Neal Baer Collection

Ray Johnson

Marianne Moore Frank Sinatra


Collage on cardboard panel

15 x 12.375 in (38.1 x 31.4 cm)

Image courtesy of Jenny Gorman, © Ray Johnson Estate

The collages Marianne Moore Frank Sinatra and Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hatra) reflect Johnson’s admiration for Marianne Moore specifically and more generally, emblematize Johnson’s interest in compressing various kinds of information — from popular culture and celebrity, from his network of friends and collaborators, and from the invented language of his work and persona. Marianne Moore Frank Sinatra (1972-92) develops Johnson’s early motico works and features tesserae, small blocks “which he made by meticulously gluing layers of cardboard together, from two to as many as 10 layers deep” and which rise sculpturally from the surface of the work. This collage contains an arcane repeating triangle pattern and the duck motif, one of Johnson’s most frequently used glyphs, on the center right tesserae.

In a play off the famous Rabbit-Duck Illusion, used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations to explore the concepts of “seeing that” and “seeing as,” Ray Johnson often drew or painted ducks that could easily be interpreted as sideways rabbits. The duck image is thus linked to the ubiquitous Johnsonian bunnyhead altar ego, acting as yet another representation of self and identity for Johnson.

“Ducks,” the Ray Johnson Estate Glossary

This work features the names of three celebrities: poet Marianne Moore, actress Lynn Redgrave, and actor Frank Sinatra. Redgrave, whose father and first husband were gay, played some of the first lesbian and transgender film roles. Sinatra, one of the most famous American singers and Hollywood stars, was the first to develop an audience for popular music among teenage girls and embodied a complicated sex appeal that combined the effeminate (singing, dancing, stylish suits) and the macho (anger, physical violence, working class Italian-American).

Marianne Moore inspired a significant number of works by Johnson in the 1960s and 70s:

In the 1950s, poet Marianne Moore visited Ray Johnson in his Dover Street studio. Afterwards, he began to send her messages and invitations to visit again, and she became one of the celebrities he incorporated most often into the collages of that period. As a symbol for the poet, Johnson featured Moore’s signature tricorne hat. In 1967, he offered to show her his work, but she politely declined, claiming she “must compress, not expand” her activities—a phrase Johnson must have loved since compression was one of his other central concerns, as exemplified in his Potato Masher series.

“Marianne Moore’s Hat,” the Ray Johnson Estate Glossary

This work possibly began as a Potato Masher work as it contains dark, repetitive abstract patterns and the spiky shape of the masher head common to the series (see, for e.g., Diane Varsi’s Mother’s Potato Masher (1972) in MoMA’s collection). As with a number of Johnson’s collages with unconventional dating, this work’s date spans twenty years, 1972-1992, underlining the compression of time as well as information and images. The Potato Masher series was first exhibited in 1972 at Galleria Schwarz in Milan and at the Angela Flowers Gallery in London in 1973.

Johnson owned the actual potato masher that served as the model for his [works]…It is an old fashioned, wooden handled potato masher with a looped wire top…Johnson tips the head of the masher onto the same plane as the handle creating a flattened, (mashed) image in two-dimensions, a nod to the upturned table-tops of Picasso and Matisse. The visual manipulations of Picasso, Matisse and others, with their “flattening” of three-dimensional objects, was an important concept for Johnson. In his collages, he broke the two-dimensionality of the flat surface by layering it up physically on top of the canvas to confuse our perception of objects in space. Johnson said he used the human foot, most useful when it is flat on the ground, to indicate flatness, but he turned it on its end, perhaps alluding to the current critical obsession with the flatness of the picture plane. William S. Wilson has written about the psychosexual aspects of flattening for Johnson, and its relationship to things being flattened in the sea—always a powerful idea for Johnson. The idea of bodies flattened one on top of the other was part of the appeal of “mashing,” as Wilson has described it. The weight of water in the ocean, as it presses against bodies and moves them at its will was another sexual metaphor for Johnson.

“Potato Mashers,” the Ray Johnson Estate

Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was born in Detroit, studied at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, and moved to New York City in 1949 where he would live until 1962, at which time he moved to Glen Cove, Long Island. Over the course of his lifetime, Johnson pioneered a practice of mail art and collage works which were commercially difficult (small, arcane) and reflected the growing significance of mass media in 20th century life and the networked nature of the postwar art world. Integrating texts and images drawn from sources ranging from popular magazines to his personal telephone conversations, his work presents coded communication as a kind of self-portrait. Johnson occupies an idiosyncratic position in postwar American art between the assemblages and transfer drawings of Robert Rauschenberg and the work of Andy Warhol and other Pop artists.

His interest in language and semiotic systems looked to Dada and Marcel Duchamp, while anticipating the development of appropriation strategies during the second half of the 20th century. Johnson sought out the random and the ephemeral, incorporating chance operations into his artistic practice with “mail art” and with performances and happenings. Operating under the intentionally misspelled mail art system he called the New York Correspondance [sic] School, Johnson used the art world as a network to distribute his collages and mail art pieces as well as to mine the mail he would receive for material for his collages, reifying the collaborations and ties to his contemporaries. 

The Art Institute of Chicago holds the most extensive single collection and archive of works by Ray Johnson drawn from the recently acquired William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. The AIC presented a survey of Ray Johnson’s practice from November 26, 2021 through March 21, 2022.

The Ray Johnson Estate

Other works by Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson, Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hatra), 1974

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Beach Bum with Shirley Temple), 1972-86 10.27.91

Ray Johnson, Untitled (David Bourdon with Four Shirley Temples and Four Marilyns), 1977, 1978, July 4, 1992

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Mona Lisa Graphic Print), n.d.

See also
Ray Johnson Estate

Ray Johnson in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ray Johnson in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago, “Ray Johnson c/o,” 26 November 2021 – 21 March 2022, with select full scans of the archives of the New York Correspondance [sic] School

Francis Richard, Review: “How to Draw a Bunny: Ray Johnson,” at Kinz, Tillou + Feigen, September 26 – October 26, 2022, Artforum

How to Draw a Bunny (dir: John Walter), 2002