Ray Johnson


David Zwirner
525 W 19th Street
New York
Apr 8th 2021 — May 22nd 2021

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“I want to see everything that doesn’t normally come out,” Jarrett Earnest, curator of “WHAT A DUMP,” at David Zwirner, told the archivist of the Ray Johnson estate. “I want to see the weirdest stuff, the ugliest stuff, the things that seem irrelevant… things that are not elegant—the whole thing.” If not the whole thing, then certainly a lot of it is here: this exhibition of works by Johnson and his friends and collaborators spans from the 1960s to 1990s. Included are Johnson’s signature “moticos,” collages of images culled from comics, magazines, and ads with irregular silhouettes, as well as mail art, drawings and ephemera, much of which has never before been exhibited.

Johnson was an obsessive artist in many ways—how else could he have produced such a prolific archive—but this exhibition hones in on his celebrity obsessions as well as other interests. A 1956 collage references actress Shirley Temple, art historian Henry Geldzahler, and artists Aubrey Beardsley and Joseph Cornell, with a subtle reference to writer Williams Burroughs in the corner. Drawings with references to the ‘Goddess of Pop’, Cher, are peppered throughout, as in Untitled (Sonny Cher) (1974-1986), a collage illustrating the pair; also Untitled (Liza Minnelli with Pink Paint) ( n.d.) [pictured], depicting the Cabaret star dripping in pink paint, surrounded by words such as “bored” and other found imagery.

Johnson tended to his personal relationships with the same devotion, particularly the queer community in the mid-’70s and ’80s, including younger, unknown artists, many of whom succumbed to the AIDS epidemic before they could make a name for themselves. Untitled (Tab Hunter) (1976, 1977, 1978, 1992) references William Schwedler, an artist who died of AIDS before it was even widely known. “What makes Johnson unique as an art historical subject is that he took his relationships with other people as his artistic material,” Earnest says. The New York Correspondance [sic] school, which Johnson stewarded, may be the perfect example. The exhibition includes floods of mail art sent back to Johnson by various members: on view are multiple versions of a young Rimbaud, including a Mickey Mouse-ified Rimbaud, a red-faced and gagged Rimbaud, and a Rimbaud with a collaged tongue sticking out. “In a strange way, he is the perfect medium through which to map out and reconstitute this ephemeral thing, the relationship between people at a particular moment in time,” notes Earnest.

Look closely, and you’ll see these surprising connections everywhere. Vitrines in the main gallery, for instance, filled with curiosities such as a petition, signed by at least a dozen parties, that Geoffrey Hendricks—an important Fluxus artist—shave his beard. He did. Hendricks also contributes to the show 13 stones for Ray with mechanical bunny (2001), a memorial made of stones collected from the beach near the bridge from which Johnson leaped to his death in 1995. Between the vitrine and the memorial, Earnest says, “you have an entire life of friendship”—and indeed, in this show, entire worlds of it. —Lisa Yin Zhang

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Liza Minnelli with Pink Paint), n.d. © Ray Johnson Estate. Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate.