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