The Morgan Library and Museum
From June 17 to October 2, 2022
Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was a prankster and maverick who played on the periphery of the art world. After studying with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and moving to New York, where he dated John Cage, Merce Cunningham and sculptor Richard Lippold, he seemed on the path to becoming an abstract painter. Instead, as Joel Smith says in his catalog essay for Please Send Real Life: The Photographs of Ray Johnson, “he became Ray Johnson.” He created modest-sized drawings and enigmatic, multimedia collages, which he called “moticos”. He became a pioneer of mail-art, gathering a vast network of correspondents who became the co-authors of his works. And in the last three years of his life, unbeknownst to most of his friends, he became a photographer.
Johnson committed suicide in 1995, aged sixty-seven, and many people assumed he had stopped making art in his later years. On the contrary, he spent his last three years creating a new body of work in a new medium (for him). Johnson took more than 5,000 photographs with disposable cameras during the last years of his life in Locust Valley, Long Island, where he had moved in 1968. He photographed obsessively, staged arrangements of moticos ( that he could lean against an accommodating dog or a bright yellow dumpster before photographing them), to the observational footage of a mailbox or a billboard or an abandoned tub full of leaves . After his death, the snapshot-sized photos were discovered in his small Long Island home, packed in boxes and filed along with their negatives. Smith, the Richard L. Menschel curator of photography at the Morgan Library, has selected a fraction for this rich and compact exhibition.
Johnson’s collages and drawings are characterized by puns and playful humor. The first exhibitions had titles like Lots of postcards from Shirley Temple Show (Feigen Gallery, 1968) and The celebrity mother’s potato masher (Schwarz Gallery, 1972). These qualities are also evident in his photographs, most of which are presented here, perfectly casually, pinned in groups of eight or twelve in glass cases. A few are framed separately, including Bill and the Long Island Sound, a photograph of his hand holding the blue beak of a cap (minus the rest of the cap), in front of the paler blue sound. A shelf along one wall features a selection of some of his cardboard moticos, and earlier works on display indicate that while Johnson may not have taken his own photographs until the end of his life, he did regularly included photographic images in his work, from photos of booth strips and images cut from magazines to a black-and-white portrait of himself (taken by Ara Ignatius), which he reused in a number of works.
The photographs he has taken over his last three years, which have the muted color of disposable camera snapshots, convey a kind of restless energy and a bottomless curiosity to frame the world through a lens of camera, even – or especially – through the small fixed lens. lens on a plastic disposable camera. He was well acquainted with the work of contemporary photographers: many of his photos reference other photographers, including Lee Friedlander, Bill Brandt, Duane Michals and Richard Avedon. Bill and the Long Island Sound reminiscent of Kenneth Josephson’s 1970 photograph New York State. In some photographs, he seemed to be experimenting with framing the scene before him, as in a photograph of a broken weather vane on top of a weathered white building, taken from below. In others, he creates compositions to be photographed, such as a silhouette of William S. Burroughs with a kingfisher bird placed so that its beak lines up with Burroughs’ nose (the pun is implied – the bird’s beak lines up with Bill’s beak). Silhouettes are a common theme in photographs. A silhouette of Johnson’s own head, a cut-out silhouette of Joseph Cornell, or the silhouette of a parking meter shadow that looks like Mickey Mouse all make repeated appearances. As in his previous collages, he seemed to develop his own symbolic language made up of shadows, signage, pop culture characters (Elvis, Warhol and Ronald McDonald) and his rabbit symbol. All of these references are filtered through his own iconography and visual puns: one of his reclining rabbits labeled “Lawrence Wiener” next to an Oscar Mayer inflatable weiner, for example, or a perched Lord Snowden rabbit – where else? – in the snow.
Johnson’s photographs, like his collages, are sly, self-referential, and somewhat hermetic. In the exhibition catalog, Smith lists a few recurring categories into which photographs could be organized, including Inside, Telephones, Doubles, Recycling, Bills, Photographers, and Please Send, photographs featuring wrapped parcels addressed to or from his many couriers. – artistic correspondents. One shows two packages wrapped in paper sitting on the edge of a pier; in a follow-up photograph, one of the packages floats in the water below, its string unraveling, in what now reads like an ominous omen, given that Johnson jumped to his death from a bridge in the Sag Harbor Cove. It’s hard not to look for clues when the loss is so disconcerting. But looking for signs of desperation or foreshadowing would distract from the distinctive spirit – and obvious pleasure of discovery – that runs through these photographs.