Untitled (David Bourdon with Four Shirley Temples and Four Marilyns)
1977, 1978, July 4, 1992
Collage on Masonite
16 x 16 in (40.6 x 40.6 cm)
Image courtesy of Jenny Gorman, © Ray Johnson Estate
This work and Untitled (Beach Bum with Shirley Temple) 1972-86 10.27.91 feature the image of Shirley Temple, the first child star of Hollywood and a natural interest for Johnson, who often featured media celebrities in his work. Temple frequently inhabited the role of a precocious Cupid, bringing together adult protagonists in her films. The figure of Cupid, especially its form in Valentine’s Day decorations, was an important motif used in numerous other works (see Untitled (Cupid with Marianne Moore’s Hatra). The doubled pairing of Monroe, one of the most popular postwar sex symbols, and Temple in Untitled (David Bourdon with Four Shirley Temples and Four Marilyns) emphasize Hollywood’s sexualization of Temple playing “grown up,” dressed in lingerie and suggestively dancing in such films as the “Baby Burlesks.” Johnson however seems to mute Monroe’s sexiness in the collage, abstracting and compressing her into to a rather tame and abstract silhouette that could depict any pinup. David Bourdon, to which Untitled (David Bourdon…) is dedicated, was a prominent writer, critic and collector and one of Johnson’s longest lasting correspondents. The central phallic snake emerging from a block labeled “J Johnson” represents the source of the inversions and distortions of Temple and Monroe. As in many of his collages, Johnson includes motifs that represent himself (e.g. the paper snake, the bunny head, variously misspelled versions of his name) and therefore transform each work into a kind of self-portrait.
Treated as a contemporary bas-relief, with small stacked cardboard blocks pasted with fragments of colored paper works, his worked surfaces often literally cover the represented faces (his or others’) in a way that recalls Warhol’s often quoted statement : all there was to be seen and discussed in his art was on the surface of his paintings, as seen in the conflict between the painted canvas and the photographic imprint that does not perfectly respect the areas of colors. In this loose overprinting, the face becomes not one but double, and its identity unstable: its outline is not clear and its technique hybrid.
Frédérique Joseph Lowery, “Ray Johnson…Dali/Warhol and others, Main Ray, Ducham, Openheim, PIkabia….”, 2009
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
Curly Top, 1935
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