On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
June 17–October 2, 2022
Ray Johnson (1927–95) was a prankster and a contrarian who played at the outskirts of the art world. After studying with Josef Albers at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College and moving to New York City, where he hung out with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the sculptor Richard Lippold, he seemed on the road to becoming an abstract painter. Instead, as Joel Smith puts it in his catalogue essay for Please Send to Real Life: Ray Johnson Photographs, “he became Ray Johnson.” He created modestly sized drawings and enigmatic, multi-media collages, which he called “moticos.” He became a mail-art pioneer, assembling an expansive network of correspondents who became the co-authors of his artworks. And in the last three years of his life, unbeknownst to most of his friends, he became a photographer.
Johnson committed suicide in 1995, at the age of sixty-seven, and many people assumed that he had stopped making art in his final years. On the contrary, he spent his last three years creating a new body of work in a new (for him) medium. Johnson took more than 5,000 photographs with disposable cameras during the last few years of his life in Locust Valley, Long Island, where he had moved in 1968. He photographed obsessively, everything from staged arrangements of moticos (which he might lean against an accommodating dog or a bright yellow dumpster before photographing them), to observational images of a mailbox or a billboard or an abandoned bathtub filled with leaves. After his death, the snapshot-sized pictures were discovered in his small house on Long Island, packed up in boxes and filed with their negatives. Smith, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Morgan Library, selected a fraction of those for this rich, compact exhibition.
Johnson’s collages and drawings are characterized by wordplay and impish humor. Early exhibitions had titles like A lot of Shirley Temple Post Cards Show (Feigen Gallery, 1968) and Famous people’s mother’s potato mashers (Galleria Schwarz, 1972). Those qualities are evident in his photographs as well, most of which are shown here, in a fittingly casual manner, thumbtacked in groups of eight or twelve in display cases. A select few are framed separately, including Bill and Long Island Sound, a photograph of his hand holding the blue bill of a cap (minus the rest of the cap), in front of the paler blue sound. A shelf along one wall includes a selection of some of his cardboard moticos, and the earlier works on view indicate that while Johnson may not have taken his own photographs until the end of his life, he regularly included photographic images in his work, from photo booth strips and images cut out from magazines to a black-and-white headshot of himself (taken by Ara Ignatius), which he reused in a number of works.
The photographs he made in his last three years, which have the muted color particular to disposable-camera snapshots, convey a kind of restless energy and a bottomless curiosity about framing the world through a camera lens, even—or especially—through the small fixed lens on a throwaway plastic camera. He was well aware of the work of contemporary photographers: Many of his pictures reference other photographers, including Lee Friedlander, Bill Brandt, Duane Michals, and Richard Avedon. Bill and Long Island Sound brings to mind Kenneth Josephson’s 1970 photograph New York State. In some photographs, he seemed to be experimenting with framing the scene in front of him, as in a photograph of a broken weathervane on top of a white weathered building, shot from below. In others he creates compositions to photograph, like a silhouette of William S. Burroughs with a kingfisher bird placed so that its bill aligns with Burroughs’s nose (the wordplay is implied—the bird’s bill lines up with the bill of Bill). Silhouettes are a common theme in the photographs. A silhouette of Johnson’s own head, a cut-out silhouette of Joseph Cornell, or the silhouette of a parking meter shadow that looks like Mickey Mouse all make repeat appearances. As in his earlier collages, he seemed to be developing his own symbolic language comprised of shadows, signage, pop culture characters (Elvis, Warhol, and Ronald McDonald), and his signature bunny symbol. All of these references are filtered through his own iconography and visual wordplay: one of his elongated bunnies labeled “Lawrence Wiener” next to an inflatable Oscar Mayer weiner, for instance, or a Lord Snowden bunny perched—where else?—in the snow.
Johnson’s photographs, like his collages, are sly, self-referential, and a little hermetic. In the catalogue for the exhibition, Smith lists a few recurring categories into which the photographs could be organized, including Inside, Telephones, Doubles, Recycling, Bills, Photographers, and Please Send, photographs that feature wrapped packages addressed to or from his many mail-art correspondents. One of those shows two paper-wrapped packages sitting on the edge of a pier; in a follow-up photograph, one of the packages floats in the water below, its string unraveling, in what now reads as an ominous portent, given that Johnson leapt to his death from a bridge into the Sag Harbor Cove. It’s hard not to look for clues when the loss is so confounding. But searching for signs of despair or foreshadowing would distract from the distinctive wit—and the evident delight of discovery—that runs through these photographs.