Man of Letters: Ray Johnson

Man of Letters: Ray Johnson Art in Motion

Last year, I taught Ray Johnson’s work to my art-school undergrads in a writing class. They were outraged that they had not heard of him before. We read Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” too, and the casual name-dropping in that celebrated I-do-this, I-do-that memorandum annoyed them—they didn’t know who Verlaine was, or Hesiod or Lattimore or Behan or Genet, and they practically went to sleep with quandariness in feeling unaddressed. But they adored everything about Johnson, and did not care when they didn’t get his references. They loved how willfully he obstructed his own career. They loved that he dropped hot dogs from a helicopter as part of the 7th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival, 1969. Understanding, as Killian explains, that simply by paying attention they had been recruited into his open-ended pass-it-on experiment, they found his self-annihilation thrilling. Normally, I try to counter young artists’ fantasies about immolation on the pyres of genius. In this case, though, what could I say to talk them out of it? He died coolly, slyly, not only for but in and as his art. In this way, he belongs in a class with Bas Jan Ader, another stubborn true believer lost at sea.

via Man of Letters: Ray Johnson Art in Motion.