Ray Johnson and William S. Wilson: Frog Pond Splash
This beautiful and well-researched book joins a selection of the artist’s collages with texts by his friend, the late critic William S. Wilson.
Edited by Elizabeth Zuba
Frog Pond Splash
This beautiful, pocket-sized, well-researched, smartly constructed book of 37 breathtaking collages by Ray Johnson, who died in 1995, is accompanied by 23 short texts by his friend, critic William S. Wilson, who died four years ago. Wilson’s words are metaphorical descriptions of Johnson’s methods, rather than biographical notations. His unique position in close proximity to Johnson, as collector, archivist, and friend, was established by Johnson. Wilson aptly chronicles their 1956 initial meeting with: “the feeling was of trapdoor after trapdoor opening, and of me falling through into reality.” Perhaps admiring Wilson’s eye for thoroughness, care, and detail, Johnson cleverly chose him and his wife Ann Wilson to be his archivists in the early 1960s and began documenting his activities, often by mail. Over the decades, Wilson would pepper the art press with thoughtful pieces about Johnson and his mail art. Thus has Wilson been called Johnson’s “Boswell.” (James Boswell, said to have penned the greatest biography ever written in English, of his friend and older contemporary, another Johnson, Samuel.)
In 2011, Wilson received an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant for a manuscript to be called Ray Johnson: An Illustrated Life in Art. As he worked towards this goal, Wilson pondered Johnson, his work, and his 1995 suicide, in emails and catalogue essays for five more years, churning out insightful prose, but never a book. Editor Elizabeth Zuba previously compiled one of the best tomes about Johnson, Not Nothing (Siglio, 2014), focused on his output as a wordsmith.
Johnson is one of the most prolific combiners of word and text, not only through his mailed art, but also in his dense, meticulous collages, including some notable gems featured in this volume. Six here from private collections are rarely seen. Eight sent to Wilson include a previously unknown Shirley Temple sendup called Mayan Letters, dated both 1958 and 1991 (though multiple dates are not unusual for Johnson), and other 1950s classics such as an Elvis Presley #2 (1956–57) with trademark “moticos” shapes; Johnson’s groundbreaking Untitled (Rimbaud) (1956) with Ben Day dots; Untitled (P Town) (c.1962) that puts Buster Keaton with a gargoyle; and two ominous suicide-foreshadowers: Untitled (Water is Precious) (c.1956/58) and the Untitled (Frog) (1983–85) piece of this book’s title. The 23 remaining collages are from the Ray Johnson Estate, including another Shirley Temple collage, Untitled (Shirley Temple with Robin) (1966, 1989, 4.15.94), of the child star silhouetted with a colorful bird and superimposed by an arcane shape.
Wilson’s text brings to Johnson’s own breadth of writing his theory of the artist’s practice of “holding systems open” to include “postponed questions of decisive completeness,” and a preference to “end events abruptly at the edge of nothingness.” Wilson precisely contrasts a severe speech deficiency he had as a youngster, which made it difficult to understand him, with Johnson’s attraction to opaqueness: “the inarticulate,” “verbal non-comprehension,” “visual illegibility,” “invisibilities,” “the imaginary,” “anonymities,” “ambiguities,” and “doubled meaning.”
Wilson claims, rightly or wrongly, that, like a frog, Johnson “set himself in motion without a plan or a chart.” The title, Frog Pond Splash, refers to a 17th century haiku by Matsuo Bashō. Wilson derides ponds that lack firm foundations. He laments a pond bottom that is soft and murky, elsewhere repeatedly waxing poetically about Johnson and viscosity. “Ray, in family, in a classroom, in a religion, and in a ‘school of Pop Art’ would experience viscosity as an idea and as a sensory experience,” he says at one point, creating ambiguity about the idea’s origins.
Johnson’s comfort level with a thick spongy pond bottom deprived of a distinct beginning, middle, or end may have been different from Wilson’s own: the artist might have more easily accepted a part water, part floor solution, as his playful work suggests. Johnson, who employed water themes frequently, knew what he could and could not control.
Wilson’s vast Johnson archive of collages, letters, and ephemera was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago, where Ray Johnson c/o, a major show, will appear in January 2021. The exhibition catalogue will be one of the first not to include an essay by Wilson. That makes this playful book the perfect candidate for a last important collaboration between the two men. Readers of this sweet, thin volume will find it easy to forget that, other than lettering in Johnson’s collages and Zuba’s eloquent seven-page afterword, all the words in this book are Wilson’s. He talks with such familiarity about his friend that we begin to believe that we are hearing the voice of Johnson, raising questions for someone interested in the artist’s biography about where his activities end and the critic’s ideas begin. Wilson projects powerful parables about the older artist.
Ray Johnson worked alone; despite his pioneering use of networks, he worked without a net. The spine of this book, which lists only Ray Johnson as author, rightfully acknowledges Johnson as the primary creative force within, temporarily excluding both Wilson, the man of letters this book propels forth, and Zuba, the editor whose heroic effort putting this charming volume together presents Wilson’s moving words more like passages of philosophy, free verse, or extended haiku than non-fiction or art criticism. Thankfully the star of this show is Johnson, whose magnificent, uncanny, and sublime collages require little explanation that he himself did not provide in abundance during his self-truncated lifetime.