Ray Johnson, Pop-Culture Collagist, Master of ‘The Happening’ and the Mysterious World of Zen Emptiness

By Robert Heide

A new fantastic exhibition of Ray Johnson artworks, collages and memorabilia at David Zwirner Gallery, 525 West 19th Street will be on view until May 22. The exhibit curated by Jarrett Earnest is called ‘Ray Johnson: What A Dump.’ The presentation offers many never-before-exhibited collages and drawings from the 1950s through the 1990s and focuses on Johnson’s obsessions—from Arthur Rimbaud, Yoko Ono, James Dean and, as the curator says, “his queerness” and how he shared with friends and collaborators like David Wojnarowicz, John Giorno, Peter Hujar, Andy Warhol, Sari Dienes as well as the untold numbers who were part of the New York Correspondence School which he founded. The exhibit has inspired me to tell about some personal experiences I had with Ray whom I regarded as a good friend, and who was a brilliant pop-culture collage artist who lived life as if it was itself an art ‘Happening.’ The word for me regarding Ray is unforgettable. Who can forget meeting and hanging out with a real ‘Funny Bunny!’ 

JULY 1ST, 1963 NEW YORK CORRESPONDENCE SCHOOL COLLAGE for Bob Heide from Ray Johnson. Photo booth pictures: Left, Robert Heide. Right, Ray Johnson. Collage courtesy of Robert Heide.

I first met the wild brilliant Ray Johnson in the early 1960s with his then steady girlfriend, the petite and strangely attractive Dorothy Podber, in the lobby of the Living Theatre, which was run by director Julian Beck and his wife Judith Malina. The two were at a table and were putting stickers on a stack of pamphlets. Working with great intensity and gleeful malice they pasted ‘Boy’s Town’ over the word ‘Living’ to read ‘Boys Town Theatre.’ At one point Judith ran over and screamed at them telling them to stop what they were doing or to get out. The mischievous pair simply stood there giggling like two bad children. Dorothy ‘Over the Rainbow’ Podber, as she was called by many, offered me a glass of wine in a plastic cup; and so began a friendship with the fun twosome that lasted for years. 

My upstairs neighbor on Christopher Street Dick Higgins—one of the founders of the Fluxus Art Movement—was a character to be reckoned with. Dick, who came from a wealthy New England family, introduced me to the work of John Cage who sometimes visited him upstairs. A colorful young street tramp, a hustler named Igor, stayed with Dick at different times. Dressed all in what he called ‘Bohemian Black,’ Igor wore a kind of raincoat cape and claimed he could use it to fly out the window which he never did; but once Dick who had a hot temper threw a screaming Igor down a flight of stairs. An old time Village guru named Baldwin Stegman was often at the Higgins apartment and also visited me downstairs. A master of the Tarot Deck, Baldwin could predict the future and what was to come. He said we were all here by ‘chance’ and that nothing mattered. I discussed reading Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with him and we were both in agreement with the great Existentialist philosopher and author of the ‘nothingness bible’ that existence was a senseless flux. Higgin’s, of course, was primarily obsessed with his own Fluxus Happenings. At one point Baldwin disappeared and I later heard he was living and preaching in the South Seas on Easter Island. 

A few people referred to Ray as ‘Gay Ray’ due to his tendency to hang out at a gay bar in Queens called ‘What a Dump’, a place he discovered in a gay bar guide. He thought it was a hoot and stopped there frequently on the drive from Manhattan to his pink house in Locust Valley. The bar was so named after Bette Davis’s line in a histrionic film from 1949 entitled Beyond the Forest and in later years had become a campy phrase uttered by many a drag queen. The line was used by Edward Albee and was the first phrase uttered by Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in the filmed version of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ray took to wearing black leather motorcycle outfits and nightly prowled the streets of the Village on his own looking, as many did, for fun and games at late night sexual hangouts like the notorious Anvil on West 14th Street which stayed open well past 4 AM into the morning sunrise. Once, back in those halcyon days and nights, Ray showed up at Dick Higgins apartment carrying a big cardboard box. He opened the box letting loose one-hundred white mice before he ran down the stairs laughing while Dick screamed after him all the way down. Later, the Daily News led a campaign to rid New York of the scourge of rats, offering five dollars a catch. Ray and Dorothy happily joined in this catch-a-rat movement, which also for them turned into collecting dead animals like pet dogs that died and once they even found an oversized dead turtle. 

One day Ray called to invite me to a birthday party for Dorothy that was taking place at the outdoor patio of O’Henry’s Restaurant/Bar on Sixth Avenue. When I arrived, Ray and Dorothy were sipping their bone-dry martinis. Ray ordered one for me and one for another guest, a strange Village character who called himself Albert M. Fine. At one point Ray pulled out a big brightly wrapped box topped by a super-sized blue bow. He handed the box over to Dorothy with what she called a ‘funny bunny’ look on his face. Carefully opening this ‘birthday’ package she was amazed as she pulled out a dead Siamese cat; and Ray said, “We went to a great deal of trouble to find this.” Dorothy smiled knowingly. This was one more event that had to do with the ‘dead animal’ happening phase they were then into. Once at Christmastime Ray and girlfriend Dorothy presented me with a fancifully wrapped gift box. I opened it cautiously and found it contained a ‘Big Ben’ alarm clock. As I stared at it, Ray said mysteriously, “Open the face of the clock Bob!” which I did hesitantly. Inside was a dead rat sprayed gold. The terrifying joke, of course, was on me. At another point down the road, Ray invited me to his art studio/apartment on the Lower East Side on Ludlow Street. When I arrived in the late afternoon Ray was there with an art dealer who had come to view his latest 8 x 10 collage works. Ray was serving straight gin this time, from a cocktail tumbler on a lone table. I found it odd that all of the other furniture had been removed from the small space. The dealer asked “Where’s the art work?” Ray replied, “Oh! I’ll open the closet doors and show you.” As he did, we saw that the shelves had been removed and no collage works were to be seen. All that was there, tightly scrunched in a corner, was Dorothy grinning from ear to ear. It was another unforgettable Ray ‘Happening’ of which there would be many more. A master collagist, Ray was also the master of the Happening and the world of Zen emptiness. 

Of course Ray’s greatest, and final, happening occurred January 13, 1995, just a short time before a major retrospective of his work was due to open at the Upper East Side Feigen gallery. After putting his house in order, all of his in-progress and completed collages carefully wrapped in cellophane, his work supplies, books, files and letters all boxed, inventoried and numbered, Ray checked into a motel in Sag Harbor. The number of his room was 247, which adds up to 13. His age was 67, which adds up to 13. He was seen that day, January 13, by two teenaged girls who testified that he had jumped from the Sagaponack Bridge and backstroking like Esther Williams, all the while smiling and laughing, disappeared out to sea. His body was found washed up nearby the next day. The Feigen Gallery show, following the newspaper headlines, was packed to the gills and was a huge success. Ray, who was born in Detroit and who graduated from Black Mountain College in North Carolina has had major museum exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art and many other institutions, and his works are owned by major collectors and museums around the world. A documentary about Ray’s life and work How to Draw a Bunny was released in 2002 and there are many Ray Johnson art books available. Zwirner Gallery spokesperson Erin Pinover told me the price range of Ray’s collages is from $15,000 to $60,000. If you miss the show, go West—the Art Institute of Chicago will present Ray Johson c/o, on view from November 26, 2021 to March 21, 2022

Playwright Robert Heide’s latest book Robert Heide 25 Plays which also includes essays and over 50 photos is available on Amazon.

1 thought on “Ray Johnson, Pop-Culture Collagist, Master of ‘The Happening’ and the Mysterious World of Zen Emptiness

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      Wow, once again you deliver. I wish I was half as popular, then you could write about me. Stay safe and be well. We’ll meet in person soon. Love, Tom

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