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  • Ruud Janssen
    Author: Bill Wilson (---.proxy.aol.com) Date: 02-28-04 23:48 http://www.warholstars.org/warhol/warhol1/andy/warhol/articles/wilson /ray/johnson.html Gary
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2004
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      Author: Bill Wilson (---.proxy.aol.com)
      Date: 02-28-04 23:48

      http://www.warholstars.org/warhol/warhol1/andy/warhol/articles/wilson
      /ray/johnson.html

      Gary Comenas has posted my 1966 article about Ray Johnson on his
      website about Warhol's stars. I wrote an introduction with mea culpa.

      The following article on Ray Johnson first appeared in the April
      1966 issue of Art and Artists (Vol. 1, No. 1), edited by Mario
      Amaya. It is accompanied by a new introduction written in February
      2004 by the author of the original article, William S. Wilson:



      NY CORRESPONDANCE SCHOOL
      by William S. Wilson

      INTRODUCTION (2004)

      By 1966, I had been in correspondence with Ray Johnson for ten
      years. When asked by Mario Amaya to write an essay about Ray for the
      first issue of Art and Artists, I faced at least three problems: 1)
      Ray mostly disdained academic writing, so he would not like whatever
      I wrote. 2) Ray did not answer questions when I tried to interview
      him with a tape-recorder: he said that my questions were the wrong
      kind of questions. He did not inquire about my mode of questioning,
      which was not to get factual answers, but to get examples of methods
      of verbal thinking, with the hope that his propositional logic might
      illuminate his visual logic. In ordinary events, Ray occasionally
      answered a question with a verifiable fact, but more often he
      twisted a question toward his kind of poetry. If he got the poetry
      right, facts would take care of themselves. I necessarily played
      Ray's games, in effect taking his side against me in order to draw
      him out. 3) I knew that Ray would approve only of writing which was
      to me as his writing was to him - spontaneous, with few revisions or
      second thoughts. He could make an error which could be a troublesome
      set-back for me work in his favor. There are no conventions or rules
      for how to respond to an error. Ray's response to his own mistake
      could not be rehearsed, so he was in the freshest possible moment,
      out on a limb beyond the rules, improvising. Sometimes he made
      corrections following conventional rules (he caught both Marianne
      Moore and May Wilson in spelling errors), yet often he made up his
      rules as he went along. Of course he did enforce the rules of zip-
      codes, and reprimanded people (me) for misaddressing an envelope.

      Ray's address on an envelope had no necessary relation to the
      contents of the envelope, since he sometimes gave people empty
      envelopes addressed to other people. In mail-art as a relay, the
      object he handed off to another person might not be identical to the
      object that person handed off to another. I made an error in justice
      when I wrote about a woman who was alarmed because she received an
      envelope of photographs with Ray's return address. She called the
      police, unless it was the postal police. A Lieutenant Johnston
      questioned Ray, but did not arrest him (the lieutenant would get "a
      day in the field"). Unfortunately I wrote, "Even apart from
      hysterical females afraid of photographs," not yet aware
      that "hysterical" implies a pathological womb. The governing thought
      of American political correctness, so misunderstood in some English
      periodicals, is that no person should be humiliated or pained for a
      quality which is not their responsibility, that is, for which they
      are not to blame because they have no control over it. Aristotle
      wrote as much: "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of
      characters of a lower type - not, however, in the full sense of the
      word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It
      consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or
      destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and
      distorted, but does not imply pain."

      While Ray was alive, I thought that he was bored, and probably
      impatient, when I explained something over the telephone, quoting
      writers like Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida. Only after his
      drowning have I learned that he was using my information like
      another improbable art-supply. I wish I had known that he had been
      listening, but that was in the past, and I can't now do things
      differently there.

      William S. Wilson
      27 February 2004



      NY CORRESPONDANCE SCHOOL
      by William S. Wilson (1966)

      The New York Correspondance School is an art of witty resemblances;
      it originates with Ray Johnson, but any number can play. It takes
      the "New York school" of painters, an invention of careless art
      historians, and schools of art by correspondence in which famous
      artists teach commercial art through the mails, and it combines them
      into a satiric portmaneau that carries still other meanings.

      Correspondence is spelled correspondance, not in the French manner,
      but because a Ukrainian poster from the Lower East side of Manhattan
      announces a dance in the word that looks like 3AbaBy (three-a-baby).
      This poster (dance, 3AbaBy) became an image after Ann Wilson gave
      birth to twins and M.T. became pregnant; three-a-baby seemed a sign
      of the times.

      In the same spirit Ray Johnson invented the Robin Gallery as an
      answer to the Batman Gallery in San Francisco (Robin was Batman's
      youthful companion in the comic as we now all know). The Robin
      Gallery not only held 'robbin' events (in October,1963, Ray Johnson
      and Sari Dienes stole a painting back from friends at Haverstraw),
      it also held (at least announced) an eight man show with only three
      artists, because 3 and its inverted reflection make an 8. Clearly
      the truth for Ray Johnson is not correspondence to actuality
      (versimilitude), but is correspondence of part to part (pregnant
      similarities that dance).

      Now correspondence belongs in a thesaurus not only
      with "correlation, agreement, symmetry, and concord," but also
      with "epistolary intercourse, written communication, and letter
      writing." So the NYCS uses the US mails as part of its method or
      medium.

      Ray Johnson first notices something about a person, an image which
      might be central or marginal, and then he fills an envelope with
      scraps of images that comment on or add to or combine with that
      image. This process begins with a fondness for filing things, so he
      sends horses to Billy Linich, lobsters to Henry Martin, balloons to
      Karl Wirsum. He files a person under something in his mind, and then
      sends along through the mails whatever he feels belongs in the same
      file.

      The use of the US mails, a sanctimonious institution with
      pretensions to heroic purity and endurance, offers the delight of
      turning to aesthetic purposes a practical outfit with ethical
      ambitions ("Report obscene mail to your postmaster.") The slow daily
      post is still useful, but technologically as obsolete as the
      nineteenth-century middle-class family in which grandfather seems to
      have devoured bacon and the morning post together. Now that data can
      be communicated electronically, the old fashioned mails begin to
      yield aesthetic possibilities. At just about the time that mailboxes
      ceased to be painted drab green, as nature intended them, and became
      red, white and blue, like US hybrid petunias, Ray Johnson founded
      the NYCS.

      With correspondence as content (similarity) and as method
      (epistolary intercourse), many otherwise flat details come into
      relief. The bombastic statue of Samuel S. Cox, "the letter carrier's
      friend," at Thompkin's Square off 10th Street in Manhattan, becomes
      a work of art when it is drawn by Karl Wirsum for page 7 of the Book
      About Death, a series of multilithoed sheets Ray Johnson has mailed
      around. An envelope becomes part of a work of art, and the typical
      envelope of NYCS missive has been found discarded by a commercial
      firm or municipal agency (in truth, some filched by friends).
      Envelopes carrying the crest of TIME-LIFE INC rather deflate that
      afflatus of editorial wind, and envelopes from IBM turn up as
      truants from commerce playing a part in art whose value cannot be
      computed. The envelope usually has a commercial history, then, but
      its future lies as an unsalable part of the NYCS taking its chances
      in the unassailable US mails.

      On the envelope is usually a correct return address for Ray Johnson
      (176 Suffolk Street, New York City, 10002), the address of the
      recipient, and stamps. The picture on the stamp can correspond to
      something, and the position of the stamp, and of the cancellation,
      is important formally to the success of the envelope. Stamp and
      cancellation are as significant as the position of a collector's
      seal on an oriental painting - sort of New York Chinatown Dada. (Ray
      Johnson has lived at Munroe Street and Dover Street, both near New
      York's Chinatown and City Hall. He has collected scraps of paper,
      pictures, and other trash from both. Chinatown has provided words -
      probably the price of chop suey - which are opaque, beautiful, and
      unintelligible, and which easily become part of a visual language of
      articulate design. City Hall has provided examples of English so
      stupidly depleted by municipal misuse as to be ready for
      resurrection in art.)

      Some envelopes in the NYCS contain items that are, like a poem,
      overheard, since they are inscribed, "Please send to John Doe, 123
      4th Street, New York City 5." The envelope, having passively passed
      through the mails, is now at the mercy of the first recipient. Some
      alter, some add, some subtract, some detract, some discard, some
      hoard, and others conscientiously forward the materials on their
      appointed rounds. Ray Johnson says he doesn't care what is done,
      that there are no rules, but he once circulated a list of people
      dropped from the NYCS for various offenses.

      The relationships can get rather complex, as Ray Johnson directs to
      someone an image which he mails to someone else first. The first
      recipient, the middle-man, might or might not see something in what
      is passing through his hands. Knowing that people have been
      tampering with the mails, the final recipient cannot be certain what
      Ray Johnson originally sent.

      He was once questioned by Lieutenant Johnston of the New York City
      Police Department because a young woman received an envelope of
      indecent pictures with his return address. He explained the NYCS to
      the lieutenant and was not arrested. Even apart from hysterical
      females afraid of photographs, the possibilities are complicated,
      and in each case unique; what arises out of the NYCS is a curious
      tissue of relationships, a society of sorts, associating people who
      might think in images.

      One of the sources of the exhilaration and liberation in this game
      is the lack of respect for privacy. We all came from homes in which
      even our sisters could be trusted not to read private letters; now
      letters most private get dumped into the NYCS, but these expressions
      of emotion are treated as abstractly as a triangle, as parts to be
      combined with other parts. Cries of the heart are examined for form
      and pattern, not sincerity. Personal letters are not sacred, because
      what is real is not the self or emotions (see Abstract
      Expressionism), but the special moments of discovery in which the
      apparently random forms parallels.

      Ray Johnson is not accepting the lukewarm pleasures of a
      thermodynamic and chance distribution of junk through the mails.
      (Nam June Paik, a disciple of John Cage, once kept on his
      mantelpiece a mailing from Ray Johnson, who told him he had it wrong-
      side-out. For Paik, all sounds are music, but Ray Johnson turned the
      mailing to the significant side.) He is not shooting dice, he is
      creating possibilities for pattern, metaphor, and meaning.

      We are familiar with metaphor that illuminates or enhances
      existence, but metaphor is not only a way of thinking about things,
      its use an be a theory of reality. Ray Johnson is a realist for whom
      reality is in designed or coincidental resemblances, a tissue of
      correspondences, a fabric of metaphors. These correspondences imply
      no "higher" reality. The images do not bring forward invisible
      worlds in the way that the Visible Church embodies the Invisible
      Church. The envelopes and images do not clothe an underlying ens,
      nor are Ray Johnson's collages a shadow of the real. The mailings
      and collages however deliberately the image may be veiled or
      obliterated, present that which is real because it is sufficient:
      correspondences. This real world of parallels and resemblances works
      with at least three principles:

      Identity: Ray Johnson never read Leibnitz, but he plays with the
      problem of the identity of indiscernibles, renewing excitement and
      wonder that two things are identical, or almost so. He often uses 1c
      stamps so that several identical images are repeated on the
      envelope - George Washington George Washington George Washington
      George Washington George Washington - to make the 5c postage. Inside
      the envelope there may be two copies of the same photograph, or one
      photograph of James Dean in different sizes reproduced on different
      paper in different magazines. The photograph is the same, and yet it
      is other, and this fluctuation of same-and-other speaks to us of
      images enduring in the flux of things when they resemble other
      images.

      Analogy: Sometimes Ray Johnson sees with a biologist's eye
      resemblances in form or function, but he works out his own genera
      and species, cutting not at the joints of scientific distinctions,
      but carving out his own "impertinent correspondencies" (Lamb). To
      him, a photograph of Buster Keaton leaning over the side of a ship
      belongs with a postcard of a gargoyle leaning over Notre Dame. An
      Indian drawing of a woman, seen sidewise, looks like a photograph of
      a pistol in the same envelope. The equation, woman and pistol,
      relates to a whole them of Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman, muff
      pistols, and Connie Francis in a recent movie in which she plays a
      female mailman with guns hanging above her mantelpiece.

      Focus: A horse does not resemble, however abstracted, a cup and
      saucer, in the way that the Indian woman resembles the gun. But Ray
      Johnson can find a horse that is seen in the same way that a cup and
      saucer is being seen (Fernande Olivier painted by Picasso looks more
      like Kahnweiler painted by Picasso than like herself painted by Kees
      van Dongen). Ray Johnson finds resemblances between two things that
      are being imagined from the same point of view, or photographed from
      the same mental focus, and offers the resemblance as correspondence,
      and correspondence as meaning.

      What suffices for Ray Johnson is a mind that makes metaphors and a
      world that yields them. He perceives identities in spite of obvious
      differences, and holds a tension between identity and difference in
      his work. The meaning of most envelopes in the NYCS is partly in the
      content (a picture of a horse conveys an idea), but more is in the
      method, the use of correspondences. These correspondences are not
      part of a cosmic design with metaphysical consolations. They
      represent a temporary balance between an unsatisfying common sense
      world and an imaginative mind, moments when miscellaneous items are
      shown to be a coherent motif: moments that rhyme.

      Ray Johnson finds it sufficient to discover correspondences, and he
      corresponds with people by mail to convey to them images that
      correspond to some image they will recognize as appropriate.

      His address is: 176 Suffolk Street, New York City, 10002.

      * * * * *

      William S. Wilson's book on Ray Johnson, With Ray: The Art of
      Friendship, published by the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts
      Center, is currently available through Amazon.com.
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