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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.

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

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. …

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)