How to Draw a Bunny: Portrait of the Artist Ray Johnson as an Aging Prankster
BY URI DOWBENKO
For every Jackson Pollock, there are thousands of Ray Johnsons. They work in obscurity, deferential to the Art World, yet suspicious of its requisite politics. “Success” in the materialistic sense eluded Ray Johnson since he never reached the Art Star pantheon of contemporaries like Andy Warhol or Ray Lichtenstein. Now, however, Ray Johnson has been memorialized (and even given minor league immortality) through a highly entertaining documentary film called “How To Draw a Bunny” (Palm Pictures 2004) by John Walter and Andrew Moore.
Mousy looking and unassuming, Ray Johnson had the stereotypical avant garde credentials. Black Mountain College. Andy Warhol’s Factory. Manhattan Art Scene 101. However he was best known as a collage artist and the originator of so-called “mail art,” which he named the “New York Correspondence School.” It was a Johnsonian pun on “school” as an art movement, as well as the ubiquitous mail order drawing classes popular in the 1960s.
When accused of being a Pop artist, Johnson would say — I do not make pop art; I make chop art. And he did — cutting up his artwork and mailing it off to friends around the country.
A proto-prankster, Johnson relished his role as a provocateur/ performance artist. One sequence in the film describes how he dropped hot dog links over Long Island and had it paid for by the Feigen Gallery. A bemused Richard Feigen tells the story on camera. When Johnson drowned (himself) in Sag Harbor in 1995, the film shows newspaper headlines announcing “Pop Artist Ray Johnson, 67, Mysterious in Life and Death” and “Mystery Death in Sag Harbor.” His address book showed his acquaintance with Art World luminaries like John Cage, Bruce Conner, Chuck Close and the Christo(s).
Johnson’s artwork typically used images of All American icons like Elvis, James Dean and the Lucky Strikes bulls-eye cigarette logo in a series of collages on similar themes. The dada flavor of his art is unmistakable — tweaking middle class standards of taste and beauty in order to arrive at another destination (and definition) of aesthetics.
An elfin-like and highly proficient bullshit artist, Johnson obviously loved toying with his (would be) collectors. In a fascinating interview with NewYork literary agent Morton Janklow, the film records his recollection of the negotiation for the price and artwork, which Johnson also considered to be part of the art. This is evidently called “process” art, since the “negotiation” of price was part of the “work” itself.
“How To Draw a Bunny” has wonderful interviews with Norm Solomon, Jim Rosenquist, Ray Lichtenstein, Judith Malina and the Christos who describe their relationship with Johnson. The film itself is structured like a collage flirting with the obvious questions about the enigmas of life and death. It’s also like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to assemble the disparate pieces of what is known about Johnson’s long strange trip through life.
In terms of art history, Ray Johnson fits best in the Fluxus movement. Art critic Robert C. Morgan in “The End of the Art World” writes that “those associated with fluxus generally preferred the ephemeral over the permanent, the concept over the form and the event over the object. They preferred absurdity and wit to the seriousness given to expressionist painting or to the more fashionable emergence of pop art.”
Like Yoko Ono, Johnson’s work was part of this movement, since as Morgan points out “there was a certain elegance to all of this, a certain refusal to conform to what the museum wanted as official art or what the history of art seemed to dictate as the next logical step in the progressive linearity of modernism.”
After all, Richard Feigen and Frances Beatty had to wait 14 years for the death of Ray Johnson — before they could finally get a show out of him.
“There are inner directed artists and there are outer directed artists,” Morgan continues. “Inner directed artists deal purposefully with what they have to say as artists. Outer directed artists pay a lot of attention to what is in the mainstream and what is acceptable, before they show. We are talking about careerism: Making the right moves in the right places and if the art catches the fancy of the right dealer or the right critic, then a career is born. Art simply becomes the vehicle for one’s career rather than the other way around.”
The lack of an art world career did not stop Ray Johnson. “How To Draw a Bunny” is a superb case study showing that art world fame and fortune, though certainly desirable, are not as important as leaving a good looking body of work. That was the ultimate cosmic joke of Ray Johnson’s life and certainly his death.
For more information, “How To Draw a Bunny” http://www.palmpictures.com/videos/howtodrawabunny.html
Copyright © 2004 Uri Dowbenko. All Rights Reserved.
* URI DOWBENKO is one of Alternative Media’s foremost writers and media analysts and the author of “Bushwhacked: Inside Stories of True Conspiracy”. A distinctive voice of modern American journalism, he is also the founder of Alternative Media websites: Conspiracy Planet.com, Al Martin Raw.com, Steamshovel Press.com, and Conspiracy Digest.com. His latest book to be published in Spring 2004 is called “Hoodwinked: Watching Movies with Eyes Wide Open”, the most politically incorrect movie reviews ever published. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org