The girl and I watched a remarkable documentary last night about a remarkable artist named Ray Johnson, who neither of us (despite her being an Art degree grad) had ever heard of. Rather disappointing, actually, because he seems to be one of the more profound, influential, and PRESENT pop artists. He invented something called “mail art,” where — because he was so incredibly prolific — he mailed his art out to friends and even random persons, and dropped them in rivers and the ocean in bottles, just in order to not completely clutter up his small apartment — which, by the way, was completely crammed full from floor to ceiling, in neatly organized boxes.
The most amazing thing about Ray Johnson to me, was that it is nearly impossible to separate his life from his art. He never was off his game. Many artists — ahem, MOST artists — are simply people who make art, who produce things and when they’re not producing things, they’re people. But Ray Johnson was always an artist, and his life was one of his most amazing works. You’ll just have to rent and watch the documentary to get any sense of what I’m talking about. It’s called “How to Draw a Bunny” and was one of the most thoughtful and brilliantly produced documentary efforts I’ve seen.
The film builds around his mysterious death in 1995, eventually deemed a suicide, but one of those elaborate suicides where every piece seems to be planned in great detail. He presumably drowned after a jump from a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York. He was last seen by two teenage girls, backstroking away into Sag Harbor Cove two hours after checking into the Barron’s Cove Inn to a room, whose number added up to 13 — a theme in both Ray’s life and death (yeah, it was Friday the 13th; his age, 67, added up to 13). Again, you’ll just have to watch the documentary to get what I’m saying.
A couple of my favorite anecdotes from the film: Christo & Jean-Claude (also known as the artists responsible for the recent “Gates” exhibit in Central Park), told a story about Ray asking them for a peice of their artwork. A few weeks later, they mailed him a package. Johnson opened it to find a photograph of the package and a note informing him that he had just destroyed the work of art.
Another: one of the interviewees told the story about Ray Johnson’s “sidekick” Dorothy Podber who walked into Andy Warhol’s studio, pulled out a piston pistol, and put a bullet through a rack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, creating the infamous and highly valued “Blue Shot Marilyns,” which Warhol patched and superficially repaired.