Reading Ray: VanDerBeek Deep

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Marcel Marceau 1 and 2), ca. 1950s,
collage on corrugated cardboard, 5 x 2.85’’; 5 x 3’’
© Ray Johnson Estate, Collection of Johanna VanDerBeek

Sebastian Matthews
Warren Wilson College

1. Ray Johnson sent and received a lot of mail, including countless postcard collages, a trove of letters, and prepared packages for a plethora of people. It’s all part of Johnson’s myth. He was a mailman, for sure. But Johnson also made emblematic playing cards (as a young 14 year old artist) and executed exercises in art school (with Albers at BMC) and made advertising designs (when a young man in his 20s) and dabbled at game boards (in the early 1950s).

Attention has already been focused on Johnson’s love of patterns, both in numbers and letters, as well as his BMC-inspired interest in Maya glyphs. Johnson also employed word play in his work—as well as letter play—and made as many visual jokes as his fertile mind could conjure up.

2. These two collages were sent to Stan VanDerBeek at some point in the 1950s. They most likely arrived in an envelope, as part of a package. (They were not sent as postcards.) They were likely part of an exchange between the two artists—a dialogue, a running joke, a Dada chess game with no end move. When VanDerBeek died, his widow Johanna kept them with other Johnson pieces.

3. I was at Bill Wilson’s apartment the morning he received the two collages as part of a large box sent by Johanna VanDerBeek. Bill pulled them out of the pile and deposited them on my lap before moving on to uncover more surprises and goodies. They sat in my (recently dried) palms, face up, like playing cards or wild tarot cards. I worried they’d catch on fire or disappear in a poof.

The pieces have thick cardboard backing and so had some heft. They are small pieces, postcard size. They are glued down tight as a drum, as most Johnson collages are—often left under books overnight to get the right seal—and the cuts are precise. Two solid, individual THINGS: paired in their making, their sending, and then in their resending, years later.

4. Johnson loved M.M. initials. Marcel Marceau. Marilyn Monroe. Marianne Moore.

5. Johnson worked on lettering all throughout his career, as a precocious teen, as an aspiring designer, as a letter writer, cartoonist, etc. There’s even a font created after his signature lettering (often found on and around the Bunnies). Fittingly, the font is called Ray Johnson. Here it is:

6. There’s a readable message, of sorts, in each of these two pieces. (And readable visual ones, too.) The two pieces may work as a team, with one providing clues for the other. In each work Johnson seems to be speaking to VanDerBeek and, at various times, makes a kind of cryptic sense. Who knows, they may have made perfect sense to them both. I expect Johnson hoped VanDerBeek, viewing the pieces, might struggle to find significant meaning in the letters and words he strung along in his fine lettering. But I feel pretty sure he meant there to be just the opposite. The search for meaning carried the meaning, formed the punch-line to the joke which was really a shaggy dog story typed out on Johnson’s mad telegraph tape mind.

7. Marcel Marceau was famous for his silent performances, though here he is both smiling open-mouthed and covered in letters. Something about silence speaking louder than words?

8. The word “frivolous” shows up in the right hand side of one collage. Frivolous is exactly what these two pieces seem to me. Exquisitely so.