Bill Wilson’s 1995 Epistolary Responses to Ray Johnson’s Death

Bill Wilson wrote this series of letters in the months directly after Ray Johnson’s suicide in 1995. Addressed to numerous friends including Henry Martin, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Matthew Rose, Gracie Mansion, and others, the letters document Bill’s personal and philosophical responses to Ray’s death and provide an account of the funerary, legal, and proprietary (un)settlements as they transpired. Bill’s deep admiration and love for Ray are powerfully evident in these instructive and revealing letters. He emphasized seeing Ray’s death as a good death, since it was on Ray’s own terms, and trying to find ways to use the event as incentive for new writing, contemplation, and productive activities like organizing his archive of Johnson’s work. In lieu of further attempt to summarize the scope and intensity of these letters, here is an excerpt of Bill’s introduction:

“I’m going to summon in the computer the latest version of a letter which encapsulates many other letters in successive epistolary subsumptions: the letters have accreted (like coral?) as the events after Ray’s suicide have required responses from me, some of them factual (& open to correction as I am getting some facts wrong); & some of them about decorum & etiquette—as I find many consolations to be in extremely poor taste; & some of them religious-philosophic, since the headlines such as “Dead in the Water” & “A Funny Suicide?” seem to me to underestimate and/or to misrepresent the serious tasks of being a person who is going to die someday. As Ray saw, & grasped in his hands like a fact he could palpate with his fingers, one’s living sets in motion one’s dying–& thus one might want to die in harmonious accord with the reality as that person grasps it or even manifests it in the governing images of that life.”

Click here for a PDF of the letter(s).

I am grateful to Matthew Rose who found the text in his archive, photocopied, and mailed it to me to include on this website. As mentioned in the letters, Matthew Rose was a friend of Ray Johnson and Bill Wilson and organized a memorial meeting for Ray in Paris at the American Church after his death. Matthew is an artist and the founding organizer of the international mail art exhibition series “A Book About Death.”

Matthew Rose’s Instagram
A Book About Death: The Project

A Book About A Book About Death by Ray Johnson and William S. Wilson (digitized in full)

Bill Wilson’s text “A Book About A Book About Death” is now available online.  (click here for the PDF)

The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “Ray Johnson, A Book About Death” held at Kunstverein, Amsterdam December 12, 2009 to January 1, 2010.

Ray Johnson’s “A Book About Death” consists of thirteen unbound pages that he designed between 1963 and 1965. The pages were mass-produced and distributed to his correspondents as separate sheets and in assorted groupings. Since most people did not receive a complete set, a PDF of all the pages is available below.

“A Book About A Book About Death” includes short texts by Wilson about each of the individual pages of “A Book About Death” and it is currently the only publication with in-depth discussion of Johnson’s book.  Wilson’s insights reveal important aspects of Johnson’s practice such as his use of letters, doubles and reversals, the significance of surfaces, and an introduction to some Zen-related themes in his work and much more. Here is an excerpt :

“Page 1 opens with questions of evil in a benevolently ordered Universe. The advice of this page is to look to surfaces, not to attempt to descend into depths of meaning, or to intrude on depths of mind or interiority of soul. The implication is to do as Ray does, which is to move laterally from image to image. He works with inconsistencies and discontinuities in order to hold and to spread ideas and images on the surfaces, while allowing inconsistencies to overlap. […] The style of lettering on Page 1 is a model for Ray’s construction of himself, and an example he offers to other people. Do as each letter does, which is to remain separate and independent, while each individual letter contributes its effects to the meaningful whole word. The style of each discontinuous and inconsistent letter prevents it from disappearing into the interior of a word, while stylization of the letter presses down on that letter to formulate its own suggestions of meanings. The concern for each letter suggests the slow and deliberate delays of grief, where grief alters experiences of time. Each word has a visual rhythm of its own, with that rhythm attuned to other rhythms. .”

Note: I assembled the digitized version from a few separate PDFs, so the image quality of the pages is inconsistent.  Sorry it is not the best quality scan.

CLICK HERE for a PDF of William S. Wilson’s “A Book About A Book About Death,” 2010

CLICK HERE for a PDF of Ray Johnson’s “A Book About Death,” 1963-1965

Bill Wilson’s Parties, photos by La Toan Vinh (2006 – 2012)

Mail artist and photographer La Toan Vinh had the honor of attending several parties hosted by Bill Wilson at his home in Chelsea, New York and has submitted his charming photos of the events to this online archive. Vinh’s photos capture the vitality and joy of Bill’s parties and are a wonderful addition to the archive. They also indicate the importance Bill placed on cultivating interpersonal relationships and reveal his open, generous attitude in welcoming friends and acquaintances to socialize in his home and to view his collection of art and Ray Johnsonalia.  The conclusion of Bill’s epistolary novel Birthplace: moving into nearness also reveals some of the significance that parties had for him:

But the tasks of life have been easier since I learned what to do and what not to do in order to be a good and welcome guest, and to write letters faithfully, and not to be too true to myself; to avoid violent purity. So I have produced this letter which has produced me. I have been writing, and I am happy to be able to write, to tell you, Octavio, the words I hear in my head as I write, that we are having a party, and have been for some time now, and we want, with words I am trying to deliver alive from my heart, to invite you. You are welcome to join us in our consonance, at any time, to come as you are, to take potluck with us. Feel free to bring a friend, or partner. Don’t wait until you are ready. And if all that I have written is clear to you now as an invitation, then I suppose that I have finished writing my letter. The letters that made me the happiest as a young man were the invitations to parties which showed me that I had been satisfactory and was welcome among friends. Even parties of somewhat somber merriment. As long as I was remembered (even grateful for looks of recognition at a wake-party). Ah, the remembrances of me that I choose to remember. As you are remembered fondly, Octavio, and can be certain of your welcome in this our republic of letters, where our strongest imperative is that we must treat everyone so that we can enjoy a laugh together later.

Your glad old outrigger grandfather,

Yolanda says to say Hello.

The first collection of La Toan Vinh’s photos is from June 25, 2005 and depict Bill at home in his kitchen and with one of his many binders of mail art and other materials from Ray Johnson. Vinh also took a lovely portrait of himself with Bill.

The next series documents a gathering of mail artists held on July 13th or 14th, 2006 at Wilson’s home for a spaghetti dinner. The party was held in conjunction with “Dada Week NYC” during which dozens of mail artists from around the world gathered in NYC for a week of Dada-related festivities such as viewing the exhibition of Dada Art at MoMA. Some of the attendees pictured below include such well known mail artists as Joel Cohen “The Sticker Dude,” Chuck Welch “The Crackerjack Kid,” John Held Jr., Buz Blurr, and many others. Artworks by May Wilson and Ray Johnson are exhibited on the walls.

Vinh also documented Bill’s 80th Birthday Party on April 7th, 2012.

Many thanks to La Toan Vinh for contributing these joyful and illuminating photographs! A forthcoming post will feature a selection of mailings that Bill Wilson sent to La Toan Vinh.

Photographs and Correspondence between Joan Harrison, Ray Johnson, and Bill Wilson

This post features correspondence between Joan Harrison, Ray Johnson, and Bill Wilson about Joan’s portraits of Johnson on the beach and Bill’s texts about the photographs Johnson took with a disposable camera during the last years of his life.

Joan Harrison is a multimedia artist, historian, author, curator, and professor emeritus at C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University. She met Ray Johnson in 1982 on Bayville Beach,  Long Island where they were both were active participants in the local art scene. During the years of their friendship, Joan and Ray went on several photo shoots together, exchanged numerous letters and gifts, attended art openings and events, and spent time with their mutual friends.  In 2008 Joan organized the “HistoRAY”  Ray Johnson Fan Club Meeting and exhibition at the Mistretta Galleries in Locust Valley and met Bill Wilson at the opening reception on the 13th anniversary of Ray’s death.

Ray Johnson Lattingtown Beach Corner Portrait, photograph by Joan Harrison, 1982

Ray Johnson at Lattingtown Beach, 1982, copyright Joan Harrison.

Joan Harrison’s iconic portrait of Johnson on Lattingtown Beach in 1982 depicts the artist staring head-on into the camera as he sits on the ground in the corner of a concrete terrace  gripping the parapet with his outstretched arms. Johnson’s arresting stare and imposing yet vulnerable posture make it one of the most striking photographs of the artist during his later years. Joan recalled that  Ray seemed nervous and uncomfortable in front of the camera at the beginning of the session, fidgeting and looking around, until he suddenly assumed the butterfly or bat-like pose and looked directly into her camera, alert and ready to spring into action. Johnson’s fondness for the image is evident in the correspondence he sent to Joan referencing their trips to the beach and in his use of the portrait as the basis for some of his mass-produced “Please Add to and Return to” mailings.  Ray liked the serendipitous occurrence that Joan’s last name “Harrison” is cast on the metal drain visible in the lower right corner of the photograph–an unintentional signature. Neither of them observed it until the image was printed (this detail is not quite not visible in the online reproduction). Some of their other outdoor photo shoots took place around Joan’s home in Sea Cliff and at the Nassau County Museum of Art. [more photos via Artpool]

Photographs of Ray Johnson by Joan Harrison at various locations around Sea Cliff , Glen Cove, and the Bayville and Lattingtown beaches, ca. 1980s, copyright Joan Harrison

SK- Could you elaborate on the dynamic between you and Ray during your photo shoots?
JH- During the photo shoots Ray and I would just talk. All happened at my instigation. He would ask me what he should do and I would say something like the light is good there or that background would work and the shoot would go from there.

SK- What was he like to collaborate with and to photograph?
JH- The shoots were great fun and when he agreed to do a shoot he was always cooperative. He always changed the subject if I asked him if I could photograph him at his house and I was never there in his lifetime.

 SK- Who was directing and posing who?
JH- The shoots in terms of posture and expression were really a collaboration in that he might do something and I would take a few frames and then I would say why don’t we try something else. The picture that gives me chills is the one of him sprawled on the beach with his head on a rock. It was my idea and terribly uncomfortably prescient of his death by drowning to come years later.

SK- Did you or Ray choose the locations and occasions or were they more spontaneous?
JH- Bayville Beach was the first location we chose  because it was where we met and the pictures were taken during a long walk.  The other images were taken around Sea Cliff, at my house and at Nassau County Museum of art where I had my first or second exhibition and Ray had a major retrospective.

 SK- Did you feel like Ray was performing for the camera, acting naturally, or did he seem uncomfortable?
JH- Generally portraiture is a kind of collaborative documentation of a performance or pose. What I was looking for in the real portraits  was a point where discomfort drops away and an essence of the person comes through. I think Ray allowed me that in the best of the pictures. It was certainly in retrospect a great privilege that he allowed me to photograph him.


Johnson sent Joan several mailings (above- click the images to see larger versions ) directly related to their photo shoots on the beach:  an envelope labeled “Bayville Beach Valentine” which includes a real bird’s wing, a letter that reveals, “I was so glad you didn’t ask me to take off my shirt — the way Peter Hujar did,” and a photocopy of a glove he found on the beach.

Ray Johnson Please Add and Return with Joan Harrison's photo


Johnson used Joan’s portrait in some of his many “Please Add to and Return” mailings, which he mass-produced and sent to numerous correspondents as prompts for additional collaborations. The images above are examples of responses and additions by unidentified mail artists found in Joan’s archive and Artpool’s online archive.

In further homage to Joan’s portrait, a decade later in 1993, Johnson sent her photocopies of images in which he returned to the exact location of their photo shoot to photograph a card printed with the silhouette of his pose in her portrait and another with the text “Please Add to and Return to Ray Johnson.”

Joan met Bill Wilson in 2008 when he attended the opening reception for the “HistoRAY” exhibition she organized at the Mistretta Gallery in Long Island (more information below). Bill was familiar with Joan’s portraits of Ray Johnson and hoped to learn more about their photographic collaborations as he continued to expand his archive about Johnson. Inquiring about this subject, Bill sent her some of his writing (scanned below) about the photographs  Johnson took with a disposable camera during the last years of his life, circa 1990-1995. Contrary to Bill’s speculation, Joan was not with Johnson while he took any of these photos–she was the only one behind the camera during their photo shoots–so she could not provide Bill with any additional information about Johnson’s photographs.

Bill’s mailing includes 13 of these images and several more are available online via the Ray Johnson Estate, however many are inaccessible, hidden, or lost. Johnson’s late photographs are surrounded with rumors and speculations due to their melancholy tone preceding Johnson’s suicide. These photos frequently depict one or many of Johnson’s collages arranged in outdoor settings such as on a dumpster, the windshield of a car, a streetlight, a phone booth, and at cemeteries.  Reflections in windows and mirrors are common themes as are the presence of strong oblique shadows, often of part of Johnson’s body, most likely cast by the setting sun. Bill’s texts discuss Johnson’s use of images of drains, manhole covers, telephones, and gravestones, in addition to the differences between reversible abstract operations and irreversible concrete operations.

Click here for a PDF of the texts and images Bill sent to Joan. Please note that the pages are not in a particular nor original order.

Bill Wilson’s mailing to Joan Harrison, December 9-10, 2008

Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (1)above: front of the envelope

below: back of the envelope

  • top photo: Henry Martin and Ray Johnson, photographed by William S. Wilson, 1965
  • lower photo: Toby Spiselman with Ray Johnson holding Andrew Wilson, photographed by William S. Wilson, 1964

Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (2)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (3)

above: front of the postcard of “Knapp’s Narrows” a painting by May Wilson (note the Harrison Restaurant sign)
below: back of the postcard

Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (4)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (5)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (6)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (7)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (8)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (9)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (10)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (11)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (12)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (13)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (14)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (15)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (16)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (17)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison December 10, 2008 (18)

Bill Wilson’s mailing to Joan Harrison, June 21, 2008

Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison June 21, 2008 (1)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison June 21, 2008 (2)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison June 21, 2008 (3)Bill Wilson to Joan Harrison June 21, 2008 (4)

Link to the text from the 2008 exhibition catalogue pictured above  “Ray Johnson: Challenging Rectangles”


Additional information and links about Joan Harrison’s projects

Joan Harrison organized the “HistoRAY” exhibition and event at the Mistretta Galleries in Locust Valley, Long Island, New York, on January 13, 2008. A simultaneous “HistoRAY” exhibition opened at the ArtPool Art Research Center in Budapest, Hungary on the same date, the 13th anniversary of Ray Johnson’s death. The exhibitions included photographs of Johnson by Joan Harrison and her husband Michael E. Ach in addition to copies of Johnson’s correspondence to various people.

Joan Harrison and LuAnn T. Palazzo co-curated “Ray Johnson and Book About Death”(ABAD) at the SAL Art Gallery, C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University, October 31 to November 5, 2010. The exhibition was inspired by Johnson’s unbound book of the same title, pages of which he distributed to his correspondents between 1963 and 1965. In the 2010 exhibition, hundreds of mail artists submitted small artworks related to death which were on display alongside copies of Johnson’s pages of “A Book About Death.”

Joan has written three books about the histories of the Locust Valley and Glen Cove compiling photographs and information from numerous local archives and family albums.

In 2015, Joan participated in a summer artist’s residency in Venice sponsored by the Emily Harvey Foundation during which she continued to develp her work in photography and collage and composed an illustrated prose poem “Advice to Young Artists” inspired by the Venice Biennale.

More images of Joan’s artwork and photographs are available on her website: 


Many thanks to Joan Harrison for inviting me to spend a day with her visiting some of the places she and Ray went together and showing me her artwork and her archive of correspondence from Ray Johnson and Bill Wilson. Her fascinating experiences with Ray and her knowledge about the art scene and history of Long Island have added depth and helpful context to my understanding of Johnson’s later work. I am so grateful for her warmth, generosity, and encouragement. Thank you, Joan! 

Henry Martin: In Conversation with John Held, Jr.



George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Benjamin Patterson & Emmett Williams performing Philip Corner’s Piano Activities at Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik, Weisbaden, 1962. Photograph by Hartmut Rekort

George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Benjamin Patterson & Emmett Williams performing Philip Corner’s Piano Activities at Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik, Weisbaden, 1962. Photograph by Hartmut Rekort.

About the Author: John Held, Jr.

John Held, Jr. has been a staff writer with SFAQ since 2011. He has contributed over fifty feature articles and reviews, interviewing such notable Bay Area artists as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, painter Robert Bechtle and dancer Anna Halprin. His most recent book is, “Small Scale Subversion: Mail Art and Artistamps,” available from Amazon.

Notes and Additional Resources: 
This interview was originally published on by the writer and mail artist John Held, Jr.  More of Held’s articles and reviews for can be found here.  Sections of John Held’s archive and papers relating to mail art are available for research at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Held interviewed Ray Johnson on December 2, 1977 at the Mid-York Library System in Utica, New York. A video recording and transcript of this interview are available online: video ; transcript .
Henry Martin’s interview with Ray Johnson, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever?” , was originally published in Lotta Poetica 2 (February 1984) and was reproduced in The Ray Johnson issue, No.22, of Charlton Burch’s magazine Lightworks in 2000 from which the downloadable PDF was scanned. Henry Martin’s interview with Francesco Conz, a publisher of avant-garde and experimental art multiples, is also available online.
– SK

Ray Johnson’s A Book About Death, Page 3

Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, Page 3. %228ABABY%22 September 10, 1963

“On PAGE 3, the figure 8 is itself a hybrid, a 3 facing a reversed 3. For Ray, two 3s combine into one figure, a contrived or devised figure 8, which can be re-divided into two 3s. Ray modified purposeful objects to that they cannot serve their practical purposes. Yet they can then serve as images with aesthetic and communicative usefulness, at least if their implications swell and unfold, thereupon to fold into implications unfolding toward them. As visual images, the shear and the wrist-watch convey ideas of mismatching. Two crossed diagonal lines representing a watch-band and one shear are spread open like an opened pair of scissors, suggesting an X, a pair of counterpart lines. Indeed, the watch-band and the shear are a pair, but they are two objects which do not combine their implications for use. Thus the two images are arranged like a pair of scissors, an object which is only one object, yet which is called a pair. That one object is called a pair is countered by a pair which is actually two objects. What happens within a language as it matches and mismatches existence is a model for his life.”

Text by William S. Wilson in “A Book About A Book About Death,”Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2010

Image: Page 3 of “A Book About Death,” by Ray Johnson, “8ABABY,” printed September 10, 1963.

Eva Hesse

Subject: a note to Sofia about Eva                   Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 1:47 PM
From: Bill Wilson
To: Sofia Kofodimos
Cc: marcie begleiter

Eva is too much to be revered for the tone of uncaring technological
e-mail: however, once I happened to be with Eva in later afternoon or
early evening, within an hour of her having been advised by doctors to
take a specific medicine, with the warning that she would have to take
it the rest of her life.  She said, “…the rest of my life,” paused,
and continued with a shrug, “but I don’t suppose that that will be
very long.”  A good rule in life is to say nothing that will end the
conversation too soon.  I couldn’t say anything about how long she
might live, which is to say, how soon she might die.  At that moment,
we touched on a significant theme in Eva’s life.  One of her
frustrations was that she knew enough pain so that she did not want to
add pain to the pain of another person.  However, as Eva was the first
to say, and to joke about, she could not control herself, she went
toward edges of a conversation where it became the outer limit of what
is said in comfortable conversation.  She wanted to be within a group,
but as soon as she was, she wanted to get out, sometimes by being
funny.  She pained herself by violating her self-set commandment,
first, cause no pain.  In our conversation about medicines, and her
family, the problem is that she was being funny, at her own expense,
on the subject of dying; and with her comic remark, she was adding to
my pain, of which she was fully aware and to which she was sensitive.
Her jokes toward the end of her life were difficult to respond to.
Once, in a bar for artists on the West side of Park Avenue South, as I
was walking toward a juke-box through a crowd of people, a short
blonde-woman, with large cheeks, popped her face in front of mine with
eager open eyes.  One of the agonizing themes in literature is the
scene of non-recognition: there I was, not recognizing Eva until she
said, “It’s Eva.”  With cheeks swollen from medicines, and losing her
hair in medical treatments, a blonde wig was her joke, a joke on the
archetypes according to which blonde is light, light is experience of
and knowledge of God.  In works of art, light, and images of light,
suggest sources of knowledge of a reality beyond appearances.  A cloud
opens and sunlight streams through illuminatingly.  Her joke conformed
to her ideas about time and endurance.  Eva could think about, and
think with, a sense of what will exist and even endure satisfyingly
for a period of time, without making false claims in relation to
ideals that transcend time and space.  Jokes are for the moment, as
she knew that she was.

On Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 10:36 AM, Sofia Kofodimos wrote:
> Bill,
> What are some of the themes in literature and poetry in the classes that you
> taught at Queens College or other schools? Which texts and poems?
> Can you tell me a story about you and Eva Hesse and her sense of humor?
> Sofia

[note: the images above were added by me for this post and were not included in Bill’s original email. 07.24.2016 – SK]


Bill’s essays about Eva Hesse:

William S. Wilson, “Eva Hesse: Alone and/or Only With”, Artspace, September-October, 1992.

William S. Wilson, “Eva Hesse: On the Threshold of Illusions” in Inside the Visible. Boston: ICA / Kortrijk, Belgium: Kanaal Art Foundation, 1995. Editor: M. Catherine De Zegher.

Links to online video recordings of two of his public lectures about Eva Hesse: Videos and Lectures

The Soul and Andy Warhol’s Do It Yourself (Sailboats)

Bill Wilson's twins, Kate and Ara, resting in front of Do It Yourself (Sailboats) at the original exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1962. Photo William S. Wilson

Subject: [unknown, Andy Warhol, sailboats, soul]
From: Bill Wilson
To: Gary Comenas

On 5 Feb 2013, at 23:08, Bill Wilson wrote:

Gary: every word I use is a perplexed crossroad, so I have to resist temptations to write to you, and get back to my themes, which this week should be “wall,” with Andy never questioning the effects of the meaning of walls the way Ray did. I see mentions of Andy as“autistic,” which is destructive in too many ways to list. He sought me out sort of hiding at parties, looked me in the eye, and talked like a regular-enough guy from Pittsburg, remembering friends whom I also knew. With interviews, he performed a semblance of passivity which I didn’t appreciate (understand) was a (mere) semblance, so I still need to get the relations between active Warhol and passive Andy precise. Thus the “shadow” paintings make a reappearance as images conveying ideas about causalities, in that shadows are effects caused by objects in relation to light, yet shadows can also become causes. So another part of his work claims my interest.

Soul: To quote me: “soul” as the plane of ultimate commitments – what is felt and acted on behalf of as real. If you read more slowly you might save time, but this way, I get to see where I need to explain more and to justify my exploratory images to a person who knows the texts. Toward the end of 81 years, having read Aristotle’s “De anima” at least 20 times, owning 20 or more books by and about Warhol (3 large reasoned catalogues), with experiences of early drawings in catalogues, I can be assumed to have thought past the obvious “eternal soul” of transcendental religions, and, aware of the problems, be understood to have ventured a statement which is in accord with my other thoughts: “soul” as the plane of ultimate commitments – what is felt and acted on behalf of as real.

When Picasso said, speaking of“what goes on in a painting,” “That’s what reality is” (that’s what his reality is), his thought intersects with and overlaps what I am trying to think, although I admit that “soul” is distracting and misleading, but must be included because it is bound to come up. You don’t need to go over what I must already have taken into account – in 2013, “soul” as something not eternal, but more than materialities can account for or even describe. [“…Taylor indicates that he plans to marry Nawana Davis, an irresistible dancer who is the “wealthiest girl in La Jolla.” Nawana, however, considers Taylor to be a stalker, but she’s trying to give him some “soul.”] A “soul-singer” who eats “soul-food” affirms a different reality from that of a disenchanted post-Enlightenment white disbelieving critic who can figure that something has been lost in the Enlightenment, which Enlightenment brought about disenchantments with magic, and skepticisms about illusions, yet the mind/”soul” can still be experienced overcoming brute undesignated matter (mass). The enlightened materialist skepticism has reached even aesthetic illusions, and aesthetic anti-illusions, which is about where my thoughts are hovering, a trembling finger pointing toward a painting of a paint-by-numbers image of a sailboat.

A sailboat uses the resistances of the sails to move forward, hence is a model for how to get along “toward.” “Soul” is questioned in the Selma images and in the electric chair, and in the mystical powers of reigning Queens of Europe. Both Ray and Andy, upon discovery of desires regarded as sins in childhood religions, necessarily wondered about Eternal Soul, and acted in accord with later adult understandings. Andy may present himself as shallow and facile, but that doesn’t matter, for his predicament is profound, and every image, especially an ordinary image responding to an activating context, may become profound as implications awaken and unfold.

For me, Andy’s self-revelations and even his self-discoveries are manifest in the image of a sailboat painted free-hand, yet following the lines and preserving the implications of paint-by-number industrial commercial kits with explicit instructions – images for sale. The kits, I think for Andy’s moral-aesthetic values, underestimated “soul” in art as a sincere commitment toward expression of the artist’s own ultimate reality as his/her moral and aesthetic values – an aesthetic expression which could both construct a “soul”(self-discovery) and reveal a self or “soul” (self-revelation). The process is rather obvious in the image of a sailboat, a method of transport that requires attentive commitment to sailing, under an incalculable sky (once residence of gods), and above unfathomed depths (within which one might drown among monsters and sea-dingles).

If, in the old poetry, the soul is a sailing boat, then how is that sailboat to be represented? Is a soul-boat to be misregistered with a mechanically reproduced outline on canvas-board? An image of a sailboat is off-registered in a commercial “kit” for aesthetically impoverished people, poor souls, who buy from within the same capitalist manipulations which have impoverished them. Those manipulations include overestimations and underestimations which so spoil attention that they despoiliate attention. Because I am usually looking for the plane of passionate sincere commitments in works of art – a plane I designate an image of the artist’s “reality” – see below for: “Anything else must not, for you, be thought/ To exist…”

I write “attentive commitment” because of the moral implications of attention. Some Warhol films make the attention of a spectator so self-conscious that attention becomes a self-conscious theme about competitions for attention. “Attention must be paid to such a man” (Arthur Miller). Elsewhere I write about attentation as engagement, even attention as “marriage,” using images to suggest implications like Andy’s disengagements as “off-engagements” with this world, enough “stuff” for another note.

You write that you don’t know what a prayer-card is. A prayer-card might be sold for a dime in a Catholic church as a method of focusing attention. Prayer can be intense attention, with moral themes of attention going through Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch, as I wrote in an early timid essay suggesting that the experience of attention to a work of art was sufficient, without explicit academic theories. Anyone in my downtown world of the late 1950s might have said, “Work is prayer,” or, “Prayer is attention,” when a purpose was to get a person looking at art to participate in the values of the artist as manifest in the work of art. Thus Goethe can see Duerer as seeing that does justice: “To see the world as Albrecht Duerer sees, neither overestimating nor underestimating.”

Andy did not paint-by-numbers himself, but he represented an image of a sailboat outlined to be painted by an unskilled technique of following simplistic instructions. Calculations – say the #2 on the image is a code that means the area should be painted “blue” – deplete colors of their unique irreversible expression of feelings, their correlations with emotions. If #2 = blue, then blue = #2, which misregisters blue, and off-registers #2, since a numeral has no color. The abstractions and coded designations obviated expression of “soul,” even of “self,” yet also grievously falsified the image of a sailing boat.

A sailboat was not like a paint-by-numbers kit, a sailboat was like a soul, which was not a matter of instructions to paint-by-numbers, yet that level or plane of calculating instructions had to be acknowledged as a component of the realities: Andy knew that he did not live in a world of his own making. A sailboat suggests risks, skill, improvised responses, experiences of winds and tides, hence is a model for how to become a “soul,” when “soul” suggests the precariousness of adventuring within this world which threatens pain, suffering and death-by-water.

An interlude with T. S. Eliot, “Death by Water”

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

I quote poetry as a reminder that the generation of Andy and Ray used the arts not merely as entertainment, but as methods of thinking about realities and values – while they turned the wheel and looked windward . Rimbaud’s image of a “drunken boat” could be used to think with about experiences, and could be used in conversations because the other guys would recognize the image even if they shied at the name“Rimbaud.”

The idea in an image of a sailboat can be seen in a glance. I might say to a sailboat, “I – Thou,” in recognition of identity of spirit, meaning or “soul,” while not feeling a sense of recognizing a kindred spirit in a kit sold for profit or loss (Eliot gets“profit and loss” into “Death by water”). I would not say “I – Thou” to a kit in a hobby-store, although – and here is his brilliance – Andy might acknowledge the possibility. He had a different experience of profit from Ray, who eschewed profit. Andy, like anyone who attended Carnegie Tech, had to become aware of the methods by which the money had been profit from the labor of the men – Carnegie the “robber baron.” The school as an institution had an atmosphere that was “cold as charity.”

“Profit is theft,” Ray might have said, echoing “Property is theft,” although he eventually bought property. Artists did not need to read long philosophic treatises. Someone might have said, during a conversation in a bar,”Existence precedes essence,” thereby changing a friend’s understanding of life and of art, both by the content of the three words, and by the fact of quoting them in a conversation.

I regard the sailboat painting as a self-portrait representing quandries and perplexities in the life and art of a man — gay as a sailboat – struggling for his soul in the realm of art as the truth of the artist as self-discovery and self-expression (but also inadvertent self-revelation). Andy was able to keep his life “on an even keel.” He had had experiences of various “values” in the various markets which were profiting from other people’s hungers by selling the necessities of physical life. In Pittsburgh, a soul could seem as much a luxury as a sailboat in a regatta.

I have quoted a poem which is in some ways sympathetic: “Anything else must not, for you, be thought/ To exist.” That sense of reality (criteria of real existence) suggests, like the psychology of Ludwig Binswanger, that we develop criteria prior to experience by which we judge what is real experience. I am pointing toward the development of “a priori” criteria as the developed equivalent to what used to be thought of as a “soul.”

For Andy, I am looking toward — imagining with playfully projected “facts” — his teen-years for the developments of criteria for his later years. I intend to understand (interpret) his images, not in anecdotal terms… but as his experiencies with experiments on realities. However Andy got to images of flowers is one story, but I am thinking in terms of the meanings accrued by flowers for hucksters who sold necessities like vegetables, but maybe sold flowers if they got a good deal at the wholesalers — two-day-old flowers marked down in price to look like a “bargain” for a special “sale.” “They got ‘nother day or two left in ‘em.”

Andy must have known by experience that the language of buying and selling — “sale” “bargain” “I can let you have a dozen for a dollar” — was unreal, a bad imaginary, with prices as rancid phantoms (woefully now his paintings get haunted by prices which deplete the realities of sensory experience ameliorated by tentative thoughts). A commercial “sale”as a reduction in a price was and is a mental event, illusory in its own way. However, a “sale” and “buying-and-selling,” even if illusory events, are not like the illusions of aesthetic events, because they are not aspiring toward truth, and thus are not answerable to the process of “moving-into-nearness” as moving toward truth, which is never to be reached (hence I mention paths, but not arrivals at ultimate goals: “The Grail is in the seeking, not the Cup.”)…

In a climactic statement, associable with the paradoxes of logic, set theory and critical philosophy, Andy asks an interviewer: “Have I lied enough?” His question to a questioner, as though interviewing an interviewer, aligns with Jasper Johns: “I am a liar,” which is true if it is false, and false if it is true. If “I am a liar” can be proved to be true, then it is not true. Here is where the most “anagogic” or “philosophic” themes of foundation, and of foundationlessness, enter the quotidian events of Andy’s experiences.

My future attempts to describe him will begin with the statement in which he participates in an interview as an interviewer. If he said, as he is quoted, “I am a deeply superficial person,” he participated in the “is and is not” of philosophy which is viable in 2013. The themes reach the groundlessness of faith, and even the event which is like the play of a child making mud-pies, as when Jesus points toward wine and says, “This is my blood.” Andy’s paintings of Leonardo’s“Last Supper” are not explained by anecdotes of dealers, although facts about cheap reproductions are to the point, which includes the experience that the path of Communion becomes a pathlessness for most disillusioned, disenchanted, de-myhthologized people.

I think that Andy was representing the conditions of receiving Communion for a gay painter from Pittsburgh for whom success was a job in New York. “Communion” would take me toward “causality, ”but I’ll give you a rest, after 3 items:

A poem, always handy to have a poem at hand:

Philip Larkin: “Continuing to Live”:

Continuing to live – that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries –
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise –
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list. Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

2) Genet, and Sartre on Genet, are necessary to understand my words on authenticity in relation to both violence and “being bad in order to be good.” I use Sartre’s uses of Genet — Genet as a model — as a model. “Warhol was most definitely aware of Genet and of the film Un Chant d’Amour.” One evening two showings were planned; I was telephoned an invitation to the 1st showing where we would be arrested. However, the police raided the 2nd showing. Thus I continued on my way, vanilla with sprinkles, rather than entered into the system of swirls.

3) My son’s birthname is “Ocean Andrew Daniel Wilson,” given “Ocean” by Ann, “Andrew Daniel” by me; but in early summer, 1966, I dropped the “Ocean,” not to confuse the nuns, not knowing about Oceanus (Saint): “Oceanus Ammianus, and Julian, martyrs who were put to death in the Eastern Empire. They died by being burned at the stake under Emperor Maximinus.” “Andrew” was in memory of my grandfather who died quite young.

As punishment for your good deed in getting me to explain my prose you get more prose: Bill

[Note: The quote in item 2 beginning “Warhol was most definitely aware of Genet….” is something I wrote in a previous email to Bill dated February 3, 2013. gc]


Note: This email and image were shared by Gary Comenas on his website about Andy Warhol and Warhol’s stars:  The original post: Gary’s obituary/remembrance for Bill is also online: . July 24, 2016 – SK

Bill Wilson’s essay about Warhol: “Prince of Boredom: The Repetitions and Passivities of Andy Warhol”, Art & Artists, London, March 1968

Ray Johnson: The Art of Friendship

William S. Wilson, Ray Johnson The Art of Friendship, BMC 4

“Ray made art as a way to think about what was real to him—to think about the visual arts and to think about friendship. The art of collage was most useful to him as a means of thinking about friends. He made art so that his collages were, as works of art, one of the variables in friendship. His art was a friendly endeavor, like philosophy among the Greeks in Plato’s dialogues, so that there was for him no art which was not an activity among friends. From a few such axioms many theorems follow: that art was not for profit or fame, nor even for disinterested contemplation in a purposeful purposelessness. Ultimately the most satisfying art for him was the art of friendship. Loving movement, he used art to set a set of friends in motion.” (page 12)

Link to a PDF of the full text: 
William S. Wilson, “The Art of Friendship,” Ray Johnson: Black Mountain College Dossier #4, BMC Museum & Arts Center, Asheville, NC, 1997.

Purchase a print copy from the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center

More of Wilson’s essays about Ray Johnson:

Bill Wilson’s stories about Andy Warhol, Marisol, Ray Johnson, Dorothy Podber and the shot Marilyns

Subject: Re:Options                                      Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 6:34 PM
From: Bill Wilson               
To: Sofia Kofodimos 

[NOTE: The bracketed text below was included in Bill’s email to me and is probably his editing of the transcription. -SK 07.23.2016]

Thorsten’s transcription which needs invisible reweaving:

Torsten’s off-transcription
William S. Wilson talking about Andy Warhol

One night … I’m invited to a party. It’s on Canal Street. The elevator is an industrial elevator, the lighting is “Film Noir” – it’s very dark in those days, few street lights … And I’m standing there, waiting and I see at a distance that Viva is approaching. If I meet a person, an artist, I [might] admire, I like to make a rather [further] formal composed statement of my admiration [in the whole senses]. And so when she was [got up] standing at an appropriate distance from me, I spoke to her and [problems: I met her and I [this isn’t right: said: “Viva, I want to make my statement.”] and I made my statement. And she said: “Go, find somebody else to fuck!” [xxx Grace!] So we went up to the party and it was heavy. … She had wealthy men she had to be nice to and I thought I can’t take this. So I went to the kitchen, a very long kitchen, at the end of it, it was a stool [stall]. I thought, oh, my God, I’m alone at this nice little party and I’m sitting … And I took a breath and in came Andy Warhol. And we picked up with just ordinary talk. He never talked in that wispy way, he never said “Oh, I don’t know.” … We knew the same people in Pittsburgh, and it would have been too fake. He knew that. We are sitting there and the door opens – I can’t even be alone at a party – and in comes Marisol. And Marisol steps forward and she says [speaking in a high THIN voice] “Oh, Andy, I want to ask you: I have grey shoes and my stockings are in a different grey, my skirt is grey and my belt is grey, my blouse [bra] is grey. And I want ask you about these greys.” I think I have died and gone to heaven. I’m with Marisol and Andy Warhol discussing grey. There is no more profound topic in my life than shades of grey. … I knew her but Andy was the star. Anyway, she just didn’t see me and I can be very quiet. … ?Thus [This] was Andy consulted about Marisol’s shades of grey and of course he was very pleasant and he thought it was just perfect. He might have say “fabulous”, but I’m not sure if he did.

Early 1964 I drive Ray uptown in my little car to a party in the apartment of Iris [Dr Iris Love ???] – she discovered the head of Aphrodite [Alfred ???] in the basement of some Italian Museum – and we go up, party people are in that room – in the foyer. Ray and I enter the foyer. Andy comes rushing out of the group of people in there, guides Ray into the bedroom. I’m standing in the foyer, I don’t go in to these other people. … I just stand there and wait. After a ??? of time the door opens and Ray rushes without looking, no goodbyes, takes me by the elbow, “We’re getting out of here! We’re ditching ? [digging] this joint!” And we are outside and back in my little car and Ray whose [who’s] moods I knew in the finest gradations of grey and other colors … Wow, he is furious! Andy has taken him into the bedroom and told him, he would pay him for an idea. He’s been commissioned to make a work for the World’s Fair, he does not have any ideas, if Ray provides him with an idea, he will pay him. Now you have to understand … Andy knew Ray’s attitude about money. In the late 1950s Merce Cunningham asked artists for works of art to show and sell to raise money for the Merce Cunningham Foundation. And when I went to that show at Leo Castelli’s Gallery … In the show to raise money to sell a work of art for someone else to profit on Ray’s art, what Ray has offered is a rather deep box frame with one penny at the bottom of the frame leaning against the back wall. And that’s Ray Johnson commenting about art and money – he did not think that anyone should take money from the art of somebody else.

That story about the shooting has never been told correctly because people are careful for their friends … They don’t want to get people into trouble. … Dorothy never told that story right. … Later Dorothy improved the story – that’s not unusual – where she said, “I’ve come to shoot some pictures”, meaning with a camera shooting pictures. Not true! … What happened is that Ray took Dorothy Podber to Andy’s Factory. He didn’t know she had a gun. Ray did not repeat stories – this one he repeated three times, once to me but then other people involved, other events, and he acted it out, and I remember exactly where he was sitting – he played both parts. He and Dorothy were sitting in chairs. Billy Name was there and Andy was there, and the Marilyns are over there to the left. And according to Ray Dorothy took the pistol out and shot. …