Tag Archives: Ray Johnson

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

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,
Salathiel

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: http://joanharrison.com/portfolios.html 



 

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.

JOHN HELD, JR.

source: http://sfaq.us/2015/04/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 sfaq.us by the writer and mail artist John Held, Jr.  More of Held’s articles and reviews for sfaq.us 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.

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/