Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I finally got around to viewing How to Draw a Bunny the other night, and both the documentary and its subject are quite a bit better than its rating on Netflix might make you suspect. Bunny is a portrait of the late Ray Johnson, the inventor of mail art & an active member of the New York arts scene in the 1950s & ‘60s, close to Fluxus, part of the Warhol scene, and a man who lived the most austere life imaginable, even by Thomas Merton standards. His final performance piece in 1995 found him jumping off a bridge in Sag Harbor and swimming the backstroke generally out in the direction of Gardiner’s Bay & Long Island Sound. His body was later found in the water.

From the lengthy interview with the Sag Harbor chief of police – and extensive footage of Johnson’s home in Locust Valley taken either by the police or shortly after Johnson’s death – the conclusion of suicide was pretty much obvious, but even the police – usually not your best aesthetic critics – could see that everything had been set up as if it were a happening – a  genre at which Johnson excelled. All of his works (for the most part, thousands and thousands of collages) were either boxed up or turned facing the wall, with the sole exception, in the uppermost, furthest back room of the house, of a photo of Johnson himself, staring out (imagine an inverted tomb for an Egyptian pharaoh). Johnson’s earlier events included his participation in a poetry reading in which his work consisted of removing his belt and beating a cardboard box with it for twenty minutes, all the while hopping around on one foot, looking considerably “less hip” than anyone in the audience in a suit & tie, his hair cropped close (at other points he favored a shaved head). Johnson was also the person who brought Dorothy Podber to Andy Warhol’s factory where, anticipating Valerie Solanis by four years, she proceeded to shoot a stack of Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe.

Johnson himself dropped out of the New York scene with a vengeance the day Solanis shot Warhol himself. For one thing, Johnson had been mugged the same day. And two days later Robert Kennedy was assassinated. How Johnson survived, both in New York & later on Long Island, is not clear from the documentary. There is not much evidence that Johnson himself ever worked for a living, at least not after his parents died, and he actively made it all but impossible to purchase his art. Yet when he died without a will, there remained a massive estate of works and over $400,000 in cash.

What impressed the police most was that people from all over the world started calling, each with a story about Johnson that might shed some light on his behavior. Many of Johnson’s friends were famous – John Cage, Christo & Jeanne-Claude, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Diane Di Prima, most of whom are either in the movie or in the extensive (and equally interesting) “out takes” included on the DVD. All of the stories were remarkable, the chief notes, but they were all very different and nobody it seemed knew Johnson well at all. Even his closest compadres like Christo, Chuck Close or his beleaguered art dealers Richard Feigen and Frances Beatty. For example, Beatty had been working for 14 years to get Johnson to hold still long enough for Feigen’s gallery to do a show. It was an impulse Johnson deliberately, repeatedly undercut. Much of the film, in fact, is a recitation of various would-be collectors negotiating with Johnson over the price of some collage. Morton Janklow, the corporate lawyer who became a literary agent, sat for a portrait that consisted of a silhouette, which Johnson then reproduced 26 times and used as the foundation for a series of intensely worked collages. Every time Janklow asked Johnson if he could buy the series, Johnson’s story changed. At one point, he added an image of Paloma Picasso, Pablo’s daughter & a famous designer for Tiffany in her own right. The image, a photo taken by Helmut Newton, is very 1970s. She stands wearing a dress that covers only one breast, the other half hidden behind a glass of what might be whiskey. Taken from wherever Johnson got it – Life magazine is a real possibility – Johnson declared that any portrait of Janklow – the silhouette is almost entirely unintelligible in at least half of them – that had been “Paloma-ized” was now worth double the previous price. Another time, Chuck Close talked Johnson down on price by 25 percent, only to receive the collage minus its lower right-hand quadrant. Close also tried mightily to get Johnson to sell something to the Met so that he could include Johnson's work in a show of portraits from the Met’s collection. Johnson was his typical impossible self, but he sent correspondence art – a photocopied bunny with a name attached – to the Met’s librarian, knowing the institution’s practice of saving all correspondence. It looked something like this:

And Close did include it in the show, tho to say that it was in the Met’s “collection” was stretching it more than a little.

I used to see Johnson’s work occasionally in various intermedia/Fluxus-oriented publications throughout the 1960s & ‘70s, less often thereafter. Unlike Basquiat, who was equally an outsider – more so socially than Johnson – but who transformed his role on the edges of the Warhol scene into a moment of brief fame & fortune before he died, Johnson is – like every member of Fluxus save for Yoko Ono – an artist who never got rich and certainly did not get his due during his own lifetime. Not that he made it easy for anyone who tried. Perhaps only Richard Lippold, the sculptor who was briefly Johnson’s instructor at Black Mountainwhere else? – in the late 1940s, and who speaks as tho he had an affair with his student that lasted a quarter century, ever really got close. It was Lippold who brought the Detroit-raised Johnson to New York, and many of Johnson’s friends would have been Lippold’s also.

Much of the work around Fluxus, in particular, has always struck me as nostalgia for Dada, a kind of retro echo effect that suggests a derivative imagination, not for the most part first-rate work. Yet How to Draw a Bunny makes a superb case for Johnson as craftsman & visionary both. And as such, it’s an excellent example of how a film can really elevate the work of its subject (cf. Gustave Reninger’s Corso: The Last Beat, should it ever get distributed). Why is it that docs about these relatively obscure artists – or, in Corso’s case, famous but not taken seriously – so often provide much better treatment than do films about major artists like Kerouac or Bill Burroughs or Andy Warhol? Perhaps it’s because the film-maker understands his or her role not just in presenting the artist in question, but in making the case for a more serious, closer look than has previously been offered. With famous, successful writers and artists, it’s just presumed & accordingly the film never does the close reading, the serious work, it needs to accomplish. John Walter, director of How to Draw a Bunny, mostly has done anti-war films. But he’s almost made one of the best portraits of an artist I’ve ever seen. And he’s convinced me that Johnson is much more than a marginal fuck-up of the sort that make up the fringe of any large art scene. This film makes you realize that even when he was just emerging from the Black Mountain aesthetic, Johnson was already a powerful artist:

But as this film makes clear, that black square at the center of this work – the title is Calm Center – is, in fact, also a self portrait. Don’t take it from me. Ask Johnson:

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