Tag Archives: Bill Wilson

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


Email Correspondence with Ruud Janssen

Ruud Janssen generously shared the following emails he exchanged with Bill Wilson and gave permission to post them on this site. He also sent a document from his  interview with Bill Wilson which includes short biographies of Wilson and Ray Johnson, a transcribed panel discussion, bibliography, and several emails from 2003 to 2009 about Ray Johnson, Fluxus, mail art and other subjects. Ruud Janssen is an artist and lecturer and the founder of the IUOMA (International Union of Mail Artists) community website. He has conducted many interviews with mail artists which can be found on his personal website. 



Van: Ruud Janssen [r.janssen@tiscali.nl]
Verzonden: vrijdag 24 oktober 2003 20:45
Aan: Parllw@aol.com
CC: info@fluxusheidelberg.org; r.janssen@fluxusheidelberg.org; l.spathi@fluxusheidelberg.org
Onderwerp: Question for Fluxus Heidelberg

Dear Bill,

First of all I must thank you for the wonderful surprise I found when I came in Tilburg again. The set of cards printed by Joel Cohen in a special envelope. Yes, I am glad to have them in my collection. Actually Joel sent me a set too, which I will foreward to the Fluxus Heidelberg Center in Germany. After building up the site for this Center we are now focussing on the publications (also in hardcopy format).

For Fluxus Heidelberg we are now focussing on some special things to do. One of them would be a publication in which we explore the connection between Ray Johnson and Fluxus / Fluxus Artists.

At the moment I am doing mostly some reseach to dig into this (like going through the books on Ray Johnson I already have, including the recently ordered “Ray Johnson” catalog printed in the USA (title Correspondences, exhibition catalog – Werner Center for the Arts – Donna De Salvo).

The question I would like to ask you is: Would you be willing to help me on this. Maybe we could even do it in the form of an interview (like the ones I did before and published). The results would then be in printed form as well as on the Fluxus Heidelberg Site.

Not sure how busy you are these days. So just let me know what you think….. There is no time-presure on this side. We rather make a good publication than a quickly made one…….

With best wishes,

Ruud Janssen.

p.s. I’m sending this from Tilburg now. So I will sending CC’s to Fluxus Heidelberg as well



Van: Parllw@aol.com
Verzonden: maandag 22 december 2003 22:44
Aan: r.janssen@tiscali.nl
Onderwerp: Bill Wilson on Johnsoniana a stage-hand who witnessed the actors

Ruud: sorry about your e-mail: something complicated happened when I went to Venice, & much e-mail got discombobulated or just never manifested.  As geologists say, schist happens.  I will be happy to cooperate on study of Ray Johnson in his relations with Fluxus.  My perspective is radically and disablingly distorted because I mostly took over Ray’s vividly held opinions.  I can explain his judgments, and the wide interval he maintained between himself and George Macunis, with the understanding that I was not quite face-to-face with George, but was in effect standing behind Ray, who certainly was blocking the light of  Fluxus, because he experienced it as a contrived or devised “movement,” as not a spontaneous upsurge of immediacies with unpredictable immediacies and splurges of improvisations.  So do feel free to ask questions, which I will be happy to answer from my slanted point of view, trying to think through for myself a long episode in which I think that I was wrong to go through Ray’s responses rather than on my own energies.  Ray of course would have preferred that I trust my own unrehearsed reactions to Fluxus, not derivative notions: & I did write two essays about Alison Knowles, whom I see ungraciously attacked in Ben’s unpleasant website.  If the YAM festival qualifies as Fluxus, he was certainly in support of YAM as a compliment to MAY Wilson, yielding MAY-YAM.

The HUGE news here is the surfacing of Ray’s photographs, taken with disposable cameras the last two or three years of his life: a long visual farewell letter, or perhaps a visual suicide-note.  The photographs present scholarly problems—the order in which he took them, the names he lettered on cardboard and photographed for example in graveyards.  I am eager to study them, though they are emotionally raw for me—the heart-scalding visual thoughts of a man who knew at the time that he was going to drown himself if he could live long enough to do so: Bill

Mail the postcards to people!  I’ll give you more.  Paper objects should have adventures to tell of before being embalmed in archives…

Happy New Year: I sense your happiness in your activities in both romance and mailart, and your happiness is a source of happiness to me and I am sure many others…

458 West 25th Street

New York City
New York 10001-6502

vox 212 989 2229


Van: Parllw@aol.com
Verzonden: woensdag 7 januari 2004 22:12
Aan: r.janssen@tiscali.nl
Onderwerp: Re: Bill Wilson on Johnsoniana a stage-hand who witnessed the actors

Ruud: I’m down but not quite out with a cold in the head, so here acknowledge your gracious e-mail and will respond soon: Bill    I have several ideas but my judgment is sniffling…


Van: Parllw@aol.com
Verzonden: woensdag 7 januari 2004 23:46
Aan: r.janssen@tiscali.nl
CC: lightworks_mag@hotmail.com
Onderwerp: that which reveals, conceals; that which conceals, reveals

for G.G., who mentioned Ray’s shirt as a “wife-beater”…

G.: as our conversation effervesces in my mind,  I will say that I usually think that if we get the facts right, meanings will (almost) take care of themselves.  A “wife-beater,” as the name implies within its classism and racism, is decidedly heterosexual, which of course could make it erotic to some men.  I don’t know how far back the term “wife-beater” goes.  In my memories, until 1942 civilian men did not wear T-shirts as undershirts.  The T-shirt was not yet an alternative or rival to the shoulder-less undershirt, so that “wife-beater” if used would not have differentiated such an undershirt from a T-shirt, but would have been an ethnic or sociological implication of superiority to persons wearing “wife-beaters.”  I think that the point may include the fact that while any or all men might have worn sleeveless undershirts until 1942, later only working-class men would have been seen wearing shoulder-less undershirts (and only working-class men would have inspired a fetishism of such undershirts).  When Clark Gable takes off his shirt in “It Happened One Night,” he is not wearing a shoulder-less undershirt, an unconventional detail which shocked people; but he could not possibly have been wearing a T-shirt (which would not have needed to be called a “wife-beater,” and wouldn’t have differentiated social or economic classes of men in that pre-war era).  I guess that the differences arose during and after World War II, with soldiers and sailors making the change since their mothers were no longer buying their underwear or monitoring their sleep-wear.  In WW II films, military men hop out of bed having worn not pajamas, but shorts and T-shirt.  I am uncertain about these details, and must await the historians for verifiable information.  Pornography from 1932-1952 would be informative.  However I am certain that the undershirt Ray is wearing is a “gay” undershirt, not a “wife-beater.” It is not made to function as an undergarment, but to reveal a reality which is ordinarily hidden beneath appearances.  I mark, as I set it aside for later, the theme when objects and images which would ordinarily be concealed are to be revealed; and the significance of the point that an article of clothing which registers visually as an under-garment re-registers as an outer-garment. The play with mis-registrations or off-registrations is one of my themes about the origins of a specific section of Pop Art: Rauschenberg, Johns and Johnson.  Evidence is the “tone” of this shirt, which has been designed for one context, but is being worn in another, where it registers differently on the spectators, who in 1965 include my eye-witnessing mother-in-law, a suburban and a painter, thus a suburban painter.  Ray has characteristically found an object, a one or a unity, maybe a monad, which pivots between two functions: two uses in one shirt, therefore two meanings in one shirt, thus two sets of implications are “mashed” into one object (undershirt) when he wears it while holding my infant son during a Christmas gathering.  The story so far: his “shirt,” worn to be seen, is not a heterosexual undershirt.  It has been designed to designate the wearer as erotically attractive, and as erotically available in proportion to his visual availability.  No one I am aware of would have expected to see such an undershirt, worn as a shirt, at a seasonal celebration in 1965.  The manufacturing and/or wearing of theoretically concealed or “invisible” underwear surely has a history in pornography and fetishisms, and later Madonna adapts a visual strategy of revealing that which is the last stage of concealing flesh.  Classical ballet had long accepted that the audience was going to see undergarments, call them what we might, so that the proper family of Petipa overlapped strip-tease.  The thoughts here could go off in several directions, as toward a level of theory where the air gets thin—as in Ray, wearing underwear which doesn’t function as underwear at a holiday dinner, is wearing an item of clothing which is intended to conceal, but which actually reveals.  When an object does not function unambiguously, it constructs meanings beyond function, and those meanings can combine with other meanings in that event.  The sophistication of the underwear, interfering as it does with conventions, is that Ray is not wearing a “wife-beater,” he is wearing a deconstruction of underwear.  Deconstructed underwear is underwear, as an image of concealing, which is revealed as an image of revealing.  Underwear, however intended to conceal, reveals much about concealing when it demonstrates that concealing is a method of revealing (as camouflage shows that there is something not to be shown).  The thrust of  this specific deconstruction, that anything which reveals thereby conceals something else, calls me toward analogies, but I won’t attempt to respond today.   I have other examples of Ray using clothing as a visual statement, that is, as a set of implications which are to combine with other implications of other objects, which thereby become images.  Hats have import which I mentioned in an irresolute sketch of an idea about an image, “Ray Johnson Aboveboard.”  I need to revise that essay, but will send the extant version as raw material.  Someday I will twitch & moan the story of the pink sweater in Macy*s. This note would be too long except that I want you to experience how I spread out both materials and methods, yet often, perhaps too often, without stating my own committed conclusions: Bill

At an angle appears Robert Herrick:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction–
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher–
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly–
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat–
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility–
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.


Van: Parllw@aol.com
Verzonden: zondag 8 februari 2004 15:46
Aan: r.janssen@tiscali.nl
Onderwerp: Re: Bill Wilson on Johnsoniana a stage-hand who witnessed the actors

Ruud: I’m ready.  Understand that I met Ray in autumn, 1956, when he had become himself in his art, with a wide and deep religio-philosophy of art and life, so that when, several years later, Fluxs came along, he was at least 34 years old, and neither likely to be influenced in his decisions, nor so ambitious in a career that he would want or need the momentum of fluxus to carry him forward (toward his goal, so different from the goes of  George Macnias).  Tomorrow Julia Robinson comes to discuss Ray and Fluxus.  I have assembled much material for her visit, and will see what she says.  Much is converging around Fluxus, but my interest will be as much differentiating Ray from Fluxus as it will be suggesting the overlaps between REJ and Fluxus, a dimension of the era, with apparent common sensibilities, but not an explanation of influence or even a description of co-operations and un-co-operations.  Ray didn’t care about differentiating himself from artists whose work did not overlap with her in anyway: he was intensely  concerned to differentiate himself from Fluxus: B.

458 West 25th Street
New York City
New York 10001-6502

vox 212 989 2229


Van: Parllw@aol.com
Verzonden: maandag 9 februari 2004 2:57
Aan: r.janssen@tiscali.nl
Onderwerp: Re: Bill Wilson on Johnsoniana a stage-hand who witnessed the actors

Ruud: work going on in this house, and a long note about Ray and time being written to a scholar writing a thesis on Ray, so I may be a bit off.  I will send you some material, as with some recent e-mails.  First I must wrap up the sketch about time, and then after some preliminary materials I’ll send, we can begin to begin: Bill

I’ll send a note to “Ingrid”, who made an inquiry, purely for background…

In a message dated 02/06/2004 7:43:09 AM Eastern Standard Time, ischaff@pobox.upenn.edu writes:

This is probably too big a question for email, but how did you come to
be so deeply involved in Ray Johnson’s work, thought, tendrils?


The e-mail version, with another version in the Black Mountain College Dossier #4:

In autumn, 1956, my friend and/or spiritual teacher, who was crowbaring me out of suburban mentalities, took me on a bus to visit Ray Johnson.  I would say that since 1948 I had become serious in my interest in painting, and by 1956 as an impassioned lover of Abstract Expression.  Norman Solomon, who took me to visit Ray, was some kind of genius (and his photographs are a treasure in both aesthetics and documentation, I can only hope rescued after his dying in San Francisco).  One of his paintings was about Pollock: “Jack the Dripper and Lulu.”  I was dubious about the figurative.  However the moment Ray started to show me his collages, I knew that I was in the presence of a genius who was originating a space I hadn’t seen before, with critiques of rectangularity and of the thinking which goes into and  emerges from rectangularity, and I sensed that Ray could be to my visual education as Norman was to my verbal education (which was much about the non-verbal).  But this e-mail is too much about me.  I want to hold attention on Ray, whose art has only begun to surface (concealed as it is in the Feigen Gallery, which has appropriate commercial motives, but not scholarly motives).  I saw both Ray’s genius and his lack of response to me (I was a gradaute student, a role Ray had almost no sympathy for or interest in).  Norman said on the  bus back that if I sent something in the mail to Ray, he would send something to me.  Ray had not made the offer which in later years he made to “anyone” he met, to take their address and send them something. Following Norman’s advice—therefore reading Simone Weil, and so much about Nothing, I wrote to Ray, and then visited a second time.  We became friends, he visited my family in Maryland when he became a friend of my mother’s.  And we were friends for 39 years, with Ray designing a birth-announcement, sharing Thanksgiving dinners, interested in my father, my sister and her children, and especially my children.  Ray’s last telephone call was to me, but the night before he had telephoned my son and had a long conversation (every clause in this note is a potential long story: feel free to ask: I am laying out samples as they occur to me today).  Your show is so soon that I write, not with a bearing on your show, but on Ray as an artist who is yet to be displayed and understood.  The work of a great artist is looking for a curator.  I can show you 60+ collages and fill you in on resources for experiencing and learning about Ray’s work.  Michael Kimmelman, I think it was, seeing the film, How to draw a bunny, wrote that when Ray was a young man, people photographed him in ways that acknowledged his power as an artist, a person of whom early photographs would be useful and important someday.  His early friends who survive can testify like eye-witnesses of wonders.  In March a panel discussion will present three of his old friends (not the earliest–1960s).  Ingrid, I have so much material, and so much to say, that if you specified more, I could tailor my statements to your interest.  I saw a genius and I grabbed on and wouldn’t let go, as soon as possible recuing stuff from his waste-paper basket (with permission from him) and skowly reconstructing my aesthetic decisions so that I could accept—it felt like a betrayal of visual truth as I had experienced it—something beyond Abstract Expressionism.  I could send a catalogue from last year about Jackson Pollock and Ray Johnson—about 50 years in the making—& I guess dense, but these are thickets of visual philosophizing, a few sprigs and blooms in a vase would be inadequate.  I like your question, but you take your chances if you let me start about Ray.  I can start, but not stop.  Suppose someone had met Mozart and might have recorded speech and preserved manuscripts, but did not.  I found my visual Mozart, and since people don’t follow my sequiturs, I quote Mozart in a Johnsonian moment: “Above us is a violinist, beneath us is another, next us is a singing-master who gives lessons, and in the last room opposite us is an oboe-player.  That is jolly for composing.  It gives one plenty of ideas.”  I can also quote a Johnsonesque blacksmith from the 13th century.  I’m trying to stop myself: I will review my essay about 9/11 and the architecture of the World Trade Center in relations with Islam (the essay is on-line at EBR).  I elsewhere am writing about relations between transcendental religious faith and painterly illusions, with necessarily composing statements perhaps not about Nothing as such, but about negations, as in self-negations, and negativizations from external causes.  The uses of negations, of rapport with Nothingness, make me sensitive to your themes.   Not by accident, Ray would take me to visit Ad Reinhardt.  Between those tendrils and these rhizomes, I have written enough to warn you off, or to tempt you forward.  Matt Wrbican writes so well of you that I will do my home-work: Bill

I’ll add the note about the panel:

We thought you might want to know about this talk on Ray Johnson.

Artists Talk on Art
Friday, March 12 at 8pm
SOHO20 Chelsea Gallery
511 West 25th Street, Suite 605, 6th Floor
Near 10th Ave.


Ray Johnson, Tender Prankster

This enigmatic collage artist and father of mail art has been refered to as “the most famous unknown artist.” Working from within and without the art world, Ray playfully and pointedly subverted revered institutions of art. Friends of Ray Johnson discuss his life and work, and how it inspires artists working today.

Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries

Andrew Ginzel,  visual artist

Andrew Moore, Producer and Cinematographer, “How to Draw a Bunny” a documentary on Ray Johnson.

Billy  Name, artist, former in-house photographer at Warhol’s Factory

John Willenbecher, artist

Organized and moderated by Tamara Wyndham, artist.

Panels are held at SOHO20 Chelsea Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, suite 605, NYC.  Doors open at 7 PM, panels start at 8 PM. $7 general admission, $3 students and seniors with ID, free to passholders. If you have any questions, please call the AOTA offices: 212-779-9250 or email: mail@atoa.ws.

Artists Talk on Art <http://www.atoa.ws/index.htm>


Van: Ruud Janssen [r.janssen@tiscali.nl]

Verzonden: zondag 18 april 2004 20:43

Aan: Parllw@aol.com

Onderwerp: Interview

Dear Bill,

As you might guess I am still waiting for a good moment to start the interview.

I asked in a previous e-mail if you have a short biography available. If so, I would be happy to receive it. In the several resources I went though I already learned a great deal.

The line in the interview will probably be in-depth. So I will try to focus on several items in which you can direct yourself a lot as well.

What should be the first question I ask you?

With best wishes,


Ruud Janssen


P.O. Box 10388

5000 JJ Tilburg