PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs @Morgan Library

JTF (just the facts): A single room exhibition, on view on the main floor of the museum.

Works by Ray Johnson:

  • 77 chromogenic prints, 1992, 1993, 1994
  • 2 collages on illustration board, c1953-1954, 1955-1959
  • 2 collages on cardboard panel, 1972-1994, 1976-1981
  • 1 ink wash collage and gelatin silver print on illustration board, 1970-1972
  • 1 photobooth collage, 1972
  • 1 collage with acrylic and ink on canvas board, 1987
  • 22 collages on corrugated cardboard
  • 1 video screen slideshow of color photographs
  • 1 collage on corrugated cardboard, 1991
  • (in vitrine): correspondence, 1953, 1954; 1 ink on paper, n.d; 1 ink on magazine page, n.d.; 1 ink on book page, n.d.
  • (in vitrine): 1 set of 8 photobooth self portraits (gelatin silver prints), n.d.; Aga Ignatius gelatin silver print, n.d.; 2 chromogenic prints, n.d.; 4 ink on offset prints, n.d./1991
  • (in vitrine): 5 collages on corrugated cardboard, 1993, 1993-1994; 2 collages on illustration board, 1992
  • (in vitrine): 2 offset printing plates, 1958, c1964; 3 offset prints, n.d.

Works by other artists:

  • Hazel Larsen Archer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1948
  • Rudy Burckhardt: 1 gelatin silver print, c1948-1952
  • Elisabeth Novick: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1955
  • Peter Hujar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1975
  • Joan Harrison, 1 inkjet print, 1982/2007

(Installation shots and slideshow stills below.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here). Softcover, 256 pages, with an essay by Joel Smith. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When an artist dies before editing or completing a particular project or body of work, those left behind are set with the difficult task of trying to interpret his or her unspoken intentions. The questions multiply almost faster than they can be answered: are some or all of the works “done” or “finished” by some definition? which ones are most representative of what the artist was trying to accomplish? which ones might he or she have rejected? and can we impose a sense of order or organization on what remains? It often takes able family members and meticulous curators to wade through the leftovers and make sense of them, and even then the process is by no means foolproof, as one set of eyes may favor something the artist himself may have discounted.

Ray Johnson had his last gallery show in 1991, essentially leaving behind the art world for a quieter life in suburban Long Island. Johnson is likely best known as an innovative and experimental Pop artist, who starting in the 1950s used collage and mail art to explore (and upend) the nature of celebrity. But in the last years of his life, before his suicide in early 1995, Johnson devoted himself to photography, using disposable Fuji Quicksnap cameras to make color pictures, which he had developed commercially. Over roughly a three year period, Johnson went through 137 cameras, and left behind over five thousand 4×6 inch photographs, many still in the envelopes from the developer’s shop. Like Garry Winogrand and his now-infamous bags of undeveloped rolls, Johnson seems to have become more interested in the daily process of seeing and making images than in sorting through the resulting prints.

Much of the first half of this tightly installed exhibit provides a succinct summary of Johnson’s earlier artistic career, introducing many of the ideas and visual motifs that will later appear in the photographs. We see Johnson experimenting with rough collage approaches in works he called moticos, incorporating letter forms, images, and other interventions on unfolded boxes, and making passing references to actors, artists, musicians, and other famous people. And we follow along as he repurposes photographic imagery, makes impromptu performances and installations of works on the sidewalk, develops his signature long eared bunny motif, and experiments with photobooths, both as a documentary mechanism and as a self-portraiture exercise.

All of this provides a backdrop to the content and aesthetics of Johnson’s late photographs. In a certain way, Johnson follows the path that many photographers do, starting to see the world the way a camera does, and singling out unlikely observations found in the flow of the everyday. He notices the shadow of a mailbox, the form of a palm leaf, some tar ribbons on the pavement, and an empty billboard, and then begins to see hints of dark humor and visual games, in the form of the word HELP painted on the bottom of a dinghy, a face implied by the holes in an abandoned bathtub, and the words RAYMOND and JOHNSON carved on adjacent gravestones.

This leads Johnson to experiments with simple interventions, like his hand or his shadow inserted into the compositions, and then back to self-portraiture, in car mirrors and with horseshoe crabs, among other setups. His inventiveness then circles around to more deliberate (and pre-visualized) physical intervention, with paper cutouts of his head placed on tree stumps and on payphones, the bill of a baseball hat held up to the sky like a crescent moon, and more photoconceptual games with stairs matched with pictures of stairs and various forms of visual mirroring, doubling, and twinning.

Even though Johnson had taken up a camera in these later years, his collage instincts never seem to have receded, and he continued to fashion cardboard constructions of various kinds, some with his long bunny ears, others featuring names of famous artists and celebrities, and still others combining the two into oddball homages enlivened by bold graphics or repurposed imagery (a selection of the ones that didn’t get destroyed or lost is presented atop a shelf high on one wall of the gallery). Johnson then went on to position these “movie stars” (as he called them) in his photographs – posing next to Ronald McDonald or an Oscar Meyer weiner; on top of a toilet bowl; jutting out of a mailbox; in a storefront window; amid some cactus plants; beside a parking meter; on a playground ladder; and often within or near cars, arranged like they were sitting inside or leaning against the sides. With bold faced names attached to the various collages, Johnson seems to be having a conversation with these heroes – joking around, placing them in unlikely situations, and having irreverent artistic fun with his absent friends.

As a body of work, these photographs by Johnson absolutely feel unfinished, in an open-ended and unwieldy way, as though he was grasping for new ways to communicate. Seen together, there is both dogged teach-yourself inventiveness and a hint of loneliness on display, with a nostalgia for stars of the past and his own younger face percolating through his iterative reworkings. At their best, these pictures find new pathways of physical intervention, creating staged installations that combine Johnson’s restless collage combinations and the quirks of photographic vision into something cleverly unexpected. At the end of his life, Johnson was actually becoming an interesting photographer, and these unearthed leavings provide tantalizing glimpses of what might have been.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Ray Johnson’s estate does not appear to have consistent gallery representation, although the artist has had recent shows at both David Zwirner (in 2021) and Matthew Marks Gallery (in 2017) in New York. His work in photography has little secondary market history, so gallery retail or connection directly with the estate likely remain the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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