Ray Johnson: Untitled correspondence from Bob Box Archive, 1988–95; mixed media; dimensions variable. From Esopus 16 (Spring 2011).
The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive presents Tables of Content: Ray Johnson and Robert Warner Bob Box Archive / MATRIX 241, an exhibition exploring the seven-year exchange of correspondence between legendary artist Ray Johnson (1927–95) and collagist Robert Warner. The presentation features the contents of thirteen cardboard boxes given to Warner by Johnson in 1990.
Warner, an optician working in New York City, first encountered Johnson’s work on a postcard sent by a mutual friend in 1988. Intrigued by the possibilities of corresponding with an artist, Warner initiated what evolved into an intense exchange between the two that continued until Johnson’s death of an apparent suicide in 1995. Over the course of their friendship Warner received hundreds of pieces of mail art from Johnson, ranging from collages to a piece of driftwood that was hand-delivered. On one occasion, Johnson Xeroxed a copy of Declaration of Independence and requested that Warner have it signed by John Cage—which he did. While they spoke on the phone nearly every day, Johnson and Warner met in person only seven times. At one of their rare in-person meetings, Johnson gave Warner thirteen cardboard boxes tied with twine, labeled “Bob Box 1,” “Bob Box 2,” and so on. Although never stated, the understanding was that Warner would preserve the boxes.
Ray Johnson (1927-1995)
In June of this year, fifteen years after Johnson’s death, Warner unpacked the boxes one at a time and cataloged their contents in public view through the course of an exhibition at Esopus Space in New York City. The opened “Bob Boxes” reveal an array of found objects, drawings, photocopies, and correspondence. Warner has described the contents as “a window into the world of Ray Johnson in the ‘70s and ‘80s: everything from signed-and-dated empty toilet paper tubes to a box that contained nothing but hundreds of envelopes that were addressed but never mailed.
Table of Content catalog
Tables of Content displays all thirteen boxes and their contents for the first time on the West Coast. Warner has selected and arranged the letters, drawings, photocopies, and found objects like t-shirts, tennis balls, and random beach trash—the material of Johnson’s art—on an assembly of thirteen tables and surrounding gallery walls. Johnson annotated many of these things with personal codes, puns, and dark, irreverent jokes. Johnson’s work—collages, correspondence art, and performance events—remains mysterious and a bit hard to pin down. But his influences are obvious and surface repeatedly, among them Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Rauschenberg, and Elvis Presley. His collage approach was diaristic, a stream-of-consciousness flow through the matter and memory of everyday life, shifting from one topic to another, across all variety of things. Johnson once remarked, “My work is like driving a car. I’m always shifting gears.”
Ray Johnson in Josef Albers' class at Black Mountain College 1945-48 , Photo by Hazel Larsen Archer.
Fascinating to come across this Ray Johnson announcement in a semi-dream state sometime earlier or later this semi-night-morning.
And as clever/strained exhibition titles go, Table of Content isn’t bad. (Long experience devising titles for presentations, as well as subtly – I like to think -- effective subject lines for business letters, makes me sympathetic to titlers.)
The first thing I thought of – this must have been said before – is how strongly the mysterious Ray Johnson seems like a proto-blogger in his hermetic-in-plain-sight, serial, dreamy, collagist, diaristic work.
I have vivid Ray Johnson memories dating from my earliest days touring Manhattan art galleries. My first personal encounter must have been when I worked at the Richard Feigen Gallery on Greene Street in the spring/summer of 1971, although I’m sure I saw him several years earlier at the Leo Castelli gallery and heard someone mention his name. Of course he was a regular presence through published appearances (today we’d say postings) in the Village Voice. Later at the Whitney, a colleague of mine (a strange lonely woman) turned out to be a Johnson correspondent, would-be accomplice and acolyte.
Johnson and his art were both quietly insinuating, disconcerting presences, impossible either to comfortably embrace or ignore. SO much art material, sheer volume, and yet teetering on the knife- edge of, almost defining, ephemera. You ask yourself: Modest proposal or a new sort of Grand achievement?
Now, to my surprise, I seem myself to inhabit a portion of that same dreamy world.
The John Cale song, Hey Ray, linked below isn’t very good, although it’s always nice to see a Cale performance. It’s as though Cale hasn’t worked Ray Johnson out yet either, or he thinks he has and gave up too soon, before saying anything incisive. So I’ve also included a recent Cale rendition of the Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso, which is much, much better.
Link: John Cale -- Hey Ray (2011)
Link: John Cale -- Pablo Picasso (2010)
By the way, I love the final Ray Johnson quote in the press release about "driving a car" and “shifting gears.” Johnson was from Detroit and I guess auto similes were in his blood, the way they seem to be for many Detroiters.
Ray Johnson, Nothing, 1993
Ray Johnson, How To Draw A Bunny, ca. 1955