Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hatra)
Collage on illustration board
20 x 15 in (50.8 x 38.1 cm)
Image courtesy of Jenny Gorman, © Ray Johnson Estate
The collages Marianne Moore Frank Sinatra (1972-1992) and Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hatra) (1974) 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. Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hat) (1974) refers to the song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, whose lyrics (“she was afraid to come out of the locker”) became a symbol for the gay community in the 60s and living in the closet. The cupid in this collage holds a phallus in his hand and the end of his bow resembles a hairy butt.
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… (see, for e.g. Diane Varsi’s Mother’s Potato Masher (1972 in MoMA’s collection)
In 1974, Ray Johnson completed a series of collages with a “Cupid” motif appropriated from a commercial stencil popular from the 1960’s, and familiar to most schoolchildren as Valentine’s Day decorations. Johnson played with the ubiquitous commercial image in the same gesture as Jasper Johns did when he used the American flag or a target as a subject for painting, and gives it his own humorous twist by transforming Cupid’s arrow into a phallus. As well as the Cupid, Johnson added heart motifs to many of his works.
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, Marianne Moore Frank Sinatra, 1972-92
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