NOTHNG OF THE MONTH CLUB
1. The exhibition gathers a group of artists who work in Ray Johnson’s spirit in different ways, following widely divergent paths in their negotiation of the mainstream art world’s machinery — its expectations, needs, tastes and value system.
2. Featuring works by Matt Connors, Scott Covert, Olivia DiVecchia, John Fahey, Robert Hawkins, Richard Hell, Ray Johnson, Karen Kilimnik, Erik LaPrade (David Hammons), Nicholas Maravell, Marlon Mullen, Peter Nadin, Richard Prince and William S. Wilson.
Jan 27 - May 27, 2021
Off Paradise presents NOTHNG OF THE MONTH CLUB, a group exhibition under the sign of Ray Johnson, curated by Randy Kennedy and Natacha Polaert, featuring works by Matt Connors, Scott Covert, Olivia DiVecchia, John Fahey, Robert Hawkins, Richard Hell, Ray Johnson, Karen Kilimnik, Erik LaPrade (David Hammons), Nicholas Maravell, Marlon Mullen, Peter Nadin, Richard Prince and William S. Wilson.
Elephants and Castles
“It was announced that I was an artist, a poet, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller purchased one of my early paintings. I was suddenly somebody that I hadn’t been before. So I decided to play the role of ‘Artist in the Art World,’ which I never wanted to do, and I’ve been playing it ever since.” — Ray Johnson, Interview magazine, 1972
Ray Johnson elided so many different registers of artmaking — formal, conceptual, performative, linguistic— it’s easy to forget that his work was fundamentally narrative. It was narrative because the work was the life and the life the work. Among postwar American artists, barely a handful, Warhol included, managed a separation between living and art-making so vanishingly thin. Ray stories, those told by him and about him, represent part of the fabric of his career and are almost as plentiful as the pieces of mail art that continue to radiate like secret pentacles deep within the closets and desk drawers of his recipients throughout New York City and beyond.
My own favorite Ray story, related by his close friend William S. Wilson, takes place in the late 1960s and concerns Ray and Bill driving to an art party on the Bowery, pulling up to discover that the function, unlike most below 14th Street in those years, had a formal guest list, administered by an efficient-looking woman with a clipboard.
“My heart sank,” Bill told me. “I knew there was no way we were on the list. Ray walked right up to the woman and when she asked his name, without missing a beat, said, ‘Norman Mailer.’ She scanned the list, smiled and waved us in. What this meant was several things: that Ray was sufficiently steeped in the particulars of art society to predict that Mailer would be on the list; that the woman was young enough to have no idea what Norman Mailer looked like because he already didn’t mean much for her generation; and that in choosing Mailer’s name Ray would be able to enact in real time an absolutely brilliant pun on his own activity as a founder of the school of mail art.”
I love the story because it apprehends in the form of a fable Johnson’s essential relation to the art world: working by choice and temperament outside the walls of power while possessing the skeleton key to the back gate, allowing him to slip inside at will and wander surreptitiously around. “Insider-outsider” has, in recent years, become a well-worn and dubiously applied descriptor in the art world. But Johnson can be credibly said to have invented the authentic archetype, and since his death in 1995, its example has grown steadily in importance with each year and each passing art-fair cycle that enlarges the inside, bringing the very meaning of an outside into question.
NOTHNG OF THE MONTH CLUB gathers a group of artists who work in Johnson’s spirit in wildly different ways, following widely divergent paths in their negotiation of the mainstream art world’s machinery — its expectations, needs, tastes and value systems. Among the artists are a multitude of refusals, denials, dropouts, disappearances, evasions, feints, infiltrations and subversions, propelled by what Richard Prince (a special case in this lineup) calls “the unnamable motors and dangerous impulses that occupy our thoughts.”
In place of a thesis statement, Lucy Lippard’s 1999 observation about Johnson could serve as a shibboleth: “… Johnson regarded the center as both attractive and repellent. The enormous energy of his art may well have derived from that tension.”
The exhibition is not so much a commentary on the conformities of the center as it is a tribute to the kinds of artists who create and preserve obsessively articulated worlds of their own practically in its teeth. Great art has been made, after all, in the orbit of great political and economic power since long before Thutmose sculpted for Akhenaten or wall painters spun their volute wonder through the palace at Knossos. But, to borrow a metaphor from the painter Peter Nadin — who all but stopped showing in the commercial gallery world for more than two decades — the artists arrayed outside the palace in the huts, working primarily for themselves and their fellow hutdwellers, have always been far more plentiful and multifarious, which is to say closer to the grain of daily human existence in whatever era they lived.
The critic Manny Farber framed this distinction poetically as a divide between white-elephant art (“an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical”) and what he called termite-tapeworm-fungusmoss art, inching its way “forward eating its own boundaries,” leaving “nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” In the latter company Farber counted such odd bedfellows as Laurel and Hardy, John Wayne and Paul Klee and down among the white elephants he cast Truffaut, Tony Richardson, Motherwell and even Cezanne.
A few distinct qualities mark the Johnsonian turn of mind. One is (to borrow another Farber adjective) a “squandering-beaverish” intensity toward forming communities —the better for self-protection, perhaps?—an impulse through which, as the painter Matt Connors once described it, “networks of elective affinities are constantly materializing, offscreen, on the ground, in unlikely, but actual places,” creating “collaboration, expansion, connection, creation, and love that are not directly tied to big money or the market” but suggest the ethos of the record-store counter and “that enthusiastic guy playing you his favorite new song.” (As Richard Prince reminds us: “Certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them than when we’re home alone and play the same records ourselves.”)
Another commonality, delivered with deadpan verve and Duchampian linguistic flair, is humor, too scarce a commodity in contemporary art; to be funny in art requires uncommon confidence. Robert Hawkins’ three watercolors depicting the last dodo on earth — each dodo bearing the dignity of the thoroughly doomed — echo Johnson’s trademark serial bunnies, which hold themselves out individually as the real McCoy, lampooning the illusion of certitude, like contestants on a surreal version of the game show “To Tell the Truth.” (“Will the real last dodo please stand up?”) Glenn O’Brien, a benevolent shadow presence in this show, called Hawkins an “initiate in the brotherhood of sacred folly and transcendental schtick … William Blake as Johnny Rotten,” an endorsement that could apply just as easily to many of the other artists.
A final bond to be mentioned, especially now, is an almost Buddhist ease in the company of death — a clear-eyed view of mortality not so much death-haunted as death-hospitable, holding the end to be indissoluble from the span. Scott Covert, whose paintings and drawings derive from direct rubbings of gravestones, based on a vast personal necrogeography of the United States and other parts of the world, serves as a something of an ambassador for this disposition, having survived addiction and the AIDS epidemic. “I’m not afraid of death,” he likes to say. “It makes life so much more interesting.”
Johnson ended his own life at the age of 67 by leaping from a low bridge in Sag Harbor, N.Y., one January evening and backstroking out to sea, having left a scattering of equivocal clues as to this manner of death in his art and correspondence for years, a posthumous hide-and-seek collage, his final work. “Ray was on his way to drowning when I met him in 1956,” wrote Bill Wilson. “It just took 39 years for him to do it.”
Twenty-six years after his death, his presence on the periphery remains powerful, exerting what physics calls “spooky action” on the interior, indicating on maps dominated by highways the plenitude of wandering sideroads still available, if one just looks hard enough for the signs.
“Are you an artist?” the critic David Bourdon asked him in 1963.
“I’m a listening, measuring, looking, killing, opening, giving, squooshing, eating flag maker.”
— Randy Kennedy, January 2021