VALENTINE FOR RAY JOHNSON

The most well-known unknown American artist” died in a suicide drowning 13 January 1995, after a lifetime as unique and perplexing as his art. His suicide, the film proposes, was perhaps his greatest and most mysterious artwork. Can suicide become an artwork? A performance? The idea was troubling. When I’d first heard about it (a call from a friend on the 14 January), I was stunned and saddened. I didn’t understand how someone I knew and adored, who had intrigued me with his words and keen intelligence, and seduced me with his friendship, would or could take his life….

How to Draw a Bunny, like most of Johnson’s collages, is a cryptogram wrapped inside a conundrum. The title is taken from one of Ray’s diagrammatic drawings of his iconic rabbit/duck, a stand-in alter ego. In the film, we learn the “how,” of Johnson’s suicide but not exactly “why,” although we are offered dozens of clues. Source: Matthew Rose, letter from Paris in ART THE MAGAZINE”

The origins of this mysterious Ray Johnson film began many years ago when John Walters a young 16-year-old, soon-to-be PBS fimmaker  began combing the stacks at Book Beat collecting surrealist tomes and rarities, especially on the artist Marcel Duchamp who occupied the central position of  Walter’s interest in artists (and anti-artists).  At some point I mentioned that Ray was giving a midnight performance in the bookstore (one of several, over the 1980s). I don’t know if  Walter’s was able to see Ray’s performance, but his interest  soon morphed into the idea of making a movie several years after the artist swam into oblivion in 1995.

Ray’s performances at the Book Beat were very simple and poetic “non-performances”. For one event Ray simply altered a sign in the front window announcing the performance with large capital  that spelled my name in capital letters bought at a hardware store.  We were having a midnight madness sale at the bookstore and at midnight he placed the adhesive letters on the back of the announcement in the front window:  “Come see Artist Ray johnson tonight at midnight! one performance onlY!” Another time Ray sat in the children’s book section with a bag over his head and recited “I’m not Iggy Pop!” over and over. Once for several days he’d come by with his arm always wrapped up completely with rope, he said something about how his arm was a Christo wrapping. At an informal book signing we had, Ray often signed his name with his right or left hand upside down and backwards. He also had a small clipboard attached to his steering wheel so he could make drawings while he drove. He amassed hundreds of these he kept in the glove box and a small shoebox on the floor of the car.

How to Draw a Bunny is one of the best artist biographies ever put to film. It is one of the few approaches to a difficult subject put into an honest and objective framework. It was awarded a special jury prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Prix du Public 2002 at the Rencontres Internationales de Cinema in Paris. The film was also nominated for a 2003 Independent Spirit Award. The film soundtrack also reflects the offbeat world of Ray with tracks by Max Roach, Thurston Moore and Destoy All Monsters.

“As both investigated and represented by filmmakers John Walter and Andrew Moore, How to Draw a Bunny is itself a collage of photographs, art works, interviews and letters, home movies and video, that flow at the viewer like a jazz ensemble. With exceptionally toned care and constructions, the filmmakers penetrate into a “rabbit hole of an art world wonderland” and reveals not only an artist’s fragmented life, but also the universe of his peers, friends, critics, and colleagues. With interviews from Roy Lichtenstein and Christo, Chuck Close and James Rosenquist, and the artist himself, the film offers a real understanding of the origins of present-day art and the confusions of the postmodern world, as well as the experience of an artist who wore many different faces and treated the art scene as a game without a prize.” — from the Estate of Ray Johnson website

“Ray Johnson is a natural collagist, one of whose principal activities is bringing disparate entities into conjunction. His collages, especially those made after his period as an American Abstract Artist, have been intermittently exhibited and reproduced in books, catalogs, and magazines. The mid-fifties collages, which incorporate printed images of Elvis Presley and James Dean, are slowly entering the history books, usually as components of the early history of pop art. But Ray Johnson is not to be confined so easily within a single ism. Other of his collages are closer to the raw art of Jean Dubuffet, while displaying a funky inevitability all their own. Others, still, are very lyrical.” — from Clive Philpot’s, THE MAILED ART OF RAY JOHNSON


In 1981, Detroit artist Jim Pallas began his “hitchiker series.” They involved wooden stand-ups of artists and were supposed to be abandoned anywhere (on the road) one year after of they were given to the artist. One of artists in the project was Ray Johnson, who refused to give up the image after the year was up. “I just became attached to it,” Ray said. The story of this strange collaboration can be read at: HITCHICKER RAY JOHNSON

He colored images of Elvis before Warhol did, and his Correspondence School predates the Internet with its concept of open and free distribution of artwork. His dropping of 60 foot-long wieners at an avant-garde art happenings predates the Turkey Drop episode of WKRP In Cincinnat by a good 25 years. — Metro Times

Ray used to phone the bookstore at all hours of the day and night. “Check out The Warhol Diaries, now, page 425, I’ll hold on..” ( his name appeared on that page) or “Nico is dead!” and then he’d hang up…  “did I tell you about that guy I mailed a ham sandwich to… he still has it in his fridge!” …”call Joy Colby and ask her to review my nothing…” Ray worked the phone lines in similar style to the mail art network.

One of Ray’s best friends was the archivist William S. Wilson, who lives now in a small apartment in Chelsea, New York,  totally crammed in with works by his artist mother and a huge Ray Johnson archive dating back to the mid-fifties. Bill has some of the best insights to Ray. Some of Bill’s old home movies of Ray row-boating down a river were included in How to Draw a Bunny. Bill took 13 wonderful black and white photos of Ray Johnson sometime in the late 1960s and wrote an article on Ray’s obsession with the number 13. You can read his article online at Blastitude 13: Ray Johnson and the Number 13.

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