ray johnson & bill wilson, “a book about a book about death” / “from bmc to nyc: the tutelary years of ray johnson 1943–1967”

Ray Johnson & Bill Wilson
A Book about A Book about Death
(Kunstverein Publishing, 2010)


From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson 1943–1967
curated by Sebastian Matthews
(Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 2010)


These are two catalogues of recent shows of the work of Ray Johnson. Johnson was a visual artist; but it’s his use of language, in its different incarnations, that keeps me interested in his work. Johnson could profitably be read as a poet; to my knowledge, this hasn’t really happened.

The first of these catalogues accompanied a show at the Black Mountain College Museum; it focuses on Johnson’s work when he was attending that school (then being run by Josef Albers) and work done during his early years in New York, though it draws back even further, presenting a series of illustrated letters and cards that Johnson sent to a high school friend, Arthur Secunda, in the early 1940s. In all of these, there’s a mixing of text and image: sometimes illustrations added to text, sometimes text built around illustrations, and, more rarely, collage, the principle that much of Johnson’s later work would spring from. It’s unclear whether Johnson thought of this as “mail art,” though it certainly could be described as that; he did declare that he thought his work should be catalogued back to 1943, which might make that case. Despite this, Not a huge amount of Johnson’s early work, especially what he was doing at BMC, survives: he cut up most of it to serve as content for later works in the form of tesserae, and he evidently burned his class notes in the 1950s. Julie J. Thomson’s essay scrutinizes the effect of the teaching of Albers on Johnson: in particular, she points to his assimilation of Albers’s ideas on colors, which resonate through his later work. His famous portrait of Elvis Presley as Oedipus, for example, might be seen as a meditation on the meaning of red, that collage’s dominant color: red streaming from the eyes signifies blood, but were the image in black and white, as the original image of Presley is, the streams might as easily be tears. In front of Presley’s mouth appear blocks of red, rectangular but of irregular proportions, seemingly representing words: the shapes are abstract like language, and though each is of the same color red, the meaning of a word varies with context, just as the value of red varies in the color studies of Albers.

Kate Erin Dempsey’s essay looks at how Johnson used language: in particular, the influence of Mayan hieroglyphs, a frequent subject of scrutiny at BMC. The hieroglyphs had not yet been discovered, but it was clear that this graphical system signified: the form of a glyph has several layers of meaning, only some of which were available. This fascination with the visible form of language continues in Johnson’s later work: an work from the 1980s owned by the LACMA is given the title Untitled (James Dean with Magritte’s Pipe):

untitled (james dean with magritte's pipe)

The apostrophe is a clue for the informed viewer what the rectangles stand for: Magritte’s ceci n’est pas une pipe, though actually fitting those letters into the rectangles proves challenging: the text both belongs there and it doesn’t belong there. The image is both Dean but also – and very clearly – the Ben-Day dots that make up his image. The pipe is a silhouette of Magritte’s. Dempsey points to earlier work employing the same strategies:

Several collages contain definitions cut out of a Yiddish dictionary. Others include Chinese characters with their English translations below. In Untitled (Toad/Water) of 1957, for example, a picture of a toad is followed by the Chinese symbol for toad, “Toad,” and then the Chinese symbol for water and finally “Water.” It could very easily also have text explaining, à la Magritte, “This is not a toad,” for neither the image, the Chinese symbol, nor the English word really ARE the signified. (p. 25)

It’s hard to tell from the reproduction if the image above the words is actually a toad (there might be bumps on its back) or a frog (as the coloring of the legs seems to suggest); while I’ve seen the original, I don’t remember whether it actually was a frog or a toad.

The BMC book concludes with an essay by William Wilson, owner of the toad collage, ruminating on the meaning of hats – and specifically Marianne Moore’s tricorner hat – as they cascaded through Ray Johnson’s work:

Those hats for women in society, perhaps worn for lunch at Schrafft’s, were a visual answer to the question, What do women want? The hats provided an answer for husbands: women want too much, and want more than is good for them, hence they must be governed by men for their own protection. The men judged themselves as reasonable and functional, indulgently governed the women whom the men assigned themselves to protect. The plot of many movies from the 1930s is telegraphed ahead in the hats the male and female characters are wearing. Katherine Hepburn did not wear fanciful hats. Watch for the moment a wife removes her dizzy hat, takes off her white gloves, and turns toward the husband, who feels he knows better than she does what she needs.
     Moore’s tricorn Napoleonic hat was androgynous, with a military air, suggesting an image that had survived historical forces, and picturing and imagination capable of military strategy and reason. Her hat was, and is, an image of her imagination as she kept it persistently answerable to experience. She praised New York (Manhattan) for its “accessibility to experience.” And she aspired to an art of poetry as an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Marvelously, she mentioned that she wore her tricorn hat because her head was shaped like a hop toad. A toad is an image of experience without false illusions, like the toad before it is enchanted into a prince, who must become like a poet, a self-governing governor of images and themes. Moore used the hat to meditate on her modesty, to challenge herself, for while she wore it as armor for her soul, the hat revealed her imagination and her aspirations, so that she could not lie to herself about her modesty, and always had to review her renunciations. (p. 28)

Wilson was a long-time friend of Johnson, and the executor of his estate after his death; his earlier With Ray: The Art of Friendship (published as part of the Black Mountain College Dossiers series) is the best introduction to Johnson’s work available; a complete set of his essays would be an invaluable book. A Book about A Book about Death is an extended essay about Johnson’s A Book about Death. From 1963 to 1965, Johnson mailed 13 pages of his Book to a handful of correspondents (including several members of Wilson’s family); the pages weren’t sent all together, and most recipients didn’t all the pages. The book-ness of such a work comes into question; so it was also referred to as a “boop” or a “boom”.

Wilson works through each page of A Book about Death, which is very much about death. The first page, for example, contains an ouroborous; the text “Mary Crehan, 4, choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich last night” (handwritten, though presumably found in a newspaper); an accidental splotch of ink next to the author’s name. Wilson’s analysis of how this page is worth reading in its entirety and doesn’t lend itself to excerption; after a discussion of chance in the making of art, an enormous subject for American art in the 1950s and 1960s, we get this:

The accident of a drop of ink is part of the comedy of constructing a work of art, a process which can’t say much about how it works. However, the comedy of chance is answerable to tragedy, because some accidents cause something good to perish. The effect is that “chance” renders the accident unknowable in its causes, and unintelligible in a universe presided over by a God who is good. The child choking to death is a large irreversible accident, and such perishing is a tragedy such as art is answerable to. That Mary Crehan choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich is absurd, so that it joins the absurdities which raise questions of consolations for the death of a child four years old. The cartoonish image of a rabbit at the bottom of the page is not adequate as explanation or consolation. The rabbit is Ray Johnson, representing the rest of us, who understand no more than a rabbit does of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. Ray was aware that Anne and Bill Wilson had had a daughter who had died shortly after her birth. (pp. 15–6.)

Wilson is not a disinterested reader; but this is not a disinterested text; as mentioned, this was a book created as correspondence, sent to specific readers, some of whom were mentioned directly in the text. This is not a book in the simplistic sense that we usually have of how an author and readership works: this is a book that was designed for specific readers. Wilson’s reading of the book is something of a gift: it opens Johnson’s thinking to the potential readers who did not know him. Johnson is of course dead: he can no longer explain his work directly.

So many causes may have contributed to the incompleteness of the Boop about Death that no one cause can be isolated. Without an explicit cause, no one is either responsible for this book, not to be credited with this book. Thus the question is about what we have here, an unbound book which no one was supposed to have a complete version of. For Ray, The Book about Death must remain an open work, lest an event of dying close a book on life. A closed book is death, or is an image of death, while The Book about Death is an open book. One theme of this unfinished Boom about Death is that death does not close, death opens. (p. 55)

a part of a collage

“When I write about Ray [Johnson]’s art in relation to his life, at least two massive problems emerge:

1) To look at a part of a collage and trace it to its past causes the wholeness of the collage to disintegrate, and each portion to lose that part of its meaning which is its bearing upon the other parts as Ray arranged them. One can have the work of art, or one can have its sources. In tracing the work to its sources it is lost, because as analysis disintegrates the whole into parts, the parts lose their meaning, which is the bearing of part upon part in the construction of a unified work of art.

2) To look at a part of a work of art by Ray Johnson, and to follow from it toward his drowning, is to subsume the work in a larger whole, a final act of his life. But the images in the collages are hypothetical, and the work of art is more than just material or physical. It exists as it is perceived at a certain focal plane, and its wholeness is an aesthetic illusion, available to none of the sciences, and probably to no animal but humans. But Ray’s drowning is not hypothetical, it is categorical. While as an event it gathers many images which Ray has used in his art, and which he has acted upon in his life – hanging out around water – it is not a work of art or an aesthetic illusion, and it is not hypothetical.”

(William S. Wilson, With Ray: The Art of Friendship, p. 30.)

desire

“La grande douleur de l’homme, qui commence dès l’enfance et se poursuit jusque à la mort, c’est que regarder et manger sont deux opérations différentes. La béatitude éternelle est un état où regarder c’est manger.”

(Simone Weil, “Contradiction”, in La Pesanteur et la Grace, epigraph to William S. Wilson’s “Desire” in Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka.)

various things

  • A failure of book design: Hamid Dabashi’s critique of the cover of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. An interview with Hamid Dabashi that touches on the subject.
  • Two insightful posts (1, 2) by Ron Silliman about line lengths in poetry. The second is particularly nice on the relationship between form and technology.
  • Jonas Mekas is going to do something exciting!
  • Also:

  • There’s an essay by Joseph McElroy in the Winter 2006 issue of Raritan (volume 25, number 3). It’s entitled “One Shoe Off, One Shoe On”, and it’s about Albrecht Dürer.
  • On Sunday 15 October at 7 pm, there’s the first Marquise Dance Hall Poetry Reading at the Marquise Dance Hall (251 Grand Street, Williamsburg) featuring poets of the Brooklyn Rail. Featured: Mary Donnelly, Raphael Rubinstein, and Jerome Sala.
  • On Thursday 19 October at 7 pm there’s a panel discussion at Zone (601 West 26th Street, no. 302) about Nam June Paik featuring Alison Knowles, David Vaughan, Joan La Barbara, and William S. Wilson.

the big book

(from The Journal of Typographic Research, July 1968)

Figure 5. The Big Book, 1964–1967, by Alison Knowles. Courtesy of the artist.

The Big Book is not a product, but a process, and the person using the Book must accept himself as part of the process, discarding enough reserve to bend over and enter the Book – flexing, flowing, discarding stances. The Big Book cannot be know without being entered, and it cannot be entered without being modified – so that getting to know it alters it, even as it alters us, and there can be no one interpretation.

So down on hands and knees then, and through the cover, on through a hole burned in page of vinyl artifice, and down onto belly to crawl through a tunnel in a wall of artificial grass and water, imitating a descent, but actually remaining on floor level. After wiggling through the tunnel, one enters the apartment, an image of unpretentious Manhattan loft living in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. This apparent underworld, such as an epic hero usually enters, presents the processes of life nonchalantly, without varnish. Everything is useful here; there are aspirin, books, cans o soup, and other ordinary household objects. The telephone works, the stove will heat water for tea. The acceptance of this mundane, workaday underworld has the effect of elevating it, and while one enters through a tunnel, one exits through a window, and is free to examine the gallery of goats on page 4, or to climb a short ladder which moves on casters, simulating an experience of attaining precarious heights. Of course The Big Book can be read backwards or sideways, and anyone else who takes this journey will read it differently. But from any angle, to be in The Big Book is necessarily to be as mobile, kinetic, audial, visual, energetic, and beautiful, as it is.

—William S. Wilson, New York

the big book

The Big Book
Art in America, Summer 1968
Bill Wilson
Photographs by Peter Moore


Constructed of fantasy and plastics, of metaphor and familiar housewares, this creation is an abode for body and spirit – as well as a witty paradigm of our changing society.


The Big Book is an eight-foot-tall construction by Alison Knowles which has a front cover and several pages, and contains a stove, telephone, chemical toilet, art gallery, electric fan, books and other necessities of life. Alison Knowles has built the Book as a work of art to be lived in, physically and mentally, a place to contemplate useful and changing relationships.

Alison Knowles was born in New York City in 1933, and studied at Middlebury College, Pratt Institute, and the Manhattan School of Printing. Her work with silk screen, direct photographic emulsion and chemical transfers on canvas was extended in 1961–62 to environmental works. Since then she has been active in the Fluxus Movement, and has directed and performed in happenings, published a catalogue of her texts for performance, a T dictionary (in Four Suits), and has built and exhibited The Big Book in New York, Toronto and Chicago. She will travel with The Big Book to the Frankfurt Bookfair this October and deposit it, though perhaps not permanently, in a park in Copenhagen after the fair.

The cover of The Big Book presents a circular hole surrounded by lights, and this hole is the illuminating entrance. The act of entering requires some unbending, some yielding of the body, as a preface to other yieldings of mind or spirit. The cover is likely to move as one enters it, revealing then and there that the Book cannot be used without being modified and without modifying the user. The process of reciprocal modification is one of the themes of the Book: book and reader alter each other.

On the back of the front cover is an assemblage of wrappings and other trash accumulated in making the Book, neatly solving the problem of how to use what has apparently been destroyed in the process of making something, and also suggesting that one theme of the Book will be the story of its own construction. This theme is developed by a tape recording of some of the sounds of constructing the Book, which is in a state of continuous destruction and construction anyway.

The next page is of transparent vinyl with a large hole burned through it and images screened on it. The vinyl has qualities that the Book is trying to define: it is solid, but it gives; it is burnable enough for the hole to be made, yet it bears up under that destruction and is more useful for it. As Alison Knowles said, “One of the nice things about these plastics and about water itself is that even as a rigid form, like ice, or vinyl, you can see through it, and yet you can hold on to it.” This page of burned vinyl offers the reader a passageway to the next page through the qualities of clairity, hardness, flexibility and durability – an ability to yield to destruction in a way that renders it constructive.

The entrance through the burned vinyl is like the trial by fire which the vinyl has survived, and such successful passage through such a trial would, at least in literature, be rewarded. Here the reward is a delightful page of artificial grass and mirror vinyl. Grass and water are on the vertical, with a hole at floor level leading into a tunnel. This upended leaf of grass is frankly artificial, with natural forms (grass, water) imposed on synthetic materials. The result is mock-representational art, calling attention to the representation without damaging the illusion. We see plastic and vinyl, and know that they represent grass and water. Thus The Big Book pursues an artifice without pretense.

Under these circumstances, the grass-lined tunnel is a metaphor for many experiences. One of those experiences is the descent which is not a descent at all, for the tunnel is a pretended descent, an actual horizontal progress, and then a pretended ascent, for one emerges in the apartment. This page is modeled on Manhattan loft-living in the late 1950s: the style is the the domestic unpretentious, everything arranged for informal use. The teakettle, the aspirin, the stove, stool and cans of soup are themselves and cannot be falsified. The reader can make a telephone call, eat, sleep or use the toilet, but with a compression that makes the acts, however genuine, something of an imitation of life. While life in the apartment is unpretentious, the compressed scale delineates every domestic activity with so much care and awareness that it achieves the radiance of ritual. This matter-of-fact world is tinged with artifice, and the apparent descent into the domestic is progress along a continuum, for the apartment is on a level with everything else.

One exit from the apartment is through the window into the next page, where a ladder offers a means of ascent. The ladder is exactly what it seems to be, but it stands on easters between two pages which are themselves on wheels, so the pages can roll one way while the ladder rolls another. Elevation by means of the ladder requires acceptance of these changing relationships, this shifting balance. The ladder is an accurate and unsentimental image of the conditions which must be accepted in order to mound any heights, whether they are erotic, esthetic or ethical.

The Big Book is a way of thinking, not with concepts, but with things, words and images, about relation and about change. Alison Knowles demonstrates in her work that to relate to something is to change it; to change something is to relate to it. If something is inert and unrelated, she introduces it to change; and if something is dissipated in changes, she catches it in relationships. Changing is so much her way of relating that finally the two concepts coincide: relating is changing.

Such change implies use, and use entails destruction, but this destruction can be controlled by the mutual respect necessary for a relation. So the vinyl is burned in a way that respects its properties, that makes it useful and that reveals its strength. The most that Alison Knowles will demand in good conduct at her events, in The Big Book, or in children’s play, is that “nobody gets hurt.” She doesn’t care if people read The Big Book from the front, the back or the side. This reversibility, in structure, and this flexibility, in materials, are parallels of the flexibility, resilience and freedom of a mind that does not seek to impose relations on people or on things, but to find the relation of reciprocal unity and respect.

The test of utility in The Big Book is possibility; what increases possibility and makes more combinations works, while what diminishes possibility or novel combinations does not work. The giving of the materials is a clue to the giving of spirit demonstrated by the Book, wherein people and things yield to the presence of other people and things with care and respect for their possibilities. So in the apartment the necessary routines of life that must be repeated every day have the feeling of ritual, not because it is necessary to do them, but because it is possible to do them, every day. I have described the beginning of The Big Book, but I cannot describe the end, because it is a potentially endless structure. When a story keeps possibilities open and relationships changing, there is no conclusion, and the hero who survives such a story must be supple, resourceful and durable. The reader can participate in these qualities by using this massive book of changes, The Big Book by Alison Knowles.

Bill Wilson who teaches in the City University of New York, is at work on a long study of “energy in terms of art.”

quoted quotes

“How, he asked, could these people prate of realism when they had never even begun to understand what goes on in a painting? That’s what reality is.”

(Pierre Daix, Picasso: life and art, trans. Elizabeth Emmet (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 320, quoted in William S. Wilson, “Picasso”, College Art Association Art Journal, Spring 1997)

as above . . .

“‘To the pure, all things are pure,’ an artist said to me in 1955, while gathering art supplies in the gutter as part of an apologia for anomalies.”

(W. S. Wilson, “Report from New York: Abstract Expressionism, on a Manhattan ice floe II”, Artspace, July/August 1992)

. . . so below

“[Jasper] Johns lets the conventional laws of thought lapse in order to be in more direct touch with his experience. ‘”Looking” is and is not “eating” and “being eaten.”‘ This thought, uninhibited by the laws of thought, can be compared with a tragic European thought of a woman who later died of malnutrition. Simone Weil writes that the great sorrow of humans – La grande douleur de l’homme – which begins in childhood and lasts until death – qui commence des l’enfance et se poursuit jusque à la mort – is that to look and to eat are two different operations – c’est que regarder et manger sont deux opérations différentes. Eternal bliss is a state in which to graze is to eat: La béatitude éternelle est un état où regarder c’est manger. Weil had to go to the sphere of the eternal, to logical space, where ideas can be turned that they fit upon each other, where looking can be eating.”

(Wilson, ibid)