You have never met anyone quite like Ray Johnson. It would be the height of understatement to call this collagist, performance artist, and enigmatic iconoclast a true original. Detroit filmmaker John Walter’s documentary How To Draw A Bunny chronicles Ray Johnson’s bizarre, inscrutable and insanely influential existence as well as his sad yet truly inspired suicide in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in 1995.
To the sound of jazz great Max Roach’s original score, John Walter slowly reveals a man, born in Detroit, whose own family, friends and fellow artists still don’t know much about. They acknowledge with no embarrassment that Johnson is still a mystery to them, a man who seemed to have no inner life save for the manic and relentless drive that produced literally thousands of collages and the humorous and beyond-dada “nothings” (dropping hot dogs out of a helicopter was a famous Johnson “nothing”).
The scenesters and American avant-garde at the time knew what Johnson was doing, and appreciated and admired him greatly for it, no matter how difficult and frustrating he could be to work with. His art was almost never displayed in a gallery or museum while he was alive, and Ray couldn’t have been happier for that fact. He let the mailman distribute his work, communicating and connecting with his audience in a way that so trashed artistic convention that the method itself could be called a “work of art”.
Johnson was born in 1927, an only child, and attended Cass Tech before saying goodbye to the Midwest for Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental college that didn’t issue grades. John Cage was a faculty member there, as were Buckminster Fuller and Willem DeKooning. Johnson thrived in this unconventional atmosphere, and soon abandoned drawing and painting for cut-ups and collages. After college, it was off to New York, where he would pioneer and revolutionize and just plain wreak havoc on how “it” was “supposed to be done.”
He colored images of Elvis before Warhol did, and his “Correspondence School” predates the Internet with its concept of open and free distribution of artwork. His dropping of 60 foot-long wieners at an avant-garde art “happening” predates the Turkey Drop episode of “WKRP In Cincinnati” by a good 25 years.
But it’s really not the artwork that Johnson created that is the most interesting part of his life, and of this film. It’s Johnson himself. The man’s entire existence was dedicated to the art, the mailing out of the art, the gamesmanship he employed to haggle with patrons and galleries, his every waking moment an exercise in experimentation and non-stop “theater.”
He would take one image, the Lucky Strike logo for instance, and spend an entire year pasting that logo in various poses on various mediums. At times he reminds one of the stereotypical mental patient making paper doll cutouts all day long, all night long, all year long. This obsession with certain iconic images includes a primitively drawn bunny that is reproduced thousands of times throughout his career, if you can really call it a career. For all of this somehow transcends the concept of an “artistic career.” Johnson’s life is the art, the way he “does” the art is the art, the way you see the art is the art. The actual pieces, the baubles and postcards and chunks of paper and wood seem less important than the ideas behind them.
Although some may criticize the use of the word “inspiring” to describe the circumstances and mystery surrounding Johnson’s death, it would be an insult to the man to call it anything else. After the discovery of his body in the waters under the Sag Harbor Bridge from which he had jumped, the police enter his house. There they find his final “work,” and it is impossible to feel sad as they uncover what is a calculated and perfect expression that Ray Johnson spent years preparing.
From the fascinating black-and-white interviews with those who “knew” Johnson to the digital camera work that zooms and flies all over his work to the dramatic and brilliantly nuanced sounds of Max Roach, How To Draw A Bunny lets you in on one of modern art’s greatest and most inspiring mysteries.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].