WHAT A DUMP: A Conversation about Ray Johnson and His Exhibition @ David Zwirner
“On one stack, a yellow rubber glove was laid out with cartoon eyes drawn over the knuckles, rolling themselves to the side, as if surveying the room. Propped above was a sign proclaiming 'WHAT A DUMP'." And with those words, curator Jarrett Earnest describes a crafted clue planted by the conceptual artist Ray Johnson, whose collages are currently on exhibit at David Zwirner’s West 19th Street gallery in New York City.
In 1995, Johnson checked into a motel in Sag Harbor and jumped or fell into the waters of the cove. This final performance essentially bolstered his legacy as the "Father of Mail Art," with Johnson leaving behind a delectable dumpster dive of drawings, collages, letters and leftovers for us to sort through and savor. I spoke with Earnest about his access to the archives that formulate this show about an artist who left a fascinating photo dump, could find the glamor in grit, and find the best Campsites.
Gwynned Vitello: The more I learned about Ray Johnson, the more I realized how he engaged in so many genres of art and presaged so many modern forms. I feel like he was an Artist’s Artist. I wonder if Black Mountain College, with its cross-media curriculum, was a major influence.
Jarrett Earnest: I know it was pivotal. He was very influenced by studying with Josef and Annie Albers, by the whole group of people he met there. These teachers and students became the network that created the post-war New York City art scene. Helen Molesworth’s book Look Before You Leap was a beautiful portrait of the impact of that school. When he went to NYC he kept in touch with the people he met there.
How did you become attached to this show?
One of the things I like about Ray Johnson is that he opens you to all the different connections among things that happen in this world. I became really acquainted with his work when I went to the San Francisco Art Institute, and I would agree that he was an artist’s artist, someone who made art in a different way. For me, going to school in San Francisco at a school that takes a very conceptual approach to art, and is very outside the NYC and LA culture, I appreciate his belief, regardless of his NYC residency, that making art is not about being in the center of things In fact his early collaborations with mail art were with Manhattenites but with Queer Canadian artists, Mail Bank in Vancouver and General Idea in Toronto. He was very engaged with them, and that piqued my interest.
Who conceived What a Dump?
I did an exhibit with David Zwirner two years ago called Young and Evil, a queer and sexy show which centered on gay figurative artists of the 1930-40s, so a bit pre-figurative of this one. Zwirner had done a small show about Black Mountain, focused, I think, on Ruth Asawa. When they were considering a bigger show, they thought of me because I had done this kind of archival work. The idea was seeded a long time ago when I was a student at SFAI, and then in a Ray Johnson kind of way, where people connect and something happens!
Speaking of connections, I have been thinking about Ray Johnson’s relationship with Andy Warhol, especially about their similarities and differences. Of course, both were obsessed with celebrity, but I feel like Johnson had a stronger perception, an understanding of their quirks, even their humanness. With Warhol I think it was more distanced, there is a more commercial connection.
That’s an interesting insight in how you connect them. They are so similar, two weird, queer guys from industrial towns in the midwest who come to New York in 1949, meet in 1956, both do covers for New Directions Books, both obsessed with celebrity and idea of sliding behind different personas. How do you evaluate the self? But they develop in opposite directions. By the time Johnson meets Warhol, he already knows so many people, you know, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and all the Black Mountain folks. Through the 1950s Johnson is the more connected one. But Warhol’s work becomes more public, larger and more mass distributed, Johnson’s persona dissolves into smaller collages, one on one that goes through the mail. His correspondence school becomes his fan club. So, parallel but opposites of each other.
I guess I’m fixated on this, but thinking of the title of the show, wouldn’t you say that Johnson recognized the “it” in a celebrity, rather than just their stature or ubiquity?
What’s interesting to me is the type of celebrity. Johnson made Elvis pieces, but before Warhol. His celebrities are very niche, Anna Mae Wong and Shelley Duvall, for example, celebrities who were much less mainstream, quirkier. I think that has to do with his interest in the sub-culture. And when you love a less famous staar, your devotion is more intense right?
You must have read the profile with the reporter who recently tracked down Shelley Duvall in the Texas Hill country.
Johnson actually started the Shelley Duvall Fan Club in 1976. Duvall is an interesting character, and she didn’t set out to be an actress. Robert Altman meets her at a party in Texas and puts her in his films. She sure didn’t look like any other actress, did act like any; she was a strange and unique figure. Her outsiderness fit in 1970s films. And Ray Johnson was fixated on her.
Which leads us back to the show, and the title, What a Dump!
It’s named with lots of layers in mind. In the archives found lots of letters and collages with the phrase :What a Dump." It’s a reference rife with campiness to Elizabeth Taylor’s line in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by the Gay playright Edward Albee, referencing another star Bette Davis. And when you first see Johnson’s collages, they are so dense, they almost look like a mess and you do think, "what a mess," as in What a Dump. But then you realize that everything he does is so controlled and precise, which gets kind of spooky. The last layer is that so much of his work is scatalogical, as in poop characters, peeing on each other, so another layer of shit.
How do you group the pieces for the show?
What I did when researching the archives was to keep a list of all the different subjects and people he was obsessed with, and I organized grouping based on that: Mae West, River Phoenix, Greta Garbo, false eyelashes! The main walls are hung in clusters. It’s important to know about his collages that they are in clusters, absolutely anti-chronological.
Ah, because he saved and reused the components?
He would keep collages and cut them up and add them to other collages. Over the decades, when he got back to them, he’s reworked them and wrote in the dates. He always added the dates, but it’s not clear what gets added at what time. There actually is a collage that has “no chronology” on it. Organized thematically, each one has so many references, allusions and images within, you can read from one to the other. My interest is in letting people see how the shapes can move from one to another and relate to the next.
Which allows us to get to know him better. I was kind of enthralled watching a video which showed him carefully observing his shadow. He was very patient in allowing himself the time to observe and appreciate shapes and details in a small, spare and spartan space.
When you see a lot of those pieces hung together, you get to see inside of his brain, and can start perceiving how his brain is working; so there’s that benefit in having a big show.
Even though he chose to live in New York, I have the impression he was a very solitary person.
When Warhol got shot, he actually got mugged the same day. He then moved to Long Island to a place called Locust Valley and lived there from the 1970s until his death in the 90s, and didn’t venture out much at the end. He still had an enormous need to connect with others, but that only happened on a lateral plane. He didn’t have deep, close relationships with other people that I know of—in fact, I never learned of him having had sex with anyone. And I was really asking about it!
So you could say, compared to your other show at the gallery, this show is not sexy!
The show is very Queer—but not necessarily sexy.
Well, he lived alone for a long time, but as you said, did have his own kind of relationships, similar to the way some of us live now.
In certain ways, his mail art practice prefigures how people use social media. An important difference is that his mail art created a very specific context where a group of people could create a specific context, a layered sense of ideas, of understanding and images within a contained context. It was porous but contained. Whereas, with social media, it can go anywhere, it can be seen by anyone who doesn’t know your intentions or where you’re coming from. So there is a flattening in a generic quality to the way social media allows people to interact. In some ways it’s similar, but also is completely different. It enables a different kind of relationship between people who don’t know each other.
Who did he engage with in his mail art? How did it start?
He starts sending really elaborate letters in the 40s and it becomes a formalized practice by the 1950s where he has this method of instructing people to send this letter to this person, alter it in this way, send it back to me and so forth.
Yes, he’s the Picasso of the chain letter. He has lists of people he sent them to: artists, critics, art dealers, musicians, all people involved in the artworld, so it was like an artworld phenomenon.
So you had access to much of this. What else?
The estate catalogued and kept everything that was in the house an insane amount of things. Frances Beatty, who’s in chase of the estate, rescued an enormous amount of stuff. I asked the archivist Maria Ellario to see the weirdest stuff, all the unusual objects, his clothing, jewelry, obscure, maybe gross collages, things that don’t get shown. They pulled everything, boxes and boxes, and we would look together, then pull together different items that were related.
Before what I assume was a very pre-meditated suicide, he left behind almost curated pieces of his life. Did he arrange the materials with a kind of message in mind? Or here you go, make of it what you will?
Beatty photographed everything as it was, videotaped everything, labeled it all in order as they packed it up. He felt everything was an intentional message. She wanted to be sure that a historian could reconstitute the items in order.
So any of us could interpret it, could make of it, however we wanted.
Exactly, the Estate has enabled much scholarship by making it accessible.
I still am surprised that he’s not more recognized.
That’s what a friend of mine from art school commented when we walked through the show, “I can’t believe this guy isn’t more famous!”
Maybe he didn’t seek it. He was so prolific. Though he was kind of a pioneer of performance art, wasn’t he?
That’s an aspect I’d like to know more about. One piece in the show is a performance I heard about from the archivist Martha Wilson. It’s a picture of Catherine Deneuve’s face with a drawing on top of it, from when was a spokesperson for Chanel No. 5. He brought a stack of Vogue magazines, opened to the pages with her ad, ripped them out and surrounded himself with them all. That isn’t written about, but I know that all his performances had a specific energy. He called them Nothings—and that kind of sums up his whole thing!
Another contrast with Warhol, who called his Happenings. That is very telling! Well, it wouldn’t be nothing if it’s true that he ran naked through the Vatican. Did that really happen?Someone named Ray Johnson did run through the Vatican, though not this Ray Johnson— and though this Ray Johnson was obsessed with other people named Ray Johnson. However, he did run naked through the crowd in 1978 during one of his shows at the Walker Art Center. No, no Vatican. As far as we know, he only left this country twice for his two visits to Canada.
WHAT A DUMP shows at David Zwirner New York through May 22, 2021