February 19th - June 12th, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Just One of the Many Ray Johnson Pieces You've Never Seen Before...

...that appear in this exhibit.
(Courtesy of Johanna Vanderbeek)

Rough Draft of Card # 5

When in Doubt, Reverse It!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Krista Franklin Coming in February to Give Collage Workshop in Conjunction with "From BMC to NYC" Ray Johnson Exhibit

Collage by Krista Franklin

Visual Poetry Workshop, February 27th at BMCM+AC

Visual Poetry is a workshop that involves the creation of original work out of pre-existing text and images. Using the art of collage, as well as William Burroughs’ Cut-Up method, workshop participants will engage in art-making exercises that will expand creative possibilities. Materials will be provided and will include glue sticks, scissors, magazines, markers, chalk pastels, packing tape, scotch tape, Xerox copies, newspapers, paper scraps and ephemera.

Krista Franklin is a poet and visual artist from Dayton, OH who currently lives and works in Chicago. Her poetry and mixed medium collages have been published in lifestyle and literary journals such as Nocturnes, RATTLE, Indiana Review, Ecotone, Clam and Callaloo, in the anthology Gathering Ground, and in the webzines MiPOesias.com and CultureServe.net. Her visual art has been featured on the covers of award-winning books, and exhibited nationally in solo and group exhibitions. Franklin is a Cave Canem Fellow, a co-founder of Tres Colony, an artist collective, and 2nd Sun Salon, a community meeting space for writers, visual and performance artists, musicians and scholars. www.kristafranklin.com, www.trescolony.com

Chicago-based Poet and Collagist, Krista Franklin

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stay Tuned!!

I am working on a deck of "art" cards that offer insights into writing poems using 7 basic principles embodied by Ray Johnson.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ha Ha

Detail from "Ha Ha," Collection of William S. WIlson

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Early Altered Postcard

Ray Johnson, 1943, Altered Postcard, Collection of Arthur Secunda

Monday, January 18, 2010

from Code Word: Ray, by Kate Erin Dempsey

The focus on cryptography in radio serials during Johnson’s childhood reflected the climate of fear and suspicion of the WWII and the Cold War period. Long before the infamous witch-hunt of Senator McCarthy, a feeling of uncertainty caused citizens to be suspicious of everyone around them. Communism was felt to be the largest threat to national security but it took very little political conviction to earn a spot on one of the blacklists or a FBI file. Homosexuals (or “sexual deviants” to use the term of the time) were one of the key groups targeted. Senator McCarthy was certain that homosexuals were likely to be spies because of their susceptibility to blackmail in order to hide what he saw as their “perversion.” Gays were expunged from the government as well as from many private companies. Right wing stumpers depicted homosexuality as “an epidemic infecting the nation, actively spread by Communists to sap the strength of the next generation.”14
The repercussions of this sentiment played out in all areas of life. In the name of national security, post offices turned over to the police the names of those receiving suspicious mail such as gay-targeted magazines. Inspectors also baited gays by joining pen pal clubs often used by homosexuals to meet one another. If the posers found “proof” of someone’s homosexuality, they traced the victim’s mail to identify others.15 In the midst of this homophobic climate Johnson struggled with his sexuality, seeking answers first in Christian Science and then Jungian psychology. His use of the postal system for the NYCS mocks the type of surveillance prevalent at the time by continually confusing the distinction between public and private, as well as the roles of author, middleman and recipient. Tracing Johnson’s mail would have been a full time job. Whether or not Johnson’s intentions in forming the NYCS were at all political, he could not have been immune to the cultural angst. Historians Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick stress the importance of remembering that, “the [FBI]’s oppressive measures and its continuous surveillance were part and parcel of writers’ and artists’ everyday lives during these years. As such, the culture of American modernism was irrevocably charged with paranoia, censorship, and equivocation.”16

14 Kathy Peiss, Christina Simmons and Robert A. Padgug, eds., Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 228, 233.
15 Ibid., 230.
16 Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick, ed. Modernism of File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920-1950
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 17.

Ray's Code

based on Sherlock Holmes'

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Outtake from "Message(s) in a Bottle: Notes of an Unlikely Curator"

Throughout his first decade in Manhattan, Ray made a series of anti-rectangle collages he dubbed “moticos.” By the early 60s, Johnson was mailing out collage fragments “for others to use or send on,” letting go at least in part, authorship and allowing the work to be formed by increasingly random collaborations. Which provides context to Ray's famous phrase: “I wanted to paste things on railroad cars. Nothing to be seen by anyone except coyotes.” Taking into consideration Ray’s concept of moticos [see below image]--both an art object and an idea, forever fleeting--and his Nothings, and it becomes apparent that Ray’s stance is that of the self-taught Zen Buddhist, a little annoyed and bored by life’s melodrama. The quote, excerpted from an interview, goes on. Ray says: “...When the Pop Art gravy train appeared instead, I consciously burned everything in Cy Twombly's fireplace. Those were early nothings... Destroying them was the logical thing to do as a statement.”

What is a Moticos?

Letter to Bill Wilson from Ray, featured in HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY
(Collection of William S. Wilson)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Decoder Ring

Courtesy of James Widner, webmaster, Radio Days (www.otr.com)

Opening of Kate Erin Dempsey's "Code Word: Ray"

Ray Johnson played with language. In every medium, he gave letters and words a life of their own. As Clive Philpot has said, Johnson “attenuated and distorted the ability of words to identify and name things.” He delighted in puns, rhymes, anagrams, palindromes, spoonerisms, homophones, homonyms, and words within words. Even in conversation Johnson would reverse letters and let the discussion follow the new word, often leaving his interlocutor behind. He also played with the multiple meanings of words, enjoying how the alternative definitions spun off in every direction. In explaining his creative process he remarked: “I’m always rushing to my Webster’s Third Dictionary.” While this implies a love for the English language, Johnson once told a friend “We need new language. I’m so sick of this stuff.” Throughout his work Johnson highlighted the arbitrary nature of language by both shedding light on words we normally take for granted and turning seemingly transparent language opaque. Perhaps in an effort to invent a new language, Johnson peppered his work with codes, decipherable and otherwise. The role of secret languages in Johnson’s work remains relatively unexplored despite the fact that while looking at a display case of decoder rings in an antique store Johnson explained to Nick Maravel, his friend and videographer,

The whole basis of the New York Correspondance School... has to do with these secret messages coming over the radio and code systems. ...The participatory nature of writing these things down and getting messages. It's an "in" thing, a secret thing.
Clive Philpot, “The Mailed Art of Ray Johnson,” in Phyllis Stigliano and Janice Parente, More Works by Ray Johnson (Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, 1991), 46.
William S. Wilson, conversation with the author, June 2005.
Johnson, as quoted in Sevim Fesci, “Interview with Ray Johnson,” Archives of American Art Journal 40 (2000): 22.
Mark Bloch, “Rayocide: 67 Paragraphs on the Death of Ray Johnson,” originally prepared for Lightworks Magazine in 1995, http://www.panmodern.com/rayjohnson/rayocide.html (accessed 20 April 2006), no. 28.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Draft of Exhibition Poster

Designed by Sebastian Matthews and Bill Matthews, drawn by Bill Matthews

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ray Mask

a self-portrait?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Negroes, Churches, Stars"

Circa 1945-1948, Collection of William S. Wilson

Brief Excerpt from: Notes of an Unlikely Curator, Note 2

I kept returning to one piece in particular, a small colored drawing glued on a cardboard square. It was left undated and titled lightly in pencil at the bottom, “Negroes, Churches, Stars.” Ray had done it while at BMC. I had to lean in close to see a tiny landscape of mountains made up of primitive figures that gave way to churches with tiny crosses and a star-filled sky above. The African-style figures and the churches morphed into mountain-forms through a network of obsessively penciled-in bricks and stripes. Hands appeared as trees, folds of cloth became mountain ridges. The coloring—dark blues and earth-tone red and brown stains—added another layer to the miniature landscape. What I liked best was how Ray used the jagged edge of the paper to suggest a mountaintop. Having spent close to a decade up in the very same mountains, I appreciated the accurate “feel” this ad-libbed ridgeline carried.

Bill has written about the piece in an exhibition catalogue, remarking that Ray “pin-pricked the paper to make holes which represent a field of stars. The holes are not the first or last time he reifies nothingness, that is, he uses something to represent nothing, and uses absence to conjure up presence.” 5 For me the presence is Ray’s deep-seated awe for nature, for tradition and for the dark power of magic. Simply put, a northern flatlander like Ray was bowled over by this Appalachian mountain culture. He had been transplanted into a small garden of wild exotics but was looking out at a vast range filled with rhododendron.

Elegy for Ray

Collage by Sebastian Matthews, Gifted to Marie T. Stilkind

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Peek at "Notes of an Unlikely Curator"

You are going to find that studying Ray becomes
a discovery of yourself…yet also a revelation
of yourself to others.
William S. Wilson

Note 1

Bill Wilson, long-time friend, scholar and collector of Ray Johnson, wrote the above at some point early in our correspondence concerning all things Ray Johnson. The remark came both at the beginning of one of his famously long emails and early in the exhibition's curatorial process. I read it as a warning—a little wisdom from a long-time expert in the field, a curmudgeon’s scold directed at a first-time curator blithely sauntering in. A polite but firm, "Don't mess this up, kid."
And he was right to warn me. A lot goes into putting together an exhibition, more than I could have imagined, and the task only gets more difficult with an artist like Ray Johnson. For starters, the people who collect Ray’s work all have a unique and complicated relationship to Ray. Many of them were his friends, supporters, fellow Black Mountain College students; most want to preserve his legacy and, therefore, despite their generous lending, approach the process with trepidation. I am sure this is true in collecting work from any deceased artist, but there is something about Ray’s own famously ambivalent attitude to exhibitions and the art “biz” as a whole that adds a whole other layer to the project.
Add to this my sense of Ray as an artist (and how he will be considered in the future) which has been altered in a continuous revision process such that I no longer think of his famous bunny heads and mail art envelopes as trademarks of his work. I view them, instead, as buds blossoming at the tip of a branch of the flowering tree. For me, for now, it's Ray's early love of letter writing and doodling, his dramatic move away from painting—as well as his fascination with "glyph" markings, cutting up things, his verbal and visual reversals, his incessant punning—that exemplify the fundamental nature of his work.
Since receiving Bill’s warning, I have spent a year studying Ray and his time at Black Mountain College, on up to his subsequent move into Manhattan’s East Village art scene, and in that time have grown curious how the artists and fellow students Ray encountered along the way impacted his developing creative process. What do we gain, if anything, by examining Ray’s early output in light of his tutelary influences—the people and places that influenced him the most? Can we learn anything at all about an artist by looking into his early work—into the roots of his obsessions, his early propensities, the first major shifts in form and technique? Is the bloom of the later really found in the seed of the former? I tend to say yes to all the above. But why? How?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Oedipus (Elvis 1), Ray Johnson

"Johnson’s collages from the mid to late 1950s at first seem to diverge from the shapes, grids and experiments with color by Johnson in his early works. The 1956-57 collage Elvis Presley #1 might seem like a complete departure from Albers with its incorporation of a pop culture icon and the emotional impact it offers through its use of red and lines below the eyes suggests blood but also tears. Irregular shapes fill a space in front of Presley’s mouth, conveying the ambiguity of the words and meanings that Presley sings. While the previous influences of Albers may seem to recede, this collage activates Albers’s belief, as Frederick Horowitz has discussed, that “art happens (or at least begins to happen) when the viewer ‘reads’ something at variance with what’s actually there: something more.” With this thoughtful pairing Johnson gestures towards the ambiguity of Presley’s songs as well as the multiple ways in which they can be interpreted by listeners."
from an essay by Julie J. Thomson
(Work from the Collection of William S. Wilson)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010

"To Kate"

Kurt Schwitters, 1947

Outtake from "Message in a Bottle: An Intro," on Kurt Schwitters:

Kurt Schwitters, one of Ray’s early heroes along with Duchamp, came to label his collages “Merz,” signifying an “openness to everything.” In her essay on Schwitters in DADA, Dorothea Dietrich writes: “Merz designated above all a collage process that Schwitters defined so broadly that it could be applied to any and all matter of things, so much that he also considered his own works of art as collage material for later projects, thus creating a rich web of connections that extended into space and time.” Of course, this could be said about Ray, as well.
There’s a Schwitters’ piece that he made in Germany in 1947, entitled “For Kate,” that carries all the essential Ray attributes. It’s a postcard collage sent to Kate Steinitz, with a handwritten note to her inside the collage. Swchwitters has signed and dated the piece in the left-hand corner. He’s glued the found papers in a rough manner, and the post office has stamped the images, which appear to come from comics, magazines and books. In the center of the collage resides a lovely woman surrounded by other figures—a bearded man above, a strange bald man to her right who appears to be brandishing a stick (though it’s really a piece of paper laid down by the artist); there’s another bearded man behind her grimacing, and another woman directly to her left whose arm reaches across the heroine’s torso, profile hiding her facial expression. The woman is bisected by a bar or line and her hands are up as if in defense. It seems her beauty and sensuality have gotten her boxed in. Or she's dreaming, surrounded by dream figures encircling her in her sleep.