The Ray Johnson Videos

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The videos are comprised of over seven hours of rare video footage of Ray Johnson, a conceptual and visual artist who is considered to be the founder of the Mail Art movement.

The painter Chuck Close in A Panel Discussion on Ray Johnson:

Ray was a much more important artist than was generally recognized by the art world. He was an idiosyncratic figure. I think he was very inventive in bringing his work, through his collages, and things that he's known for, actually, predating Pop Art with the use of pop subject matter before Lichtenstein and Warhol. But, probably, he is best known to the general public as the inventor of the Correspondence School and of mail art.


How to Draw a Bunny 13 January 05

Section: rayjohnson

Categories: Film / dvd-mine

What mainly comes across for me in this documentary on the late artist Ray Johnson is that he and many of the people he knew were good and interesting people. His outlook on the culture industry and his dealings with it were very much a part of his art, and that comes through in the film as well. He seems to have usually insisted on an elaborate process of correspondence with anyone interested in owning his work, integrating life itself into conceptual art, or integrating art itself into life. He cast a very different and poetic light on the concept of “negotiating” the sale of his art. The film leaves the impression, for me, that sometimes dealers he dealt with didn’t really get it — but I think it is just this light illuminating the irreconcilable differences between Johnson’s criteria and their market-driven ones.

A couple of times these dealers talk about coming back from another planet or coming back to reality after talking with Johnson — from the work of his that I know, and what I know about him, I feel that he is very, very much about reality.

It is moving to see the affection that the people in Ray Johnson’s life have for him. They talk as much or more about his life than about his art: something which flows from Johnson himself and is a beautiful tribute to him.

Seeing this film I could finally accept the obvious about Ray Johnson’s suicide, namely that he, in his mind, committed suicide as part of a final work of art: turning his death into conceptual art, as he seems to have done with his life, thereby lending a certain roundness to his existence.

I had already known that the timing for his suicide was determined by how the number 13 occurred in the circumstances of his life. When Nick Maravell speaks in the film about his video work done with Ray Johnson, he mentions that they had done 13 videos, and his voice, his voice box so to speak, resonates on those words.

Below are some passages and quotes which stood out for me:

First cousin

Ray Johnson’s first cousin, Janet Giffra, is interviewed as she browses through a photo album of their childhood (while showing one photo of Johnson as a boy, the filmmakers, at a key point, soon after Janet Giffra says “dear boy,” apparently manipulate the image by animating a brief blink of his eyes, I assume to trigger sympathy and nostalgia subliminally).
She is sitting on an old-fashioned sofa in a bare room.

An excerpt from her comments, shown over photos of Johnson with his parents:

The adored him, they just adored him. But… they disciplined him too I understand. I mean, he, he was an only child, but he was very strictly brought up. [pause] Waste not, want not! [giggle]

Regarding her last comment, when I watched this the first time I felt that she was looking for another proverbial saying on childrearing but couldn’t find it or couldn’t say it.

A Reading

There is an all too brief excerpt from a performance of Johnson’s, his contribution to a reading. It is suggested in the film that he was expected to read, and what is shown was:
He is hopping on his right leg around a cardboard box, focussing on it and hitting it with his belt, also hitting a stack of small sheets of paper he had placed on top. At one point he is kneeling on the flattened box and writes with both hands simultaneously, twice, the name KAFKA. The interviewee who had been present at the reading related that the only utterance he made during the performance, the reading, was to stammer the name Kafka without actually saying the word in its entirety. He then put his left leg into the now collapsed box and continued hitting it with the belt.

The Artist Peter Schuyff (towards the end of the film, on Johnson’s suicide)

The thing that I guess made me most sad, was the thought, or image, of him being alone, him making this decision on his own, of him driving to the East End, on his own.
This notion of Ray engineering an event — whether he’s at home engineering an event by working, or whether he’s engineering an event by cashing in his chips and going for a swim — this notion of him engineering this event comes as no surprise, comes as no shock… the more detailed thought of Ray being alone, being in great pain, that’s something that comes as a shock to me.

The Artist Richard Lippold (also towards the end)

He was a totally honest man, incorruptible. And in this sense unmanagable, but I think that the people who did know him and appreciated him, saw in him what I’ve described… A certain kind of simplicity in the midst of all that complexity.

For me, there is an openness to Ray Johnson, an open framework to the reality and concept of Ray Johnson, which allows an open flow between art and life, and which for me is itself opening and liberating.

Unfortunately in this film — under what seems to be the pretense of making a filmic “collage” — the filmmakers work against this openness as if they were patching up and filling gaps and holes. Shredding and truncating original material, such as recordings of Johnson’s happenings, splicing passages from these with interviews with dealers, presuming to combine and mix material, instead of juxtaposing it in a way that would at least preserve some of its integrity and leave the associations up to the viewers.

The result is one of the more annoying documentaries of an artist that I have seen. The rationale of making a filmic collage doesn’t work, for me. It is just distracting and intrusive, it displaces the richer content. I’ll offer a few examples further below.

The opposite of this, for my sensibility, would be to approach the subject with humility and restraint, to present the material in such a way that it can shine forth on its own terms. To step back as much as possible and let it be, and realize that there might well be more to the material than they can presume to know or show: to even allow themselves — not to mention the viewers — the chance to discover more in the material in the future. There is no such thing as an objective documentary. But documentaries can be done consciously and with respect for the material and with a critical restraint.

Towards the end of the film, the filmmakers’ intrusiveness tapers off somewhat: maybe it was because of the seriousness of Ray Johnson’s suicide.

Some examples:

The worst thing in the film was how they showed Johnson’s art: I have watched the film now three times — the third time with a lot of fast-forwarding — and they rarely simply showed one of his collages in a straightforward shot. They start with an upside down close-up, for example, and then slowly or quickly do a spiraling zoom back, but without even settling on a clear shot of the whole work. Or they pan on a detail, or show flashes of details. Not that this is unusual: it is unfortunately typical of such documentary presentations of artists’ work.

They would repeatedly illustrate the spoken word: for example, the romance of a message in a bottle is mentioned, and the filmmakers show a shot they had set up of… a bottle floating in the sea with a message in it. This comes up twice in fact, and there are many more such examples. I don’t mean to be mean here, but this is just mind-numbing.

There was very often an overlaying of the original voice track from the current interview or video, but from a different place in the interview. So, the person is talking, and during a pause or even at the same time, some snippet of some other comment of the same (or another) person from the same footage is overlaid, for me without any added meaning.

The Ray Johnson Tapes

The film is all the more difficult to watch because I have had the benefit of being familiar with my friend Nicholas Maravell’s video piece, The Ray Johnson Tapes, hours of video of Johnson, essentially a collaborative work between him and Nick (brief passages were… used in the film discussed here). Over the years on visits to Nick he would show me passages from the material: it imbued my memory such that I still have the feeling that I must have met Ray, though unfortunately we never crossed paths. I do have the DVDs of the final edited version of the Tapes, and I look forward to viewing them again this week, 10 years after Ray Johnson’s death on January 13th, 1995. (See the Ray Johnson section link on the right for some more information.)

Art in America review

In a review of How to Draw a Bunny in Art in America, January 2003, page 51, the reviewer said, referring to The Ray Johnson Tapes, from which a few excerpts were included in the film:

More to the point, indeed invaluable, is the fascinating videotape footage by Nick Maravell of Johnson’s daily life and off-the-wall performances (categories that are practically indistinguishable in this case) during what would turn out to be his final years.

In Nick Maravell’s brief interview included in How to Draw a Bunny he said the following about Ray Johnson:

I thought he was being very honest, even though he said he was putting people on — every answer he gave was, as far as I know, the truth.

Title: How to Draw a Bunny

Directed by: John W. Walter

Edited by: John W. Walter

Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco, Andrew L. Moore

Original Music by: Max Roach

Year: 2002

  • Title: How to Draw a Bunny