by Kate Dempsey Martineau, author of Ray Johnson: Selective Inheritance
I first learned about Ray Johnson through my internship at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. Rebekah Morin, former curatorial associate in the department of prints, drawings, and European paintings, brought to my attention two pieces of correspondence from Johnson to the art critic and historian Leo Steinberg who generously gave his collection of works on paper to the Blanton in 2002. It was not unusual to find letters or notes mixed in with the numerous works of art. Generally we sent these misfiled items back to Steinberg or onto the archive that was cataloging his personal papers. But Rebekah saw the humor in the correspondence from Johnson to Steinberg and wanted to share them with me before sending them on.
One lengthy typed letter on Howard Johnson stationary begins with a strange story of seeing “Planet of the Apes” and ends with the question “do the words PALS SLAP ALPS LAPS conjure any images, ideas, or visual material to you?” This query, for those familiar with Johnson’s collages, conjures Johnson’s work PALS SLAP, a sparse page with a black and white newspaper photograph of a bride and groom locked in a kiss, the man’s hand against the woman’s face. I was to discover that this play with letters (rearranging, dropping or adding letters to arrive at another word entirely) was typical of Johnson. He relished the closeness of the words PALS SLAP while highlighting the distance we might expect to exist between the two concepts.
Another small missive from Johnson to Steinberg features Johnson’s signature bunnyhead—the first time I saw this now extremely familiar visage. The text is dizzying, repeating itself as if it were a skipping record:
I was inspired to learn more about this quirky artist and began gathering all the research that I could. Everything that I learned made me want to know more until finally other pursuits fell by the way side and Johnson became my academic obsession. Over the years, this topic became my master’s thesis, a number of conference papers and catalog essays, my dissertation, and ultimately this book.
Johnson strove to connect things and people—collaging together acquaintances and ideas just as he did images. Even after his death he continues to weave seemingly separate entities into his intricate web. Researching Johnson has taken me on a wild ride though a panoply of subjects. All along the way I have met fascinating people—with whom I am now connected though our appreciation of Johnson and his art. I hope that my book will be the thread for more people to pick up and enter the labyrinthine world of Johnson.
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