What a Dump by Ray Johnson

MAD54 was pleased to attend American artist Ray Johnson’s “What a Dump” exhibited at David Zwirner’s West 19th street location in Chelsea, New York. The gallery featured a wide range of the influential queer artist’s work from the 1960s to the 1990s, suggesting his frequent fandoms with pop culture and celebrities such as Arthur Rimbaud, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol.

Described as a key figure in the history of Neo Dada and early Pop Art, as well as “NY’s most famous unknown artist”, he began his creative education by studying painting at the progressive Black Mountain College, surrounded by great artists lecturers such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage. He later discovered in the mid 50s his talent to what would become his primary medium, collage.

By experimenting and juxtaposing forms and typography scavenged from magazines, comic strips, and advertisements, Ray Johnson was known for transforming his witty thoughts and humorous ideas into collage art, creating irregularly shaped images and sealing everything together in a permanent, unified entity. The skeleton of those precise motifs consisted of 300 silhouettes of renown artists and friends, the contour of their profile used as a frame when layering imagery.

As his work became more complex over the years, the themes of interpersonal relations, negation of identity, psychic turmoil, loss, and death became recurrent. Collage was indeed an adequate technique when translating chaotic thoughts as it involved cutting, mutilating, defacing, occluding, splattering images with paint and obscuring eyes and mouths.

Despite his apparent obsession with celebrities, suggested throughout his work saturated with popular imagery, Ray Johnson was often seen secluded from the rest of the art world. His omnipresence was secured through his pioneering mail art activities through which he circulated his work within a broad network of friends, artists, and curators, engaging them into his creative process through mail dispatch.

Working in isolation from his studio as a solitary figure, he fastidiously archived his 50 years-worth of artworks, arranging them for discovery after his mysterious suicide in 1995. One of the stacks was labeled “What a Dump”, thus the name of the exhibit, perhaps as a reference to queerness, or also messiness, his collages seeming so dense and overwhelming yet once combined and viewed together, so controlled and so precise.