Duchamp With Jean Harlow” is among the collages by Ray Johnson at the Feigen Contemporary gallery
535 West 20th Street, Chelsea
Through Jan. 6
Nearly 11 years ago, when he jumped from the Sag Harbor bridge on Long Island and calmly swam out to sea, Ray Johnson left behind a legacy that, as he no doubt imagined, would only become more interesting after his death.
A student of Josef Albers, friend of Joseph Cornell, neighbor of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and someone who insinuated himself into the lives of just about every other conspicuous artist and art figure from the late ’50s until his death, Mr. Johnson made art out of the matrix of relationships.
Who knows how many hundreds or thousands of his “mail art” works survive — photocopied drawings and oblique collages with texts sent into the world via the United States Postal Service like messages in bottles? These sophisticated and ephemeral gestures expressed Mr. Johnson’s dual desire to exclude himself from the tawdry rough-and-tumble of the art world and at the same time to be taken seriously by it. He loved paradox.
What is on view here isn’t his mail art but a mostly fantastic cache of about 50 previously unseen collages that Mr. Johnson regarded as portraits of friends, idols and fellow art-world travelers, from Paula Cooper and Diane Arbus to Duchamp, William Burroughs, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman and Warhol. Most of these works are characteristically obsessive, black-humored, densely packed with puns, anagrams, Pop gags and private, coded allusions. They are hard to fathom but, at their best, touching and occasionally heartbreaking.
A silhouette of Duchamp faces a photograph of a beaming Jean Harlow. One of Warhol floats above a grid of white dots, with the word “failure” repeated in a kind of thought balloon. Mona Lisa’s face wears a bunny mask, in lieu of the Duchampian mustache. With Mr. Johnson his own mask never came off. Some gags are just silly; a few collages seem half-baked, others overcooked. But portraits of Barnett Newman and Mondrian, among others, fuss reverently over subjects Mr. Johnson saw as heroic. He could be loving in his way.
What holds everything together is geometry: an formal architecture that is Mr. Johnson’s deep inheritance from high modernism. Grids and graphs link him explicitly with the Minimalists, notwithstanding his Pop bona fides. At the same time a general wonderment prevails: that in life and art, things lead unexpectedly one to another, as part of a never-ending network of unfolding connections. Mr. Johnson embraced collage because, as William Wilson, his friend and Boswell, once put it, in collage, as in the ocean, “one drop plus one drop equals one drop.”
You might say that when Mr. Johnson dropped himself into the sea, his death became his last collage. MICHAEL KIMMELMAN