. I will trace the history of artists as the outsiders/bohemians from Courbet, the Symbolists, the Futurists and the Dada Movement through to Johnson and the breaks from the academic norms that made that possible. I will also discuss the influences and concepts that shaped the career and life of Johnson. I will especially look into the impact that Zen and other Buddhist philosophy had on Johnson’s work and his life.

[1] Kurt Schwitters, Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics, trans. and ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2002) xxii.

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