Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment