Tag Archives: a book about death

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.”

Links:
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

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’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.