Ray Johnson was a pop artist, friend of Andy Warhol and one of the key figures in international mail art (aestheticised communication in the form of a ‘paper net’ that acted as a precursor to the world wide web). He committed suicide in 1995 and had dropped out of the New York art scene years before that, opting instead for non-commercial underground activity. Johnson was a major figure in the early years of American pop art, but more recently had been largely forgotten beyond an international underground scene that idolised him. I was in communication with Johnson in the 1980s when he initiated a correspondence with me. I’d been aware of him for quite some time before he wrote to me, but I’d never mailed him anything because I figured he must be inundated with letters and requests. That said, Johnson was very much a countercultural figure, so it felt strange to attend a major retrospective of his work at Alex Sainsbury’s new gallery Raven Row in Spitalfields, London.
The show covers everything from Johnson’s early collage works right through to his mail art material. It is the largest exhibition of Ray’s art ever seen in Europe, but he made so much that no retrospective could ever be comprehensive. I’m told about 60 percent of the work in the Raven Row show is owned by Johnson’s estate, who lent it framed, so a less formal system of display was unfortunately not an option. Much of Johnson’s work was ephemeral and designed to be handled by the recipient rather than placed under glass in a gallery. Seen out of context by people who don’t understand that Johnson set out to circumvent the conventional gallery system, his playful output might prove impenetrable. Those who encounter this problem need to think of Fluxus and the Situationists, then take a side-ways leap.
The opening was packed and the overwhelming majority of those attending were London art world insiders who seemed to have no idea who Ray Johnson was, and the few who paid any attention to his work appeared very puzzled by it. Most were present for the event, the first night of Alex Sainsbury’s huge new non-commercial gallery. The following is a typical example of an overheard conversation:
Person A: What do you think of this then?
Person B: It’s a great way to spend 30 million pounds!
Alex Sainsbury refuses to be drawn on how much money he’s put into his new space, so unless this overheard conversation was between Raven Row insiders (which I doubt), then the figure cited is just a wild guess. That said, it’s obvious a lot of money has been sunk into the venture. The outer fabric consists of two Grade I listed eighteenth-century Huguenot silk merchants’ houses and the nondescript commercial building that stood behind them. Likewise, many hours of hard thinking clearly went into deciding what to strip out and what to retain. The architects responsible are 6a, a team made up of Tom Emerson and Stephanie MacDonald, who originally met as students at the Royal College of Art and now live together as a couple. The RCA connection is continued in the form of Sainsbury’s assistant Alice Motard, who has just graduated from the curation course taught at that college. The space is clean but retains plenty of period details. I can’t say the rococo plasterwork is to my taste, but it is apparently completely authentic. The building is located just off Bishopsgate on the edge of the City of London, and close to Liverpool Street station. From the front windows you can see the site of the final and most bloody Jack The Ripper slaying, whose victim Mary Kelly shares a name with an iconic 20th century feminist artist. At the time of the murder in 1888 the location was known as Dorset Street, but it is now a multi-storey car park. For much of the 20th century neighbouring Artillery Lane in which Raven Row stands was also run down, and a doss house situated just yards from this tasteful new art venture only closed down 10 or so years ago.
Alex Sainsbury is a keen observer of the London art scene and with Raven Row he has set out to transform it by introducing important but neglected artists to an overly commercialised sector. He’s certainly done his homework, I was introduced to him at an opening in Hackney last year and he not only knew who I was but also that I’d been in correspondence with Ray Johnson. Likewise, he’s written the main catalogue essay for the Johnson show, not something I could imagine Charles Saatchi doing. The Raven Row opening was a crush and those present were very much from the middle and lower-strata of the art world. I spotted no big names. The artists I ran into included photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, film-maker Mark Waller, mixed media experts Jemima Stehli and Janette Parris, magician turned artist Jonathan Allen, sound manipulator Richard Crow, and S. E. Barnet (currently showing in the tiny Five Years Gallery in Hackney). In terms of curators those visible to me were mainly from the assistant level at the Tate, Ben Borthwick rather than the likes of director Nicholas Serota. It might be this mix of people was a tactical decision on Sainsbury’s part and that he is looking to have an impact on the art scene from ground level up rather than working with a top downwards model of influence. Or it could be that a more select and sedate event with even better food and wine was held for major art world names before the hoi polloi arrived. Your guess is as good as mine! That said, Camden Arts Centre director Jenni Lomax was all present and correct alongside the hoi polloi, but then she also sits on the Raven Row board.
Leaving aside Clive Phillpot, Simon Ford and Alastair Brotchie, the opening appeared bereft of those I know with a long term interest in Ray Johnson. But then most of those who’ve dug Johnson since way back when operate completely outside conventional art circuits. I didn’t see anyone I knew in the eighties who’d been involved in the London mail art scene. The Johnson preview was very crowded but even so my impression was the likes of Mark Pawson, Stefan Szczelkun, Mike Leigh, Hazel Jones and David Jarvis, just weren’t present. Which is a shame because I’m sure they’d have really enjoyed seeing so much of Ray’s work in one place, while the good wine would have totally grooved them. Simon Ford asked me if there were still hardcore mail artists about who might turn up to protest against a curated Ray Johnson show. My feeling was that the overwhelming majority of the anti-art brigade would be very happy to see his work getting wider exposure. Fordie also expressed surprise that Tate archivist Adrian Glew didn’t appear to be present, since he has a long history of interest in the marginal arts. Perhaps Glew was busy elsewhere, I certainly didn’t clock him at the Johnson beano.
Eventually most people moved on from the overcrowded gallery and across Commercial Street to Christ Church, a Hawksmoor building, which was the scene of further partying. A lot of people had emerged from the woodwork for the event and I found myself talking to the likes of Kodwo Eshun and Jane Rollo. I hadn’t seen a London art world shindig that was quite so rockin’ for at least two years. So it felt particularly surreal that it should be for a major Ray Johnson retrospective! But with this nudge from Alex Sainsbury, and a little help from stuff like John W. Walter’s 2002 Johnson documentary How To Draw A Bunny, it can’t be long before the entire London art world starts acting as if it grew up on Ray’s oeuvre.
Please Add To & Return To Ray Johnson is on at Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, London E1 7LS, 28 February-10 May 2009.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!
Comment by The Digital Pete Horobin on 2009-03-01 14:25:04 +0000
Death Is not true! Ray Johnson lives!
Comment by Malcolm Dickson on 2009-03-01 14:27:48 +0000
In the 1970s, having recently defected from the painting department in Dundee’s art school, Pete Horobin freed himself from all institutional constraints and looked to Europe as a source of creative nourishment. He decided that his life and its daily routines would become not only the subject of his art, but merged with his art practice – daily actions were collated into a monthly loose-leaf magazine and posted to selected individuals, such as Peter Below and Al Ackerman, the former introducing him to Neoism. From contacts made through correspondence, artists would be invited to the DATA Attic where they often made installations, one example being Mark Pawson’s ‘Xeroxed room’ undertaken in January 1986. ‘Chair of Chairs’, a Horobin-initiated mail art project covered in Xerox art was also on show here. The DATA Attic, therefore, is a laboratory, a gallery and an accumulating archive, but one visited by active artists rather than the public. As well as including DATA, the journals of freelance journalist and curator Marshall Anderson from 1990 to 2000 reside there, as does HIBERNIA – the ongoing research into naïve art in Scotland and Ireland by Peter Haining, who assumed curatorial responsibility for the DATA Archive in 2006. The latter was on hand as a living and performing aspect of this current exhibition, giving live commentary and interpretation on various aspects of the archive, and providing sustenance from an authentic and slightly bashed 1980s DATA teapot.
Comment by MATTHEW ROSE on 2009-03-01 15:05:17 +0000
I suppose in keeping with Ray’s unusual tradition of not attending his exhibitions, Please Add To & Return To Ray Johnson, featured yet another collage of people and art with the outsider artist eternally outside. Thanks to Alex Sainsbury for recognizing Ray as one of the great artists of our time.
MATTHEW ROSE / PARIS, FRANCE
Comment by Keith Bates on 2009-03-01 15:26:13 +0000
Thanks for that Stewart! We’ll definitely be down to see this show. I was imagining the new Raven Row Gallery to be an ikkle place the size of Mrs Miggin’s Pie Shoppe. Glad to hear the space and the exhibition are goodly sized!
Comment by Ray Johnson on 2009-03-02 09:12:39 +0000
Yes the outsider artist is always shut out and shut down, this site was offline from yesterday afternoon until now…. which had me wondering what the hell was being written about me. Will try to get to the show, it sounds interesting!
Comment by David Kelso on 2009-03-02 11:38:48 +0000
Ughhh – it’s dead. Stuff it and put it in a glass case on exhibition!
Comment by Michael Leigh on 2009-03-02 11:39:30 +0000
Nice to get a mention- thanks. No surprise really that any real mail artists were invited and since we moved from London 12 years ago our participation in the mail art network has waned somewhat. Deep in the heart of Cheshire it’s the internet now that keeps me connected to the few networkers that we are still in contact with though still dip my toe in the murky waters occasionally.
Must try and get down to see this over Easter. It sounds wonderful and a once in a lifetime oppertunity to see a braod range of Johnson’s work and play all in one place.
Comment by Michael Scott on 2009-03-02 11:39:52 +0000
Ray and I had a good laugh about the opening, we were told the invite to the opening was in the mail, but we prefer to be living in the love of the common people…..
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 11:42:25 +0000
His work is pretty cool – I do miss the old mail art and ‘small press’ of that era. Al Ackerman is a fucking genius. And I still pay regular visits to Pawson’s website. I’ve even bought stuff off there – although a lot of it is stupidly overpriced in a self-deafeating manner.
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 11:43:37 +0000
Oh – everyone watch out for the new Paraphlia Publications activities coming soon.
Comment by Mark Pawson’s Double on 2009-03-02 11:52:40 +0000
Over priced? My work is priceless!
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 12:08:45 +0000
Oh your ‘Kinder Egg Figure Collection’ is definitely a priceless gem – but some of the stuff your double sells by other people is …well.. a tad pricey, eh?
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 12:14:13 +0000
I mean – Mark Ryden, Robert Johnson…. all pretty pretty but not a million miles away from the wonderful world of Taschen.
Comment by Mark Pawson’s Double on 2009-03-02 12:30:21 +0000
Well, sad but true, not everyone can be as talented as me!
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 12:35:26 +0000
Why havent you done more works along the lines of the ‘wiring diagrams for plugs’ (or whatever it was) – that was a stroke of genius.
(mind you I was rewiring my house a few months back and following one of your diagrams and I got a severe fucking shock so, kiddies, dont believe everything you read!)
Comment by Mark Pawson’s Double on 2009-03-02 12:39:33 +0000
Maybe I should get out my old Fall records and become “Totally Wired”…
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 13:05:25 +0000
Oh my god all these years I thought that read ‘Totally Weird’ – I need reading glasses.
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 13:05:40 +0000
This isnt really me, you know?
Comment by Mark Pawson’s Double on 2009-03-02 13:09:39 +0000
I know, coz I’m the real Dave Kelso-Mitchell pretending to be Mark Pawson! Ray Johnson would have loved this thread!
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 13:22:46 +0000
Bollocks – I’ve been rumbled. And I’m Stewart Home pretending to be everyone.
Ah well, confession is good for the soul (but only if you’re a Catholic – if you’re anything else you have to pay through the nose for a fucking analyst)
Comment by Mark Pawson’s Double on 2009-03-02 13:28:11 +0000
I’m glad I’m not Stewart Home, at least not today, that would be too confusing – but don’t worry you can be Tony White again tomorrow. How long have you been hired to play Home btw? Don’t do it for too long or it will drive you crazy! Being Dave Kelso-Mitchell is hard work but doing Home really takes the biscuit. I’m only doing the Kelso-Mitchell job because my agency can’t get me into any plays at the moment. Fuckin’ CIA, I should have signed up with a top theatrical agent, I’m sure I’d be in the movies by now if I’d done that…..
Comment by Dave Kelso-mitchell on 2009-03-02 13:31:45 +0000
Being Kelso-Mitchell should be easy as he doesn’t really exist – well not before 1998 at least. Being Stewart Home would be unbearable if it were not for the fact that we are in fact an army of clones – much like Multi Man in the old 60s Hanna Barbera strip ‘The Impossibles’
And I’ve heard rumours that it is not really Dire McCain or Kelso-Mitchell behind the new ultra-hyped Paraphilia project but one of Home’s clones gone maverick.
Comment by Scratch The Upsetter on 2009-03-02 17:50:31 +0000
Try putting Ray Johnson into a search engine and one of the things you get is a scam site about ‘making’ money on the web! BEAT DOWN BABYLON!
Comment by Ronnie Rude on 2009-03-02 20:37:03 +0000
You bunch of pommie ponces wouldnt know transgressive if it fucked you up the arse. The orbit of Mercury has the highest eccentricity of all the Solar System planets, and it has the smallest axial tilt. It completes three rotations about the axis for every two orbits. The perihelion of Mercury’s orbit precesses around the Sun at 43 arcseconds per century; a phenomenon that was explained in the 20th century by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Mercury is bright when viewed from Earth, ranging from ?2.0 to 5.5 in apparent magnitude, but is not easily seen as its greatest angular separation from the Sun is only 28.3°. It can only be viewed in morning or evening twilight. Now that’s what I call fuckin transgressive – not the shite that you bunch of pommie pooftahs comes out with.
So fuck tha lot of yah!
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-02 20:50:19 +0000
What about a fuck and a suck? And would you like a threesome with me and Michael K?
Comment by V(orarephiliac) S(eparatist) F(eminist) on 2009-03-02 22:38:02 +0000
Ronnie Rude had a tendency to shift away from the marker pegs during the running and shifted out under pressure approaching the finish. I gouged out his eyeballs chopped off his gonads and stuffed them into the empty sockets, but he got away before I could decapitate dismember and devour him. Now he plays electric autoharp in a Nestorian polka metal band called Futile Onanist And The Flaccid Putz.
Comment by jim seventies on 2009-03-02 23:51:15 +0000
thanks for that
Comment by Msmarmitelover on 2009-03-03 00:46:32 +0000
Mail artists? What about comment artists? The commentards?
Comment by Msmarmitelover on 2009-03-03 00:47:27 +0000
And Mr Trippy, next time there’s a rockin’ art view, let me know. Were there canapes for the apes?
Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-03-03 01:17:59 +0000
I’m in, but alas, the twilight brain fog has set in, and I can’t remember what I was going to say several hours agoo goo ga ga…
Comment by Ruud Janssen on 2009-03-07 06:38:32 +0000
Surely a lot of reactions. Somehow mail-art must be alive and well….
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-07 11:55:24 +0000
I guess mail art is now alive and well online!
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-07 18:36:45 +0000
Sounds like you are looking for a show at Sainsbury’s mega gallery.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-08 08:31:57 +0000
Well I was wanting the Sainsbury’s wing alongside the rest of the National Gallery, the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery and all the plinths in Trafalgar Square – I could definitely use the space to make a nice little show.
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-08 22:51:40 +0000
Dear Mr. Slippy,
It really does feel like the mega bucks from the inSainsbury’s family fortune have corrupted your stance. This was evident on the night; indeed this is why there were so many desperadoes there.
It’s easy to bash the rich – as they tirelessly insulate themselves from their mass capital destruction of the poor – but in this case you seem to have let your inquiry become a love letter to the new Squire of the manner. “[The] London art world shindig that was quite so rockin’”… Perhaps we have wildly differing ideas about what rockin;’ means – Wolfgang Tillmans’ parties are rockin’ (have you ever been?), where as the ‘band’ at this event played jazz… “Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented – Jazz musicians enjoy themselves far more than anyone listening to them.” – T.W. – ’24 Hour Party People’…
Representing the overlooked past is a classic gallery tactic, it seek to demonstrate their humility by the tie-in with the ignored ‘great’ artist, whilst also demonstrating their power of authority. This is deceitful as it seeks to manipulate the viewer into a muted uncritical consumer – (perhaps the grocery schooling has paid off here – smell the fresh baked bread – they had to move the in-store bakeries to the back as the mob twigged on when they were front of house).
The idea is simple, have money – do good – open wow gallery… Sainsbury is a huge patron of the arts (Tate, Camden Arts Centre, Whitechapel Gallery, Art Angel etc) which it not in itself a problem (except of course for the Arts Council England, but that’s another entry) – and I’m not having a go at him (too easy and stupid) – but with a new gallery just once, just maybe, someone with some money will have the moral courage to try and tackle the appalling condition of art exhibitions in the UK rather than adding more muck to the pile. Maybe he’ll launch a See the Difference project space, but I doubt it on current form.
Ahhh there’s the ping of my oven; it’s Sainsbury’s taste the difference Lasagne tonight…
Comment by howling wizard, shrieking toad on 2009-03-09 09:59:45 +0000
The other annoying band the Indie bands all “namecheck” ( lol ) is the bloody Gang of Four — uptight middle cass funk….constipated geography masters : see the singer’s dance @ 52 secs. Is it a young conservatives Xmas Ball Dance? A St. Andrews/Oxbridge face off?
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-09 12:20:17 +0000
“It really does feel like the mega bucks from the inSainsbury’s family fortune have corrupted your stance. This was evident on the night; indeed this is why there were so many desperadoes there..” Looks like some subbing is needed on this. If the mega bucks from Sainsbury’s have corrupted my stance and this was evident on the night what should follow on from the semi-colon in the second sentence is something explaining or elaborating this; instead there is a move from the particular to the general which is not only a cop out revealing the underlying emptiness of this particular failed attempt at critique, it is also illogical. I would continue but I’m about to nip out to Tesco to buy a packet of peanuts…
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-09 13:08:07 +0000
Please forgive my lapse in concentration and poor grammar – Word told me to insert a semi – I didn’t mean to imply that your slippage was evident on the night – the fun of the art world is the management of self promotion and its conflicts with having to rub shoulders with those that disgust. My first paragraph was intended as a banal remark on the obvious – wealth attracts – even those that despise themselves for being attracted by it.
Not sure how my schoolboy error illuminates a hollow critique – sounds like classic CIA counter interrogation training at work – accuse your accusers of what they are accusing you of.
Picking up on grammatical errors is churlish on a blog like this, see what I mean:
“but I’m about to nip out to nip out to Tesco”
How is the nipping out, to nip out, working out for you?
Dry roasted or salted?
And what of the jizz jazz? Do you like?
Comment by Boris Johnston on 2009-03-09 13:12:05 +0000
Yes…A pack of Tesco’s Value Salted Peanuts is now only 29p (down from 30p last week), although, I mornmally rinse them and then toast them to get rid of the salt and let the flavour flood out. And with Midget Gems at only 28p and 2 litres of Fiery Red Ginger Beer at only 47p, you can have a complete balanced meal packed with protein vitamins, gelatin and nukerasweet for little over a quid. As Michael K keeps saying, it’s time Britain faced the fact that the Global Economic Downturn did not take place!!! We’ve never had it so good!
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-09 16:28:44 +0000
Yeah, we seem to be getting further with our discussion of Tesco products than Sainsbury’s, which probably reflects the socio-economic status of those who comment more regularly on this blog.
But to go back to the fictional Doctor Laing. One of the clues to the incoherence here is the name. This appears to taken from the J. G. Ballard novel “High Rise” about middle-class implosion in a yuppie tower block; and alongside another character Karen Novotny from “The Atrocity Exhibition” by the same author, these names have in the past been used to transform Ballard’s extremely dubious concept of New Psychology into a curational gambit by Andrew Hunt.
Whether the comments bearing this name were actually left by Hunt or someone wanting to invoke Hunt is irrelevant. It is clear that whoever wrote them has trouble thinking outside the “art box”: hence the concern with turning viewers into uncritical consumers, when the gallery system exists to service rich consumers. And check the rhetoric about opening a Wow gallery equating with some form of ‘good’; so who is it good for? I think most readers of this blog know how capitalist ‘charity’ functions.
I happen to like what Ray Johnson did, although I do not think he is a “great” artist, there is no such thing as a “great” artist. You can only make sense of Johnson as part of a broader network of people and outside the gallery system. That is one of the points of this blog. I went to the private view because it was for Johnson, and was interested in the tensions of putting him in a gallery situation which I felt would be highlighted by the opening. I wouldn’t have gone if, for example, it had been an opening for Liam Gillick; whereas it appeared that most of those at the opening had no idea who Johnson was, and this is one of the reasons I described it as a ‘beano’.
Moving on, Alex Sainsbury is not some new art world squire, he has been around for a long time, playing a key behind the scenes role in the Hoxton based Peer Gallery/project etc. I am using rockin’ to mean swinging not rock ‘n’ roll… this is common slang usage. I thought the jazz band at the party were rubbish… But there is good and bad jazz, Eddie Harris is good, the likes of Chris Barber are rubbish. And with a few exception such as ESG, most bands Tony Wilson had anything to do with are garbage, and especially crud like Joy Division/New Order… and yes I saw Joy Division play live when Ian Curtis was still alive, so this is based on both the records and having seen the band live.
Wolfgang Tillmans is a nice enough guy and he even took pictures of me back in the mid-nineties, but I don’t find the scene around him rockin’….
Comment by Bob Dobbs on 2009-03-09 17:55:19 +0000
Ian Curtis and Miles Davis…TOGETHER AT LAST!!!
It can happen when you join the Church!
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-09 23:12:20 +0000
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-09 23:12:39 +0000
Comment by Robert Laing on 2009-03-10 00:07:48 +0000
Not AH, please no, anything but that…
High Rise couldn’t have been written about Yuppies, the term was coined 5 years after the book was finished, and the HR collection of characters reflects steady middle class professions – not the go get ’em young bread heads that yuppie identifies.
The comment about money – gallery – and doing good was nothing to do with charity (registered or not) – market bashing or not – art as luxury goods for the rich or not. There are some good galleries who work with artists for years while they develop – but in the UK we have next to nothing. It takes cash to run a gallery, so there will be wealthy people behind it, no problem there, so it’s what one does with it that maybe interesting. And this is why I thought it a shame that you went gushy on Ravens Row as it (at present) looks like another waste of time.
I find it hard to get any relevance or useful play out of the Ray Johnson show – RJ had many famous artists friends – and was part of a ‘scene’ and yet he’s not so much obscure as irrelevant. Collage was better before and after, he didn’t add anything of note to the cut and paste debate – and as for mail art – it has only ever existed as a postal-fetish and not as a meaningful critique of galleries, wealth, power or capitalism.
Is 10 years in the art world a long time? Not really. And Peer – please – a quick look through the list of projects and artists… EVERYTHING IS NOT GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT!
Your use of rockin’ is something that is inherently bound up with praise, it’s not neutral. It doesn’t mean ‘swinging’, it means ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ or excellent, or to wear something (as in ‘I’m rockin’ my Adidas’). Any how it being a ‘swinging party’ is good (accurate), that captures the essence somewhat, I can imaging parties on the Titanic being described as swinging, and like the Titanic is was big – but I agree, I thought for an art world shin dig, surprisingly unglamorous and yes there were many faces missing, perhaps we should get used to it – maybe it was a snap shot of the Cameron shaped future.
And finally, the Tillmans parties (not the scene) – they are bad (meaning good).
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-10 01:08:25 +0000
To say that the reader plays a creative role in relation to a text is a cliche, but then cliches work. So here we see yet again the death of the author and the birth of the reader, with the reader working a double shift in this case. Rockin’ is an outdated term and used alongside phrases like ‘beano’ it is difficult to see how anyone who wasn’t very actively willing such a conjunction could take it to mean ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ (which are also superannuated terms); and then there are additional indicators such as my obvious cynicism about the audience, viz: “it can’t be long before the entire London art world starts acting as if it grew up on Ray’s oeuvre”.
To me the term rockin’ conjures up boogie merchants like Status Quo, as in the infamous quote that so embarrassed the public school educated son of Ricki Parfitt: “Parfitt’s the name and rockin’s the game…” But I still suspect I’d have a better time at one of his parties than a beano thrown by Wolfgang Tillmans. When I was a kid I often saw Parfitt in his sports car coz he parked it outside our school gates in order to look flash to a bunch of kids getting a secondary education on a council estate. Which even when I was 14 I found hilarious.
My interest in Johnson’s (later) work is rooted in the way it emerged from a community, which is why to focus too much on the work (which is one of the major flaws of the commercial gallery system) is to miss the point. One of the great things about mail art is that there is so much of it of such low quality that it is unlikely to ever be integrated into the commercial art system in its entirety. Much mail art is really great in a so bad it’s good way (meaning it’s bad), and precisely because it isn’t an alternative to the gallery system in the way that Pepsi is an ‘alternative’ to coke, and Michael Jackson is an ‘alternative’ to Status Quo.
Beyond finding “Atrocity Exhibition” and “Crash” amusing as a teenager, I have no interest in Ballard, the rest of his output is at best dull… and as for the non-fiction essays, the less said the better! A lot of the artists who’ve been shown at Peer aren’t of interest to me, but the point I was making was that if you’ve been that involved in the art world for that long you are not the new squire… And what makes someone an old hand on the art scene, if 10 years is not that long? Being a fifty or sixty something who is a third or more generation gallerist? Does this make Rene Gimpel (who I’ve always liked on a personal level – although I haven’t been to a Gimpel Fils opening for years) the grooviest art world insider in London?
Comment by Michael K on 2009-03-10 10:02:46 +0000
Well I haven’t seen the show yet and, from the description, I’m not entirely sure I should. What is intriguing me is to establish just what RJ’s views on such gallerification were before he died and whether his own estate are, like Kafka’s, acting against his will.
While everybody and everybody else seems to be convinced that only increased public profile can satisfy their ego-desire for peer-group validity, I’m really not sure that RJ didn’t share my own view which is that art galleries are a nice place to go (on occasion) but certainly no place to show.
What’s especially galling in London is the duplicity of all and sundry on what used to be called The Left toward all of this. Do our red commanders really believe that they’re managing to blinker observers witnessing their grubby little late-in-the-day bids for coffee-table acceptance while playing the old ‘We are all forced to live out the contradictions of capitalism’ card???
Not that any of this posturing is of any real interest to anyone but the self-conscious heroes of Philosophy campuses in the 1970’s.
We could do with less semantic gymnastics for the purposes of ‘I’m the greatest’ and more for the purposes of actually ENTERING the twenty-first century.
What RJ and his Paper Net comrades did was to set out a cultural land of opportunity beyond the clutches of the art institutionists. His recuperation, here, is, outrageously, not only by the instituion of art but theorists who continually flunk in their reforging of the passage between theory and practice.
Out of the galleries and back into the streets!
Comment by Jonathan Cainer on 2009-03-10 10:15:30 +0000
‘Love’ they say, ‘conquers everything.’ But then, they also say that ‘money makes the world go round.’ They ought to make their minds up. They, whoever ‘they’ are, have a bit too much to say on too many topics. We, whoever ‘we’ are, take them too seriously at our peril. And as for love, whatever ‘love’ is… well, that’s the thing. Are any of us really sure what we mean by that word? Even if we are sure, we could be wrong. That’s enough caveats for one Monday. Love is making your world go round now. That… and kindness. Your latest week ahead audio prediction tells you what you need to know more than anything else right now. You can hear the first minute or so immediately when you Click here!
Comment by Ray Johnson on 2009-03-10 10:18:26 +0000
Preach on brother K!
And the rest of you in/out Lennonists can check out my gallery while your cheeks are blistering…
Comment by Wikipedia on 2009-03-10 10:21:59 +0000
“Johnson lived frugally, but had $400,000 in bank accounts at the time of his death. He left no will and his 10 first cousins inherited his estate.”
Comment by Bill Wilson on 2009-03-12 16:58:28 +0000
The statement quoted, ”Johnson lived frugally, but had $400,000 in bank accounts at the time of his death,” implies hypocrisy, bad faith, or self-contradiction. One of Ray’s parents, if I understood hints at the time, inherited a house from a sibling, then Ray inherited his parent’s house, so that money which emerged from his family returned to his family — a version of feed-back, with the effect affecting the cause (the family). ”He left no will and his 10 first cousins inherited his estate.” Ray was acquainted with only one cousin, Janet Gifra, the others were behind a blindspot, hence functioned as random, with Ray knowing that he was not knowing what he was doing. Scattershot reduced responsibilities. Not knowing most of his family combines with themes of not knowing in his collages, bodying forth, as they do, his epistemologies. If he had used the money, then he would have contradicted himself, since one axiom of his ethics was that no one should profit from the work or even the property of another — hence his playful loathing for dealers in art and his teasing satire of literary agents who take a percentage of royalties. Yet he accepted dealers and agents as non-productive ”facts of life’’ — what he spoke of as ”history,” while taking upon himself the construction, transportation and communciation of his ideas and images. In his childhood, his grandparents farmed, thus owning the product of their labor (his parents were not immigrants as has been written: the farther we go into our future, the farther we will be able to go into his past, even unto Finland). Their farm was above a copper mine, where men were paid hourly wages, and did not own or control the product of their labor (Ray mentions in a poem from 1944 that he saw miners escaping from an accident in the mine; in his later collages he used accidents as a motif in a theme of rulelessness). His aunt worked for herself, earning her money by providing a service — a sauna for copper miners. In terms of economics, many of the collages exhibited at Raven Row were gifts. ”Gift” is not a visual concept, it cannot be seen as a quality of a work, but then much about a work of visual art is not visual, but can be known. The implications of gift in Ray’s life and art combine with values available in Raven Row, where admittance and catalogue for this show are free, and collages are not offered for sale. Ray demonstrated non-possession and non-acquisition by example, and encouraged experiences of sky, ocean and wind, none of them saleable commodities. His mail art encouraged aesthetic observers to become participant-observers; and because mail-art was touched with hands, it dissipated aesthetic illusions on behalf of physical experience in a world of fluctuating hierarchies, with trash the equal of art-supplies. Ray did not punish the temporal for not being eternal, or take revenge on the finite for not being infinite. Thus the party given in a Christian church offered an experience of his adult relations with transcendentals, those dangerous inherited (unavoidable) gifts. The oysters were images of hard-shelled life under water, an elaboration of ideas implicit in Ray’s drowning, wherein, as a fish-out-of-water, he was trying to return home.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-12 20:50:16 +0000
Thanks Bill. As I keep saying, although some people don’t like it, while we live in this exploitative social system we all have to live out the contractions of capitalism… And from what you’re saying it looks to me like Ray dealt with those contradictions very well.
Comment by John Held, Jr. on 2009-03-20 19:15:54 +0000
Was surfing for reports of the Johnson show and stumbled into this. Bill, your comments on Johnson are so heartfelt and incisive. Johnson was an “acid test.” He sent out “add and pass” missives as momentary gifts to be enjoyed and distributed onward. What you did with it became a part of the process. Your historical knowledge of Johnson is unmatched. I look forward to seeing it in full some day. Soon, I hope.
Comment by Colours of White on 2009-04-24 12:53:03 +0000
I love Ray’s collages — YOU should too.
If you don’t like them, I will follow you around for ever.