(Lotta Poetica, February 1984)
I did one of my most bizarre lectures up at the Rhode Island School of Design. It consisted of my trying to move a piano across a stage, and people kept coming up to ask if they could help, and I said "Certainly not! I mean the point is that I can't move this piano, and I'm struggling to move it, and it's obviously not going to get moved across the stage, and I'm putting out a great exertion of energy, and I'm on a public platform, and you are all viewing me, which is the whole point of this thing." I said, "you figure it out". (Ray Johnson)
Ray Johnson has always been involved in two different kinds of work, one of which is the New York Correspondance School and the other of which is the making of collages. But the collages - especially in the 1950s - have frequently been known to get cut apart and sent out in the mail to friends, and the Correspondence School is a vast sea of objects, images, and information that the collages often take as material to be worked on. Both activities are alive with a heady and uncontainable poetry that's voted to taking the world for exactly what it seems to be: Ray Johnson's individual consciousness would appear to be his only criterion of continuity, and the world becomes tantamount to all the odds and ends and fragments of experience that are all that any of us can truly say we know it to be, even though we may have the habit of thinking that it is something more than that. Ray Johnson makes collages that rhyme with the way that consciousness is itself a collage, and when it's not a collage it's a dynamic flow of inter-relating sensations, which is the central metaphor of the New York Correspondence School.
But the energy released by accepting consciousness as incomplete can be channeled into a striving to make it whole. Consciousness is a web to be woven of experience, and experience is to be made as vast and as full as possible. It's to be investigated and provoked and pulled into meaningful though constantly shifting shape, and if that's a life's activity, it is all of a life's activity, and that's what it is for Ray Johnson. He is quick and quixotic, and he is generous with his time, but he's also impatient with the loss of it. He has a self-appointed task to do, and he is always about it. He doesn't like to think useless thoughts, and he shies away from being involved in talk that's based on dull and uninteresting theories of meaning. He explains himself only in the very same ways that he expresses himself, and getting an interview from him means accepting potluck. His present always contains fragments of his past, since parts of the past and present seem to him constantly to refer to one another, but it's useless to try to make him tell some ordinarily ordered narrative of his past since he's always anyway trying to draw his experience into the only kind of order that makes sense for him. His life is a constant happening, and being involved with him means becoming involved with his sense of the way it happens. When I told him that I wanted him to give me the story of his life and work, he replied, "Do you really think that I'm going to tell?" At another point he remarked that he hates retrospectives.
But it's not that he's indifferent to history, it's rather that he has his own very particular ideas about it.
Part of what's presented here as an interview was not in fact an interview at all. Ray invited me to go along with him on a "visit" (which is itself something of one of his special art form) and the purpose of this visit was to show a series of collages to Mrs. Jean Levy, the surviving widow of the Surrealist art dealer, Julien Levy. Julien Levy had been one of the dealers of the work of Joseph Cornell, with whom Ray too had been friends and sometimes had gone to see, and the catalog for the Sotheby's sale of the Levy estate contained a reproduction of a minor collage that Cornell had made around a book illustration of a print of a cave-man in 1933. This collage had always been in Levy's private collection and Ray had never seen it until the appearance of this Sotheby catalog in 1982, but when he did see it, he realized that he himself had used the very same, and somewhat obscure, book illustration in a collage of 1955.
This coincidence was enough to kick Ray off into "a new batch of cave-man works", and Ray, at the time of this visit to Mrs. Levy, was also showing a group of collages at the Gabrielle Bryers gallery in a group show called "Homage to Joseph Cornell". Ray may also have had other reasons for wanting to show a selection of his works to Mrs. Levy, but, if so, he didn't explain them to me. Visits such as these are what Ray describes as his favorite way of showing his work - "the classical, typical, Ray Johnson cardboard-box viewing". He arrives with a series of his collages packed into a cardboard box, and proceeds to set them up on whatever surface is available: a chair, a sofa, a table-top, a stool. He has whole lists of people to whom he wants to show particular selections of his work for particular and personal reasons. In 1956, Ray wrote a letter to the director of a Japanese magazine in which he explained: "Most of my work is collage work which I call MOTICOS. I send out monthly newsletters about the work that I am doing which takes the place of formal exhibitions. The works cannot be exhibited in the usual way, because they continually change, like the news in the paper or the images on a movie screen". The era in which Ray was adamant about refusing to show his work in galleries is now long past, but keeping his work and its presentation fluid is still very much on his mind. As he explained various details of his collages to Mrs. Levy, she at one point remarked, "You should make a little tape to go along with these, so that when people buy them and show them to their friends, they'll also get a little bit of you and your marvellous humour". Ray's reply was, "Well, these collages are really like playing cards, and everybody gets a different selection; so everytime they're shown, they're reshuffled and become a different story, a different tape. We've just been talking, for example, about Cornell's brother, Robert, and the rabbits he drew, but the next time these works are shuffled and shown, they'll bring up other people and images and ideas. It's constantly and kaleidoscopically different."
Ray considered all of the collages shown to Mrs. Levy to be connected to the theme of Cornell's cave-man, but the range of imagery in these twenty or so works was enormous. Ray associates images and ideas with considerable freedom (even though one wouldn't quite want to call it "free association") and cave-man figures in one collages became buddha figures in another. Stalagtites turned into communicating vases that turned into pairs of outlines of pregnant women, where a body associated with some personality might bear the head of another personality in Ray's own version of "exquisite-corpsism". Gargoyle figures were accompanied by "garboy" figures, one saw images of the gargoyle's underwear, of Joseph Cornell's underwear, and of Clement Greenberg's underwear, which was green. Another collage had passages of red and green since Cornell was born on Christmas
Ray mentioned that after doing a series called "everybody's underwear", he's now beginning to do famous people's bath-tubs, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Emily Dickinson, among others, even though Whitman didn't have a bath-tub. A daffodil sketched in Nyack at Joseph Cornell's grave turned in another collage into a Venus Fly Trap, stalagmites turned into hair-combs, noses turned into snakes, snakes turned into turtles, and Ray remarked that snakes and turtles and swans and rabbits are constants in his work. One collage contained the toe of a bloody sock in the midst of a Buddha head with top-knot, actually the outline of the head of David Butterman, the television personality, and Ray described this works as "a Buddha head in the Greco-Christian Pop Art tradition". A collage with an image of James Dean and the word "cacophony" brought the information that Ray has also done a series of works depicting people's "favorite words". There were also a few portraits, of Ada Katz, Joseph Cornell, and David Bourdon, and Ray remarked that his favorite portrait painter of all is Giuseppe Archimboldo, the sixteenth century Italian painter whose portraits dissolve his subjects' heads into arrangements of fruit and vegetables and foliage. Ray Johnson's collages are likewise accretions, and his subject matter is self-proliferating. What matters is the way he works on it, drawing together constellations of images that are a moment's definition of a possible theme.
The.rest of the interview that follows was taped on two separate occasions once at a milk-bar in Soho, and once at the Gabrielle Bryers' "Homage to Joseph Cornell" exhibition. Most of my questions were directed to the New York Correspondence School, and I was particularly interested in finding out how Ray reacts to the recent spate of "mail art" that seems to have found its inspiration in the New York Correspondence School, but without really respecting the spirit that makes the School unique. My own impression is that the homage that's generally given to Ray Johnson as the "founder" of this "mail-art movement" has obscured a clearer perception of the specific nature of the mailing activities in which he himself has been involved. The motivations for his work with correspondence don't, for example, seem to be in any way explicitely ideological, and whatever sociological importance his work may have as a child of its time and as an alternative to the commercial art world is something to which he refers only very obliquely. He has no revolution to theorize since he's constantly in the midst of the practice of one, and even though he's an inveterate organizer of meetings and a prolific founder of clubs meetings some of which have been entirely without a program and to which people were simply invited to meet there's nothing in any way clannish about his activity. The Brown Eyes Club of the New York Correspondence School was organized to keep its members from feeling slighted by their exclusion from the Blue Eyes Club, which was once known to enroll Willem de Kooning's dog. To me, Ray Johnson's Correspondence School seems simply an attempt to establish as many significantly human relationships with as many individual people as possible. All of the relationships of which the School is made are personal relationships: relationships with a tendency towards intimacy : relationships where true experiences are truly shared and were what makes an experience true is its real participation in a secret libidinal charge.
And the relationships that the artist values so highly are something he attempts to pass on to others. The classical exhortation in a Ray Johnson mailing is "please send to ...". Person A will receive an object or an image and be asked to pass it on person B, and the image will probably be appropriate to these two different people in two entirely different ways, or in terms of two entirely different chains of association. It thus becomes a kind of totem that can connect them, and whatever latent relationship may possibly exist between person A and person B becomes a little less latent and a little more real.
It's a beginning of an uncommon sense of community, and this sense of community grows as persons A and B send something back through Ray to each other, or through each other back to Ray. And then the game itself will swell through Ray's addition of still other images and person C and D and E...
Configurations of possible relationship will always be constantly shifting, but the more they shift, the more the very fact of such possibilities will itself grow solid. It's a game that's played with a good deal of levity and wit, but it also has an air of deadly seriousness. This fluid web of interrelationships can be felt as the very stuff of which psychic life is made, and it hovers as though in a void. Ray is a kind of image of the demiurge, always making something out of nothing, substance out of possibility.
Henry Martin: One of the things I've been wanting to ask you is how you feel about all these new Schnabel kinds of people: that's not really an interview question, but...
Ray Johnson: Sure it is. And my only feeling is that Schnabel is on my list of people to do a portrait of. I'd like to do a portrait drawing of him as a person. But as a person he interests me more than in any other way. I don't know if I've ever even seen a painting of his, and I wouldn't go out of my way to see a painting of his. I was recently at the Whitney Museum and must have laid my eyes on one, but anything I may have seen didn't at all impress me as an art work, neither as an art work in itself nor as an art work by a personality.
HM: I imagine that goes not only for Schnabel, but for all the rest of these people as well, the new Germans, the new Italians, the new "Fauves", the entirety of "the international trans-avantgarde".
RJ: Well, I never see them.
HM: You never see them and don't care to.
RJ: But in driving into the city today, I was looking at all the graffiti, which I find boring and depressing, and I thought of becoming a graffiti artist myself. I thought of getting a white spray can, or a red spray can, and spraying the word "shit" over it all, declaring the entire graffiti phenomenon as "shit". I'd just add to the shit by calling it shit, and I think that would be a beautiful thing to do. Everybody is supposed to be free to be a graffiti artist, and so that would be my own sense of how to use this freedom.
HM: It's interesting that what you say about Schnabel is so close to something you said to me once many years ago when I asked you how you felt about Andy Warhol. It was the same answer, that you were interested in him vaguely as a phenomenon but that the art didn't have any particular meaning for you.
RJ: Well, you are talking about specific individuals and it's not as though I were always unresponsive to art works. When I was recently up to the Hirschhorn Museum, there were any number of art works there that I found impressive one of those old Giacometti women with the big club feet, a tiny and strikingly eloquent Giacometti which was a painted bronze only about one foot by one foot and I squatted down to get a good look at it, the Francis Bacon sphinx, if you'd asked me about Francis Bacon, I'd have replied, "Oh, that beautiful sphinx". But I think it's the sphinx that interests me more than the Francis Bacon painting of the sphinx, because I recently saw a photograph of the sphinx seen in profile, which was the first time I had ever seen it that way, it's usually seen frontally and in profile it looks like some odd kind of puppet shape. It's very deformed and people always photograph the sphinx as they look at it frontally because one tries to see form rather than unform like a portraiture concept of the nineteenth century, of Grecian wholeness, which is one view point but the unform is there as well.
HM: There's a whole new generation of "mail artists" now, and they seem to think of you as their spiritual father. I wonder if you really accept that paternity.
RJ: Well, at this point, I'm just sick of hearing about it. An artist who specializes in making postage stamps recently called me up, for example, and wanted me to be in some show, and I said no; and he said would I do this or would I do that, and I said no. And then he went on about how I was this and that and I was the first and the father of mail art or something, and how important mail art is, and I said "But that's such a cliché. I'm sick of hearing that, it's just such a cliché". And then I immediately sat down and sent him a cliché collage. I have a dictionary where words in English are explained in Yiddish and I looked up the word "cliché" and cut it out and sent it to him. I took this put down of having told him that he was talking in clichés and immediately made it into an art work, and that's the very same thing that I'd be doing with the spraying of the word "shit" onto somebody's graffiti. I'd be making it instantly into some kind of work by Ray Johnson, something designed by Ray Johnson, a Ray Johnson calligraphy.
HM: You think that all of these people just have different purposes than you ever did with the New York Correspondence School?
RJ: No, no, it's just that...They obviously admire me, and they were obviously influenced by me, and I see it in print or am verbally told that they have a certain respect for me, and so I say "thank-you" for the compliment, but I think it should get to the point where they go and do their own... well, whatever they really have to get on with doing. I mean I got to where I do what I do through my studio work, through being a practicing artist. Art News published an article once in which Paul Gardner asked people "what is your secret vice?" and my reply was that my secret vice is "making collages by Joseph Cornell". I have a rubber stamp that says "Collage by Joseph Cornell", and I use it with this same Yiddish dictionary that I found in an old loft. I cut out blocks of information in Yiddish, glue them down and then stamp them "Collage by Joseph Cornell", and I either give them away or mail them off or sell them or do whatever I do with them. One of them, for example, is the Tailor Bird, there's this beatiful illustration of the Tailor Bird, which builds a kind of nest that's oddly cup-shaped, and they nest in this thing, two little birds are looking out, and then I found the Mastodon illustration, captioned in Yiddish, so I'm cutting these things out block by block and doing Yiddish dictionary information the way I did the American dictionary, which was long before Kosuth, I methodically went from A to Z and simply cut out these blocks of information and endlessly glued them down or attached them with scotch tape and the people who have them now remark that they're all falling apart, but that's in the nature of scotch tape.
HM: Tell me how you got into correspondence in the first place. You said that it was a kind of extension of your studio work.
RJ. No, no, that's not really how it was at all. The North Carolina catalog in 1976 I had a show of correspondence at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh well, that catalog reproduced letters from 1943 that were submitted by Arthur Secunda, who's someone I went to high school with. I have to give my thanks to Richard C. for that since he's the person who did that catalog and who published and exhibited all of these early and embarassing letters from my high school days what dance I was going to, and what cheerleaders I was running around with, all of that embarassing drivel - but I can see its interest or its value because... well, the drawing I just made for John, for your baby son John when he was at the door, I made a drawing for him and said, "Here, this is for you", and that was a 1943 drawing, it was only two eyes and a nose and a mouth, but it was just a 1943, "here's a drawing" kind of thing. There was that clipping that someone recently sent me from l'Espresso magazine where they talk about the beginnings of my mail art in the 1970s, and Ed Plunkett is on record as saying that it started in the 1960s, but, for myself, I think 1 should declare that it actually began in 1943, which is the actual date on those very first letters with drawings and all the other sort of things that I'm still doing today. That was really the infancy of the activity. And I myself, in fact, never called it a "school" or talked about "mail art", I mean I never used those terms at all.
HM: Where did they come from?
RJ: Well, from other people. They've talked about "correspondence art", "mail art", and I've just seen an announcement for a show of "fe-mail art", and there's "post-tale art" and of course the New York Correspondence School, which, as Ed Plunkett said in his article in the College Art Journal, is a term that originated with him. He was the one who gave that name to the things that I was doing, and I accepted it and adopted it since I thought that using that title would be an amusing vehicle or a joke, and it was, in fact, a convenient way of describing this activity that I was involved with. And then, when the school began to die it has died so many times and then been reborn from its death I decided to give up on calling it the New York Correspondence School. I was angry with FILE Magazine, so I thought I would call it "Buddha University". They were being the New York Corresponge Dance School of Vancouver, they were being copy-cats, so I thought, "Well let them copy Buddha University". And now it's many years later, but just about a month and a half ago I began to get postcards from an archive information center in Budapest Hungary, and they've transformed "Buddha University" into "Buddha Pest". I've traced that back to the CDO group in Parma, Italy. They thought that was very cute, and they went to all the trouble of organizing this thing in Budapest. There was another time too when the CDO group in Parma came up with an idea for a manifesto that they were going to drop on something like the Venice Biennale.
But they had a very strange idea since they sent me all this stuff about the importance of mail art and said that they were doing this manifesto in my honor, and then they asked me to sign the manifesto, and I thought one doesn't really sign a manifesto honoring oneself. And especially since this was the second time that they wanted to honor me, because the first time was when they asked me for something for an exhibiton in my honor and I wrote back "nothing" on a blank page, and this was what I had to contribute, the word "nothing" on a blank page. But they seemed to like that and to think that it was probably amusing or interesting even though what I gave them was no statement, no image, no nothing.
HM: Before we started taping, you said that there was a kind of anger in your reaction to that little note that Francesco Vincitorio published in l'Espresso. You were angry about the way he talked about your founding a "mail art movement" that he then lumped together into a whole list of "movements" like conceptual art, body art, performance art, minimal art, and so forth.
RJ: Well, I was angry, and I still am angry, and I think that anger is a justifiable emotion for me, an emotion that helps me to do my work. I got up this morning at six o'clock because of something that made me angry and I started to work on three new drawings. But that's a little different. And it's not quite the way you put it, what I was angry about is.... Well, I have two sources of anger, now, and one of them is the Mike Crane "A Brief History of Correspondence Art" book. It was advertised to appear in the spring of 1981, and it still hasn't been seen, and I just wrote a letter the other day saying "where where where is this book?" I keep on writing them letters all the time saying "where is this book?" because I want to see it. At the very beginning, when Mike Crane sent me his letters they were form letters requesting information about my mail art activity, my immediate response was not to respond at all. From the way the questions were being asked, I just thought, "Oh, I have nothing to say". And then he sent me a copy of something of mine that he'd found and wanted to use in his book, I don't remember exactly what happened, but he sent me a copy of a letter that I had once sent to David Bourdon and I remark in that letter that the New York Correspondence School has no history, only a present, which was a pun, of course, on present as now, and present as a gift, a pun on my way of giving information and objects or whatever in letterform. So he sent that thing to me, and I immediately said, "Well, I'm consulting my lawyer, and all of my work is copyrighted" and I gave him a very rough time. I was suddenly very huffy and rude, and rushing to my lawyer about copyright problems, and I don't remember exactly what I said or did, but it was a genuine gut response to every-thing and so I was uncooperative, deliberately uncooperative, I didn't like the way he was doing his investigations, I didn't like his way of conceiving of this book, he was sending out questionnaires asking, like, "how many letters do you get a week?" things like some Kinsey report or some survey for Playboy magazine, and also I had never met this person.
And anyway I'd like to do my own book.
I'd like to do my own history as to what I think happened. Every time I get any publicity or press everybody has a different version as to when anything happened or as to what anything was and I myself don't even know when anything happened, or what happened, or I don't even know what year I did anything in except that I now keep insisting that 1943 was wery important because I found a document in my mother's scrap book from 1943 and decided that the things I'd been doing then ought to be cataloged.
HM: Are you saying then that your work as an artist who makes paintings and as an artist who makes letters all began at one and the same time?
RJ: I'm just saying that history is a very loose subject in which anybody can declare that anything happened at any time at all; and maybe that will be accurate information and maybe it won't be, and maybe that won't make a difference. I'm saying that history can be written in a very slanted fashion, and that one can emphasize anything one wants to in history, which was my own experience when I did an exhibit called "Ray Johnson's History of the Betty Parsons Gallery". That was my own kind of attempt to deal with Betty's history as an art dealer, and what I did was very different from the kind of history that Lawrence Alloway is now writing of the Betty Parsons Gallery.
My whole concept of a history was to take one catalog that listed all the artists she had shown, and I did homage works about them and made bunny lists lists of their names where every name is under one of my little drawings of a rabbit. And Betty never asked me to do her history, and what I did was never officially perceived in any fashion whatsoever. I just simply had the idea that I wanted to do a work, an exhibit, that had the word "history" in it. Like with Gertrude Stein. There's a title that Gertrude Stein uses somewhere, something she calls a history of something.
HM: In The Making of Americans she said that she wanted to make a history of everybody.
RJ: Yes, and my portrait work is subtitled "The Snaking of Americans", which is a very oblique S & M reference, Sade in Japan, Made in Japan, Making and Snaking, S & M and M& S.
HM: You're just not interested in anybody else's history of the New York Correspondence School?
RJ: I have simply had to accept the fact that out of a life necessity I have written a lot of letters, and given away a lot of material and information, and it has been a compulsion. And as I've done this, it has become historical. It's my resumé, it's my biography, it's my history, it's my life. And now, people always come up and say, "oh, you're the father, you're the father of mail art, and everybody got the idea of it from you, or was influenced by you" and so I keep on thinking that if I just had the time or the interest I could... Like one of the first mail art shows was in Sacramento when I went out there to lecture and did a "Raffaele" of a live duck, of a duck named Andy, which was a raffle, and they organized an exhibit and I went out there and lectured, I specified that I had to be under a pink light and I had a text that I wrote, and this was one of the beginnings of all these performances and lectures and exhibits, and then I say to my friend Toby Spiselman, "like, what year was that?" It's as though people imagine that the importance of that is because it was done in that particular year since it was a year or so later that people everywhere in Universities and Colleges began getting this idea that you simply write out a lot of letters to people and you get all this stuff and you exhibit it in a gallery, which is what I did at the Whitney Museum, which was in 1970, which I think it was in 1970. And now I'm wondering if I've answered your question or if there's something that's still not clear.
HM: Can you tell me how the various past activities of the Correspondence School have related to your collages?
RJ: Well, I don't really see that "collage" is very exact as a capsule classification of what I do. My collages also have painted areas that's quite clear, for example in these "Homage to Joseph Cornell" works, which are on masonite and painted elements have always been in the work, painting and washing and water colors and acrylics or whatever. When I was cutting things up into strips and gluing them down right next to one another I'd go over the surfaces with a brush, with washes of ink or color or paint, and then in subsequent years I went into sand-papering them, or crayoning them, or covering them again in some way. They build up into layers of multiple coverings, and technically they're collages since they're glued surfaces, but they're also assemblage and they're sculptural too, in the sense that they're bas-reliefs that have subtle cast shadows, like Ben Nicholson's reliefs. That's something that very few people have ever appreciated, very few people have ever understood that my works are in the tradition of Ben Nicholson, believe it or not. I have build-ups, and intricate layerings, and little pyramids in my work, and these are all raised surfaces that create shallow sculptural shadows, and so the works are dimensional. Or they can be dimensional, or are often dimensional since some of my works are in fact just flat glued things, just glue-downs or slap-downs, but it's only really because of the necessity for classifications that we have this idea of "Ray Johnson collages". My collages are also very painterly, and drawings is probably an even more important aspect of my work.
I'm endlessly drawing with pen and ink and nibs. All the surfaces are intricately drawn, either in india ink or washes or colored inks, and there's always a variety of techniques in each specific work. And I can say this is how this part was done, and this is how that part was done because they're apt to be from different years. One piece will be from one year's work and another from another year's work since my works get made and then chopped up, and then reglued and remade, and then chopped up again, the whole thing is really endless.
HM: Whenever I talk to.people about your work, I always find it difficult to deal sufficiently with the complexity of it. I'm very aware of your procedures, of your printing, of your calligraphy, of the way you cut things up and glue them down, and then take them off, and sandpaper, and draw, of all the ways you make your collages and then interfere with them, and keep on changing them. But after I try to explain that sort of thing, I always feel that people also want to hear something about the images themselves.
They want to define the importance of the images, to define their importance in terms of their sources; and there are so many sources. There's a pop art area of popular imagery, a Dada area of imagery, a cartoon area of imagery, an art world area of references, a fetish area of references, an obsession with numbers, a level of pure cryptic shapes, and all sorts of other things as well. It's hard to make it clear that the density of the whole system of references is itself more than the various specific things referred to, and that individual references can lie at any number of different levels of importance.
RJ: You might find a help in what I call my major work of the last seven years, which is a project for a series of potraits. I'm dealing with an emphatic, specific, portraiture idea of the human head, and that's an extension of the basic "moticos" idea. The moticos were the little black silhouettes I did, and they were a miniature cataloging of actual free-form collage fragments. I'd take a box of fragments, which were all different shapes, and then I would draw each thing in India ink. Each fragment was about ten inches high, and the drawing would reduce it to about one inch high, and I'd cover whole pages with them. They're also on the faces of the Elvis Presleys and all the other people in those early movie star collages.
The photos of the movie stars would be partly covered by these moticos listings and catalogings of collage shapes. So figures that might look, say, like the outline of a bust of Mozart could appear in some of these early works, Mozart or horses or cows or animal or squares or 'T's or houses in flattened silhouettes or cookie shapes. And now I've perfected this into the art of silhouette portraiture. In 1978 and 1979, I was doing life-sized heads, but since then I've reduced them to about four and a half inches high, I do that photographically and just do zap zap zap on a copy machine that reduces my original drawings, which are drawings that I make from life if the people themselves are alive and from photos or previous silhouettes if they're not. And I deal with people's heads not just as black shapes on white, but rather in terms of Archimboldian encrustations of fragments of collage that I apply to the surfaces of their silhouettes. It's exactly the same thing as Elvis with the moticos, I'm now just taking the collage fragment itself and sticking it on. I can take anything that I do and just stick it onto the side of a person's head. I've even done some where I've blown them up, so you have them fluctuating. The head becomes merely a vehicle for me, or an excuse for me to put a Ray Johnson onto a head. And my concept of portraiture is to do thirty to forty variations on each person's head, so I do a whole exhibit of each person. And now I've done about 300 people, so I have forty John Russells, forty Arakawas, forty Peter Beards, forty Chuck Closes, which is the way I try to do a complete portrait. But that got completely out of hand because I simply couldn't deal with so many different works, and that's why I began to do the heads smaller and with several heads on a page. So now, if I'm lucky, I get off with doing only fifteen to twenty works for each person, like this summer I did maybe fifteen or twenty Dore Ashtons and fifteen or twenty Xavier Fourcades.
HM: How do you choose the people that you want to portraiture?
RJ: Well, it's like letter writing. Who do I decide to write a letter to? I showed you a book that just arrived, for example, it's from a man in Switzerland who saw my Naples exhibition and decided to send me his poems, and now I'll write to him. I'll ping-pong back to him and do a whole Belt Club about him, because of his name, which is Beltrametti he'll be the Spam Beltrametti Club, just like Cavellini got into some of my cave man collages because the first four letters of his name are CAVE. There's a reason to write to him, to thank him for his book, but he also gets involved in other things because of some combination of alphabetical letters and names. If Mr. Beltrametti name had been Jones, my reaction would have been different and he wouldn't have gotten connected to the Spam Belt Club or the Spam Radio Club, which dates back to when Mike Belt was given to the Correspondence School. He was honored with the rubber stamps of the Spam Belt Club and the Spam Radio Club, and that was one of the objects of the New York Correspondence School. That's still another thing about the Correspondence School, it's not just the letters, the postcards, the drawings, the poems, it's also the New York Correspondence School objects. The Spam radio, for example, was a radio in the shape of a Spam can,. which had a little handle on it, it was a thing the Spam Corporation made one year as an advertising gimmick. It was something they gave to people, and you could go to the beach with your Spam radio, and play your radio on the beach, it was a little radio inside of a Spam can, and I didn't really treasure it very much so I gave it to Jim Bohn.
HM: Why did you turn it into a fan club?
RJ: Why? But it wasn't a fan club; it was a belt and radio club. There was the Paloma Picasso Fan Club, a little while later, and also the Claude Picasso Fan Club; his sister was being honored and so he had to be honored too, especially since they both got the inheritance. But to get back to that radio, I gave it to Jim Bohn which is BOHN and not BONE and the following week he was in Soho walking around with his wife and carrying the Spam radio as a kind of prize trophy. He was taking it out for a walk, and the minute I saw him with it I realized that he had given it some kind of notoriety and importance, and I was intensely jealous that he was walking around with the Spam radio and that I hadn't thought of walking around with a Spam radio, like the time I had once walked around with the head of Candy Darling in a plastic bag. So still another week later, I was in Soho again and went to the supermarket and bought a real can of Spam and put a little handle on it, and then I was walking around with that. And then came the day when I had to go and do my lecture in Baltimore, and I'd decided that whatever arrived in the mail that morning would be the subject of the lecture, and one of the things that came was the Arturo Schwarz "exquisite corpse" catalog, so I took the fake Spam radio, which was really a real can of Spam, along with me, and what I did when I got there was a chance radio event. I'd driven all the way from here to Baltimore and I'd been listening to the car radio, so I was doing these John Cage kinds of radio pieces where I'd turn on a radio and get a snatch of music or a snatch of words and then I'd turn the radio off and relate what I'd heard to my text. It was like instant Jean Cocteau poetry.
HM: What sort of text were you reading?
RJ: It was all assorted papers of the New York Correspondence School. I always have these bundles of papers that I either throw up in the air and let them scatter as I did in Minneapolis when I did my "throw-away gesture" lecture, or otherwise I just have them on hand to read. I generally just read one sentence and then go on to the next sheet of paper and read two sentences, and after reading from each sheet of paper I tear it in half.
I consistently or persistently pursue no logical thread or idea, I just simply throw this stuff out and let it fall where it may. So this fake Spam radio was on my lectern and I had a heckler and a streaker, which was before I did my own streak at the Walker Art Center.
HM: You streaked at the Walker Art Center?
RJ: Oh yes. When I showed at the Walker Art Center I also went out there to do my "throw-away- gesture" lecture, and in the course of that I streaked.
HM: You just ran naked through the gallery?
RJ:. Sure. I took off all my clothes and I streaked, just did an old-fashioned streak, which was sort of amusing since it was years after anybody had been streaking. There was a very nice English curator there and he was to give me an introduction, so I asked him to introduce me as "Ray Johnson, the master of the throw-away gesture". That was straight out of Art in America magazine since this critic there said that I was the "master of the throw-away gesture" so I really picked up on that and began doing throw-away gestures all over the place. I did a whole one hour presentation of throw-away gestures, including my throwing away my clothes, and then I came back dressed. But the person who streaked at my Baltimore lecture is what I was talking about, and he was a very strange young man. As he was streaking, in fact, he came up and grabbed the Spam radio and abducted it. He just grabbed it and ran, stole it right off the stage, right from in front of me, and that became immediately "The Abduction of the Spam Radio Baby".
The Spam can I was carrying was a little smaller than the original Spam radio, so it became a baby and I did a printed page about how Jim Bohn and I had had a baby Spam. His wife was very puzzled as to how these two men could have had a baby, a baby Spam can, and I never bothered to explain, I just recorded the fact that Jim Bohn and I had given birth to this baby Spam can which was abducted in Baltimore. And after the abduction, I simply continued the lecture by being very upset and starting to say things like, "Where is my baby Spam?... They've stolen my baby Spam... I want my baby Spam back". So then the other night, I showed Jean Levy a collage with two women figures in it, these women figures that look pregnant, and one of them was full of garden rakes. And Jean Levy remarked, "Oh, she's going to give birth to a rake". Well, I wrote that down on my table, yesterday. "The birth of a rake". I even wondered why I was writing it down. I thought of The Rake's Progress, but I also thought of Veronica Rake, because Jean Levy also asked me if they liked Sade in Japan, which requires explanation since it gets involved as well with a work by Frederick Kiesler, called "The Birth of a Lake" which is a kind of splotchy bronze sculpture that depicts a waterfall. It's up at the Knox-Albright Museum and I'd made a note of that too, a note for future work and future reference, I have all sorts of ideas and bits of information either on pieces of paper or on file cards or in envelopes, but also in my head and in my dream world.
So that remark about the birth of a rake got involved with Japanese 'R's and 'L's like the Blue Eyes Club of the New York Correspondence School also has a Japanese division called the Brue Eyes Crub, and those are two specific rubber stamps and so now I'll do a whole slew of these women with rakes giving birth to lakes, and Veronica Rake's Mother's Potato Masher will be depicted, and so you can see how the subject matter is just endless. It goes from nuance to nuance and from object to image, I started out talking about the Spam radio and so many New York Correspondence School objects have been like that, the watermelons, the objects found in the streets, the Norman Solomon hunks of lead, the Lucille Valenti shoe, all these fetish objects from people's lives. When John Dowd moved to California he came to my house with nine cardboard boxes full of all his letters end papers back to his high school days. He just dumped them on me and I was stuck with his whole life: all his personal affairs, the love letters and photographs, and greeting cards and Christmas cards, the baby pictures and everything else like that. And then I myself recycle it all. There were certain years when Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins got box after box of this stuff from me, I'd haul it across town to their loft and say, "Here's another box". They got a whole stockpile. There was the listing of the neckties, the Kline's dollar neckties, I used to have these necktie clubs and now all of these neckties go to Julius Vitali out in Sea Cliff, he gets whole boxes of them. And on Valentine's day a couple of years ago, I went to see Coco Gordon, who's a friend and a poet and a paper-maker, and she got five really big boxes with an absolutely incredible amount of Correspondence School documents. I'd done a real house-cleaning and put all this stuff in boxes and drove over to her house and said "Here, this is for you". I was lucky she didn't have a nervous breakdown. It took her months though to open them and she was beautiful about it. She investigated each box, very slowly and very methodically, and she distributed all these things I'd given her into little islands that were scattered around her house. She classified them and made little charts as to what these things were, she made her own arrangement out of this archive of mine. At one point I thought it was simply too much for her and told her to go and just throw it all out into the water, she lives in a house out by the water, I just told her to throw it all away and get rid of it.
HM: But that's something that you would never do, just throw it all away?
RJ: Well, I've done things like that for May Wilson, and documented it.
One New Year's Eve, when all the horns were honking, I did a water disposal event in May Wilson's honor. These were all wooden and metal objects that I inventoried and listed and then threw off into the water at midnight.
It was a cerimony. And I went back a week later and some of them had beached, so I scooped those up again. There was also the time I came into the city with a dead raccoon. I sat in the street for two hours with this dead raccoon, right across the street from the Spring Street Bar, and people would come by and say "What is it?" and "Is it asleep?" and I called up Toby Spiselman and told her to come right down with her camera. And maybe it would be an interesting thing to use Toby's photos of the dead raccoon to illustrate this interview because the whole point was 'What do you do with a dead raccoon after the art event?' And the answer is that we put it in a cardboard box and I said it was either dropping it into the harbor or taking it up to May Wilson, and we did in fact take it up to May Wilson, which was because of the béche de mer days when I once had dinner with Arman and he ordered béche de mer which is a kind of seafood delicacy that wobbles like jello, and people only ate a little bit of it and they were going to throw it out, and I said, "Oh, no. I'll take that to May Wilson". So we went to May Wilson's and I said, "there, this is for you, May", and she said, "Ooh, what's that?" and I said, "old béche de mer ", and she said, "Ooh, it looks like shit" and then she put it in her blender and it turned into a kind of brown liquid and I explained to her what it was. So then we took her the dead raccoon, and I said, "Here, this is for you, May" and she looked at it and said, " Ugh, it smells just awful" and I said "Put it in your blender", and she said, "Get that thing out of here", so then we took it down to the harbor and dropped it in the water. There were also the Dorothy Podber dead pig head days, or the dead kinkaju in my refrigerator, when I was living on Dover Street.
So there's a whole history, then, of objects that have been actually mailed or presented or delivered, I left one of those pig's heads on somebody's door-step, and all of this is a part of what I call the Correspondence School because these objects are things that are exchanged for some reason, just as before when Berty found a thing in the street and I found a thing in the street, and there was a kind of communication between these objects, a kind of communication of objects trouvés .
HM: Another thing you said before we turned on the tape recorder is that so much of this most recent generation of mail art has simply become an art of communication that doesn't do any communicating. And what seems to me to be missing in it is precisely this sense of things that you've just been talking about this sense of a kind of objective exchange through objects, this sense of things that are given, somehow or another, because they've somehow or another been asked for.
RJ: Well, in the past, I think the New York Correspondence School was an art of communication that was truly communicative simply because I was able to wheel the ping-pong paddle and to keep the ball on the move. A few days ago, I had a phone conversation with Brian O'Doherty and he was impressed with the North Carolina catalog, as a lot of people were, simple because of the volume of the information that was dished out through the Correspondence School. It was a full, daily, weekly, monthly activity, year in and year out. I think it's Ellen Johnson, in one of her books, who says something like, "Oh, Ray Johnson works eight to twelve hours a day doing this correspondence of his", and there was a time when that was true, and that's the kind of daily time it took to keep it all in order, to keep it all functioning. And the whole thing assumed global proportions and I found myself running a kind of international organization but with no funding whatsoever. As a one person organization, it was just impossible for me to keep up with it. There were times when I felt that I had to kill it before it killed me, and there were times, any number of times, when I've just broken down from the sheer complexity of the activity.
HM: While we were visiting with Jean Levy, you told her how you had once written a letter to the obituary department of the New York Times to announce that the Correspondence School had died on a beach along with a large Canadian goose.
RJ: Yes, that was the first really big death of the New York Correspondence School. It was at one of those points where one gets to experience some of the pleasures of death and collapse, and all sorts of things that go with that. It was a kind of metamorphose sort of a tremor of energy, like something I was talking about not too long ago with a woman artist who's a friend of mine.
We were at a health club, at noon, getting something to eat, and I told her about the experience I had in Chicago when I was there for the opening of a show at the Feigen Gallery. I'd had so much champagne and lobster newburgh for lunch that day that I had to go back to my hotel to go to bed and and I somehow got my foot stuck in the blankets in a way that gave me a cramp. I suddenly woke up, and a muscle bulged way out of my leg, and it was extremely painful. I didn't at all know what to do, but what I did, in any case, was to try to push the muscle back into place, which was even more painful, so painful that I fainted from it and fell out of bed and I lay on the floor unconscious. There had been all that champagne, lots of rich food, and too much exhaustion and excitement. And as I was lying on the floor, I became aware of something that was going off from my chest and out into vast amounts of space. Something like a thread or a light, or something that was extending off, like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or like some spirit that leaves the body at night. There were also green and purple and bluish kinds of little sparks that were slowly spiralling around this thread and going off into space along with it, and all of this just took forever. I was just lying there and it was as though my spirit were leaving my body. It was like some sort of calm death experience, and if I had died right there, that would have been logical. That's the way it would have been. But it just went on and on and on for something like an hour and a half, and then I came out of it and stumbled into the bathroom to get a glass of water and then fell down again and banged my ear and head and was all bruised and black and blue, and then I crawled back into bed and at four or five o'clock I decided to get up and go on to the next party, on to the next event, on to the next disco.
So that was more bizarre than this death of the New York Correspondence School, and what I felt on the beach that day was just a great sadness. I was alone on the beach and it was close to sunset and everything seemed sad and desolate and I encountered this bird, a sea bird, that was obviously about to die. It was an old bird and it was dying and so I spoke to it and left it there and come home and sat down at the typewriter and decided to write an official letter to "Dear Deaths" at the New York Times. And I signed it "Buddha University" which was like suddenly... well, it was just all there. And of course they never published it. So, none of the other deaths of the Correspondence School have ever again been quite that dramatic, but I've often come to a point of extreme exhaustion or tiredness or inability to run an international organization. And now I get these endless things about still another "mail art" show, and I don't even answer them. Or if I do, it's only the slightest gesture, like one little bunny head on a thirty cent airmail letter. It's not at all a cliché when I say that I have a kind of natural generosity and that this was the real basis of the New York Correspondence School, and this natural generosity of image and idea and information is something that I can only extend so far. I don't have the time any more. And the information by itself would just keep on accelerating, it just keeps on accelerating and expanding. The Correspondence School was a question of always typing away at more and more of those letters, mailing out more and more of that information, xeroxing up all of that stuff, doing meetings and communications and all the rest of it, there was all of this stuff that way always going on. And in a way it still goes on, and still, in a way, in the very same way, but more subliminally. Things now go into cardboard boxes more than they do into actual distribution, endless cardboard boxes that just pile up in my house.
HM: Isn't that what you were always doing with the collages, in any case? I've always had the feeling that they were a kind of final resting place for all the information that you had flowing into and out of the mails - that their function, almost, was to be a place in which all this information could sediment.
RJ: Well. technically, yes, with the strips and the layerings and the whole archeology theme that's a part of them, and there's always the idea of recycling them. I'm working still today on those 1958 works, I still chop them up and add to them and now I'm doing these composition which have various dates in them: this segment here is 1958, this is the 1960s, this is the 70s this is the 80s so any one picture plane has the possibility of various years of layerings and archeologies and things added to it or things that get built up. I can take anything at all that I've done in the past, and it can be signed and dated and framed or under acetate or whatever, and I decide to just chop it in half. That's my procedure. Chop it in half and sign it 1982 to depict the act of the decapitation of the work, to depict whatever reason there may be for the decapitation of the work. And there's always the sand papering, which I'm doing to all of my 1978 portraits, because I've found a new sandpaper that really lets me dig into the paint and really grind it all off. So 1982 will document areas of removal of debris from things that were, conceptually, already pictures. These things were painted and have texture, surface, imagery, patina, you know, whatever it is that went into them to make them completed pictures. But then, in the blank spaces, I simply grind away back to the basis brown masonite and stick a 1982 onto a 1978. Not too long ago, I showed some things to some people who are doing a book on international collage for Thames and Hudson; they're Joan and John Digby, he's an English artist and she's poet, and so I showed them things and they interviewed me, and they were particularly concerned about technique, and preservation, and like why do I use such cheap materials, and why don't I use good papers, and all of that sort of thing, all of which I answered by saying that I'm simply not concerned with things like that.
They also wanted a statement from me about art, and the man made a hand gesture that made me think he saw a statement as maybe four or five paragraphs on a page in a book, but the statement I came up with was "should an eyelash last forever?" I do these Korean eyelash collages with these woman shapes that you've seen and that are standing in silhouette for a kind of anatomy study where you look through into the interior of the body, and then I put eyelashes here and eyelashes there, which is sort of like pubic hair. These are works that are very anatomically and sexually referential. So when these people were leaving, and they were like so terribly serious, sitting there writing down their notes, asking their questions, and they were like writing this book. So as they were leaving I said, "By the way, here's one of these little women that I do". And this woman, Joan Digby, just broke up. It just hit her right in the gut and she said, "Because they're eyelashes!" You know, I'd been trying to tell them about Schwitters and Dada and Arp, but mainly, I was talking about Arp because they had brought up Schwitters, and she had a true dada experience with these eyelashes. So I thought, well there's my statement, "Should an eyelash last forever?" And then I thought of the possibility of asking the question "Should half an eyelash last forever?" The eyelash could be cut in half because these eyelashes are composed of individual hairs, maybe even as many as a hundred of them, that somebody in Korea glued down to a strip of adhesive, so should the whole thing collectively last forever, or for one month, or should have of it last for that period of time, or one eyelash hair, should one eyelash hair last forever? Which then gets down to the point of no eyelash and "Should nothing last forever?" Which is pure Taoism, pure Zen when you get down to that, which is a point that I often get to in my work. I used to do events called "nothings" and I'm involved with just absolute space, with no art, no eyelashes, no statement, no nothing.
HM: You are involved in a idea of Zen nothingness and yet your life is a kind of constant happening.
RJ: Well, yes. And I also continue to ponder that idea I have for graffiti, and spray cans, for using a white spray can to write the world "shit" on the graffiti. And I don't quite know how I would do this. But perhaps I would do it and then document it, in a photo or a series of photos in which I'd be seen as I walk up to a choice piece of graffiti, and then it would all be in the way I'd make that 'S' with my spray can, and then I'd write the word "shit" and cross the 'T' and dot the I, and this calligraphy would relate to the graffiti calligraphy. I've thought already about any number of possibilities and I wouldn't, for example, put white on white graffiti, but I'd put white on colored graffiti, there'd have to be various planes involved, and then I was wondering what I'd do with my friend Richard Hambleton who does these life-sized black figures that he puts on the sides of buildings. I thought for example that it might be interesting to write "shit" like running up and down instead of horizontally, like down the figure and across the torso. You'll remember that I showed you one of his things the other night when we were on our way to Jean Levy's.
HM: That's something else I've been wanting to ask you about, Ray. That visit to see Jean Levy was all about Cornell and now you're in this show that's a homage to Cornell, and I've been wondering why he's so important for you.
RJ: Well... to answer your question, he's not all that important for me.
HM: Are there any artists who are really important for you?
RJ: But what you mean by important?
HM: Artists, say, whom you particularly respect, or whom you feel to have a particular relationship to your work, or who are involved in the same kind of total activity that you're involved in.
RJ: ... Yes. All the graffiti artists.
* This interview results from conversations that were taped in New York City at the end of November and beginning of December, 1982. <>