Reading Ray: VanDerBeek Deep


Kate Erin Dempsey
PhD Candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

Many of Ray Johnson’s Black Mountain College colleagues have recalled his fascination with fonts.[1] Design and the back-and-forth play between the significance and the actual appearance of a word came naturally to Johnson. Josef Albers recognized this talent, helping to secure one of Johnson’s first commissions—a cover for Interiors magazine. Like his contemporary Andy Warhol, Johnson continued to do commercial design when he moved to New York.

In this collage made for experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, Johnson squashes the letters together so that the words no longer easily coalesce. Polka dots and stripes in other areas of the collage bring out the visual quality of the letters, which trumps their function as pieces of an intelligible message. On Marcel Marceau’s face in particular, the letters are as decorative as his painted eyebrows and darkened lips. The text in this collage embraces the dual role of letters—as both images and signifiers. Disconnected from traditional syntax and logical significance, the text takes on the air of a code. We naturally want to puzzle it out, struggle to compose words, and rearrange the letters to form a meaningful statement. Like a fragment of an ancient stone tablet, the characters suggest language in their form and relation to one another, but the over-arching message eludes us. Even in places where the words do come together they answer few questions. “Stan VanDerBeek deep their converted tradition all imp, frivolous mid-air situation of together…” the right-hand panel appears to read. Mimicking the surreal collage aesthetic of VanDerBeek’s films, Johnson takes ordinary words out of their normal context and turns them strange.

Johnson may also be making reference to the modernist poetry he admired, which challenged traditional rubrics of rhythm and rhyme. One of the poets Johnson frequently referenced, Gertrude Stein, for example, shocked the poetry word with her use of words for their associations and sounds more than for their meanings. Her prose poems read somewhat like the words in this collage, though Johnson emphasizes the letters’ visual rather than their audial qualities over their established meanings. Like Stein, Johnson valued the associations the viewer brings to the written words and images as well as the connections that can be made between them. What do a matador and a mime have in common? Is the mime taking the role of the clown who is supposed to distract the bull while the matador recovers (a combination of bullfighting and rodeo riding traditions)? A matador was in fact one of the characters Marceau portrayed as a mime. Since Marceau makes eye contact directly with the viewer, are we the bull? The Albers-like concentric squares become a target when placed between the other images. But one’s eyes are pulled from the target to the face in triplicate. Where are we supposed to look? The mime has successfully distracted us. The words offer little solace or solution. And what does bullfighting have to do with either Johnson or VanDerBeek? While compositionally the pieces of this puzzle fit together perfectly, conceptually we are left with many unanswered questions to ponder.


  1. Mary Emma Harris, “Ray Johnson at Black Mountain College,” in Black Mountain College Dossiers No. 4 (1997), 66.