Category Archives: Excerpts

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

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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.

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: https://williamswilsonwritings.wordpress.com/ray-johnson/

Ray Johnson’s A Book About Death, page 2

Ray Johnson, A book about Death, page 2

“The pleasures of the cigar are inseparable from the death of the cigar as it goes up in smoke, as its most useful emptying the outside world of its mass. A cigar-band, much surface, little mass, is a souvenir of an awakening of the mind to an interior emptiness that can be filled by smoke from an object which perishes in the act of filling the emptiness. The ephemeral smoke from a cigar combines with Ray’s concern with brief, intense events like a sudden downpour of rain, or a moment as brief and as engaging as a haiku. For Ray, a haiku was not only a poem with words, it was a criterion for a collage, for a dance, and for a photograph.”

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

Image: Page 2 of “A Book About Death,” by Ray Johnson, “John Son and John Son Cigar Bands from the Diane Wakoski Collection.” Printed March 15, 1963 (the Ides of March; formerly income-tax day)

Ray Johnson’s A Book About Death, Page 1

Ray Johnson A Book About Death pg 1, 1963

“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. .”

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

Image: Page 1 of A Book About Death, by Ray Johnson, “A Boop about Death” “Mary Crehan, 4, choked to death…” by Ray Johnson, March 8, 1963.

Toad/Water

Toad:Water, by Ray Johnson, 1958, collage, 19.7 X 18.1 cm, collection of William S. Wilson

““New York is such a lonely town,/ When you’re the only surfer-boy around.” Ray was like a frog perched for a moment on a lily pad before risking another leap through the surface into the pond: — frog, pond, splash. One of his images, sometimes glued on envelopes to be dropped into the oceanic postal system, was the octopus, a sea-creature he associated with hugging the breath of life out of a person under the surface of the waters. “

Link to full text: William S. Wilson in “Ray Johnson Aboveboard” in From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson, BMC Museum & Arts Center, Asheville, NC, 2010.

Image: Toad/Water, by Ray Johnson, 1958, collage, 19.7 X 18.1 cm, collection of William S. Wilson

sailor’s watch-cap

Photos of Ray Johnson by William S. Wilson, c.1967-68

“I think now of the “watch” in the sailor’s watch-cap he [Ray] sometimes wore, an image of his imagination as an attentive sailor, that is, a person who is floating on the surfaces, looking attentively across the surface of depths he must not let his ship to sink into. The elements in his visual and verbal collages can be thought of as themselves sailors, that is, as nomadic entities that can be moved from place to place, adhering to surfaces above perhaps unfathomable depths. Ray enjoyed Norman Solomon’s joke about the Hippies on the Staten Island Ferry, the first of whom says, “Look at all that water,” and the second of whom replies, “Yeah, and that’s only the top.””

Link to full text:  William S. Wilson in “Ray Johnson Aboveboard” in From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson, BMC Museum & Arts Center, Asheville, NC, 2010.

Photos of Ray Johnson by William S. Wilson, c.1967-68