Monday, 2 March 2009

Ray Johnson: Unpopular Pop

New York artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) might have relied upon popular culture imagery, yet on this side of the Atlantic at least, his work remains largely unknown. However, a retrospective of his work, Please Add To & Return, opened on Saturday at new East London gallery Raven Row and should hopefully introduce him to a new audience. 
     Johnson graduated from Carolina's liberal Black Mountain College in 1948, where his contemporaries included Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly and Robert De Niro Sr - the actor's father and a noted abstract expressionist artist in his own right. On moving to New York the same year, he started producing Pop-style portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (see the striking Elvis #2, 1956-57, pictured right) almost a decade before Warhol and co. got in on the act.
     During this period, Johnson worked in a bookstore on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he developed his interest in Zen philosophy and the art of chance. This fed into his art practice, as he took up where Marcel Duchamp left off and began to mail unfinished compositions to his friends, with instructions for them to participate in the creative process and send them on. These instructions would often become part of the works themselves.
     Unfortunately he didn't remain so sociable. On the same day in 1968 that Andy Warhol was shot, Johnson too was mugged and attacked near his home in a separate incident. By all accounts, the experience shook the artist, as he withdrew from city life and became increasingly reclusive, even declining offers to show his work by the early 1990s. It is only now, following his suicide by drowning in 1995 that his work is finally beginning to take its rightful place among the 20th century's most challenging and influential names. A personal archive of unseen works were found at his home after his death, adding to his fascinating legacy.
     Ray Johnson. Please Add To & Return runs until 10 May at Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, London E1. Image courtesy of the Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

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