PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs
On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
June 17–October 2, 2022
The collagist Ray Johnson flippantly referred to his “new career as a photographer,” having not pursued the genre before, spending decades masterfully cutting up flat images—some taken by others of him, others of pop culture effigies he surgically extracted. From his early years at Black Mountain College, he became enamored with the medium through Hazel Larsen Archer, represented here by her shot of the back of Johnson’s head, deftly shot and now deftly purchased by the Morgan to celebrate Ray’s love affair with the viewfinder.
Beginning in January 1992, he used the form to embark on a three-year path toward suicide, leaving copious evidence from “throwaway” cameras while he continued much the way he always had, prolifically layering meticulous collages in slight relief while pen-palling around with hundreds of people, correspondingly complicated and layered.
Johnson shot three thousand 4 by 6 inch consumer-grade photos in thirty-five months on 137 single-use, point-and-shoot Fujicolor Quicksnap cameras. He tried Kodak at first but quickly settled on Fuji, named for a Japanese mountain that he had often drawn as a cartoonish tiny triangle. He dropped off and picked up the snapshots twenty-four at a time at a Glen Cove shop called Living Color, near his home on Long Island, averaging about a roll a week—mostly one-offs but occasionally working in series or with variations. The images therein were shot locally—either inside his Locust Valley home, with the daylight film illuminated by strategically shaped doors and windows, in his small working-class yard with a humble fence or cement back steps serving as staging area, or, most frequently, in the surrounding North Shore hamlets where streets, storefronts, beachfronts, and parking lots played the role of deadpan straight men to his mischievous, transformative endgame that alternated between deadly serious and shutterbug-erific play.
Immersed in his local environment, Johnson’s daily drives, walks, and interactions reveal a life not lived in seclusion, despite endless myths circulating since his death that breathlessly assert the contrary. Johnson attended openings, exhibited work, and did performances for local audiences until his final show Ray Johnson: Nothing, during the last week of 1994 in Sea Cliff. When Johnson made his exit from this world two weeks later, he left what he called an “outdoor movie show” as a map to his “real life” that began as a design journeyman in an industrial arts high school during World War II.
He called the subjects of the tableaus he created “movie stars” but also “move stars” because of the way he shuttled nearly a hundred 32 by 8 inch corrugated cardboard collages around in his Volkswagen Golf in groups of twos or threes or sometimes dozens to “pose” for odd pictures in peculiar settings. Positioning them on chairs was a regular occurrence, as if they required repose. These “stars” were comprised of nearly life-sized headshots of people he had collaged in miniature all his life—artist friends like Jasper Johns, celebrities like Greta Garbo or James Dean, and of course himself—coupled with letter-sized bunny heads, his familiar hyper-graphic signature that suggests self-portraiture even when labeled with clever, unlikely phrases or chummy names identifying cultural figures alternately living, dead, famous, or obscure, all occupiers of Johnson’s clairvoyant mental space.
During this final series of works he continually added to the 2D “stars,” dating them as he obsessively did his collages, creating timestamps for the exhibition catalogue, valuable when receipts from the darkroom shop were murky. The result is this small, powerful exhibition and a 256-page book of his “throwaway” milieu, jam-packed with hard-edged, symbolic mayhem—collisions of color and black and white—thrown into sharp relief against carefully chosen natural and manmade settings. Finally, touring local cemeteries to capture fragments of engraved names in his shots, Johnson simultaneously sculpted his own mortality into the stereoscopic mise en scènes.
In 1955, Johnson created what was soon after called the first Happening by the late writer Suzi Gablik after he physically covered her with dozens of his irregularly shaped cardboard collage “moticos” which Elisabeth Novick, later a fashion photographer, captured on film. Johnson wove these borrowed images back into his snapshots via the “move stars,” or by reshooting different arrangements of them on the ground from a stepladder, his own shadow wafting across the uneven surface. The curator, Joel Smith, then splices examples of the originals and many other photo-touchstones from Johnson’s oeuvre into this deep-dive of a show.
This curatorial depth of field confirms that, despite a love of the whimsical, Johnson cogently combined the spiritual and the scientific. He used dates, backwards and upside-down lettering, reflections, silhouettes, shadows, flat and nonuniform surfaces to achieve his true passion: cascading between two and three dimensions while surfing moments in time. Surrealistically shifting from prowess to looseness as required, he foreshadows our use of camera phones today while his perplexing narratives quirkily predict today’s social media “stories.”