Described variously as 'the most famous artist no one's heard of' and a man that 'everyone had a story about' but no one really knew, the influential Ray Johnson termed himself a 'collagist, not a painter.' Director/editor John W. Walter takes Johnson's own approach, piecing together individual reflections on the man to create a portrait of an artist in "How to Draw a Bunny."
Walter begins after Johnson's death with a police officer speculating on Johnson's mysterious background. On January 14, 1995, Johnson's drowned body was found. Two teenagers on a bridge had been the last to see him, oddly enough doing the backstroke in Sag Harbor Cove. He had checked into a motel room, #247, which adds up to thirteen, the same number seen on a marker near the water's edge (later in the film Johnson will become alarmed when he realizes he is one of thirteen guests at a party).
Leaving the facts of Johnson's suicide behind, Walter begins to build his artistic reputation from within the New York art scene. Each interview subject gives a different perspective of Johnson. To one, he's the surrealist who stages events as 'nothings' which could mean just about anything. To another, he's the jokester who arranged to drop sixty foot long hot dogs over Ryker's Island from a helicopter. In one of the film's richest bits, Morton Janklow describes how Johnson asked to draw a portrait because of his interesting face. He then returned with twenty-six 'portraits,' all collages incorporating Janklow's silhouette. The performance was not done, however, as Johnson haggled over the price of the artworks in over a year's worth of correspondence with his subject, which Janklow reads to increasing hilarity.
Correspondence itself became perhaps Johnson's most famous contribution to the art world. Wondering what to do with the collages he had created, Ray decided to cut them up, put pieces in envelopes and mail them to his friends, thus forming the New York Correspondents School, an idea that reverberates today in such installments as avant garde rock band They Might Be Giants' Dial-a-Song. The large percentage of Ray's mailings involved his ubiquitous bunnies, which took on different characteristics depending on how Johnson labelled them. (The documentary's title comes from a parody of art school ads which Ray did with his bunny head.) Johnson's influence can be seen in such artists as his contemporary, Andy Warhol, who took Johnson's Lucky Strike and celebrity icon collage series and incorporated the ideas into his own work. Johnson's own influences more than likely include roommate John Cage, whose Zen studies flowed into Johnson's work.
Walter has gathered an entertaining collection of anecdotes (Christo's turning the tables on Johnson over an artwork, Peter Schuyff relaying a similar experience trying to buy something of Ray's) which add up to a unique retrospective of Ray Johnson's work. Artist Chuck Close reveals how Johnson circumvented MoMA's submission process via correspondence with librarian Clive Philpott, who added Ray's correspondence to his library which, in essence, added Ray's art to MoMA's collection. His life, however, remains mostly a mystery. Photographer Norman Solomon, whose segment is created by over twenty years of black and white photos of Johnson, casually mentions a love affair of over twenty years and moves on - a choice of the subject or the editor's wish to maintain mystery?
The film wraps by expounding on the frequent observation that Johnson's life *was* his work by building evidence that Ray's suicide was his ultimate piece of performance art. His home was left like a puzzle box with visual cues pointing to clues and the only outward facing piece of art a 2 x 3 foot portrait of the artist, banded in black like an obituary picture.
The film is given a jazzy, bohemian personality with Max Roach's percussion-fueled score, which Walter calls attention to via brush strokes inserts, the editing and sound adding to the abstractive approach of the film. The identity of many interview subjects must be extracted from the video which precedes or follows.
Judith Malina, cocreator of The Living Theater with her husband Julian Beck (and grandma of "The Addams Family" movies), observes 'he was moving you to ask the question...What the hell *is* this?' Ray Johnson apparently viewed his life as an artistic provocation.
Artist Raymond Johnson’s body was found floating in Sag Harbor, New York in 1995, the victim of an apparent suicide. This enigmatic and unexplained death of “New York’s most famous unknown artist” is just a part of the investigation, by documentarian John Walters, of the life and times of the man and his work in “How to Draw a Bunny.”
Little is known about the works of Ray Johnson, an artist who would stage an exhibition named “Nothing” and leave the viewer guessing just what they saw. He was the contemporary of such art world notables as pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, photographer Norman Solomon and, most famous, modern icon Andy Warhol. But no one, until now, knew much about the man and his art.
As “How to Draw a Bunny” unfolds we learn why so little is publicly known about the artist who, actually, may have been the driving force at the beginning of the “pop culture” that we have always given Andy Warhol credit for. The difference between these two art personae lay in their means of distribution and exhibition. Warhol, as we know, took the New York avant garde art world by storm in the 60’s and created an empire from it. Ray Johnson, an artist on a creative par with Andy W, chose to lead a more introspective and personal means of showing his artistic talents.
Johnson’s art utilized contemporary pop culture items, like the Lucky Strike cigarette logo, and incorporated them into his work well before the famous Campbell Tomato Soup can came to the attention of millions. The difference is that Ray Johnson would play to an audience of one, often times, and would send his target aud, via the mail, variations of his initial work, sometime every day for a year! As such, he was a prolific artist but, because of his quirky distribution methods, few of his works reached the attention of the public.
Documentary maker John Walters assembled a collection of Johnson’s colleagues and contemporaries and patches together a document of Johnson’s life that made me want to learn more about the man’s unusual work. He uses anecdotal recollections by Johnson’s acquaintances and friends to give insight into the man. Talking heads interviews with such personalities as Lichtenstein, Cristo, Chuck Close and Billy Name are interspersed with video footage of Johnson’s varied performance art works.
Johnson worked for himself and docu-maker Walters shows how often his artistic visions were in conflict with the audience’s understanding of what he was trying to say. The artist marched to his own beat all of his life, eschewing the limelight in favor of his own, individualist creativity. He did not make an impact on the public but did have a significant one on those close to the man. If you have any interest in Raymond Johnson and his pop art, maybe you, too, will learn “How to Draw a Bunny.” I give it a B-.
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