"Part master craftsman, part zen-master. Part philosopher, part clown. This book deserves five stars because of its subject: Ray Johnson. Finally the world is treated to a decent monograph about this very important American artist and that is reason enough to run out and buy it while it's still on the shelves. Who knows how long it will stay in print. Every few years Johnson rises and falls from the public eye, always flittering in the collective unconscious of the world's cognoscenti. One either loves him or hasn't heard of him, but this screed underlines his importance once again. Better grab a copy while you can.
How important is Ray Johnson? He was one of the one of the first Pop artists. Perhaps the VERY first. He was one of the first Happenings/performance artists. Perhaps the VERY first. (He called them Nothings.) It is certainly obvious from the pictures in this book that Johnson was an important link if not THE MOST important link between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. But like Al Gore, Johnson's greatest contribution may be that he invented the Internet. Johnson really did it though-analogue style, with the help of the US postal system--stuffing paper fragments and found objects into envelopes, creating a non-linear, international communications system in the 1950s, a good five decades before anyone heard of the World Wide Web.
But not many have heard of Ray Johnson either. So what makes a book on him a must-read, must-see, must-own for anyone- not just those interested in art? Because this book is a journey into Johnson's unique world that will turn your own upside down. His intricate, witty, masterful work, printed here gorgeously in eye-popping color by Flammarion, the publishers, who deserve credit for their outstanding craftsmanship, will rise off the glossy pages and beckon you, the unsuspecting reader, to learn more. Johnson's art- both his collages and his mail art- can sometimes look out-of-control and over-the-top but a closer look reveals the steady craftsmanship and solid foundation that provides its strength and reveals, instead, that Johnson wasn't over-the-top but rather on-the-cutting-edge and remained there throughout his life. And what appears out-of -control is really one-of-a-kind thinking that gives the phrase "outside-the box" a whole new meaning. What I'm stressing here is that the printing job does it justice. Johnson was fully alive and so are the documents pictured in this book. Hang out with this book and you'll never see the world in quite the same way again.
I do beg to differ with the selection and sizing of the images... some that are reproduced large could have been small and vice versa. But Flammarion's obvious attention to detail in the printing process reproduces Johnson's delicate use of line and color admirably. I'm sure it was no easy task to translate the subtleties of his work to the book format. And an added bonus is the typography. The chapter headings are mechanically (if not digitally) reproduced doppelgangers of Johnson's calculating yet childlike lettering strategies.
Thus I recommend this book because it is the first major work on Johnson and while it won't be the last, it's a good start. So beat the rush. Get in while you can. The man was a genius. Another reason to buy the book is Johnson's priceless interview with Henry Martin in which many nuances of Johnson's quirky, clever modus operandi come through. So the late Ray Johnson himself has made this book something you've got to see. The rest isn't exactly fluff-- there are essays here by some very knowledgable people-- but if you buy this tome for the interview and the pictures, the rest is guaranteed to be delicious icing on the cake.
Is it perfect? No. Curator Donna De Salvo gets several things wrong in her introductory bio. For instance, she mentions in passing that Ray and Andy Warhol knew each other because of their graphic design work. Hello? They were good friends in the early 60's- before Andy hit it big and Johnson made his correspondence "school" official. Their relationship was important to the development and careers of both men. Andy became Andy and Ray became "the most famous unknown artist in the world." A glaring error, one of many, but at least DeSalvo had the sense to spend a few years of her life putting this project together. This book draws on much of the material that was in her show at the Whitney Museum but it is largely supplemented with work from Johnson's estate.
The artist presumably suicided in 1995 after jumping off a bridge near the east end of Long Island, New York. Johnson's mysterious death is not addressed much here and that is both a disappointment and a missed opportunity but the images in the book do bring to the fore many interesting "correspondences" with that event that make it indispensable reading for anyone who wants to explore that angle.
Archivist Muffet Jones has cobbled together a chronology that is a wonderful factual starting point, a notable gift to all future art and pop culture historians that will no doubt be added to and tweaked for years to come. Johnson's principal collector, William S. Wilson, contributes a valuable deconstruction of a rare Johnson manuscript, shedding light on the artist's arcane thought processes. Lucy Lippard finally chirps in with a follow-up to the single sentence she wrote about Johnson in her "Six Years" book on conceptual art over 30 years ago. She seems to have finally come to understand what is so important about Johnson and how his position in art history needs to be re-jiggered. (Johnson was doing conceptual art from the very beginning while always remaining delightfully unclassifiable.) Sharla Sava's essay on Johnson's 1970 mail art show at the Whitney Musueum in New York similarly begs the question "why have most people NOT heard of Ray Johnson?" She makes new connections and smart observations that provide fresh clarity.
This book is sure to change Johnson's status. There are several other essays and each does its best to illuminate the scintillating yet murky world of Ray Johnson, packed to the gills with synchronicity, serendipity and and good pop fun. Be the first on your block to buy it. Then, to be like Johnson, you could cut it up mail it to your friends."