Judge Maurice Cobbs once stapled Vienna sausages to a velvet painting of Charo while standing on one foot and whistling "Yes! We Have No Bananas"—but is it art?
"Ray wasn't a person, he was a collage or a sculpture, a living sculpture…He was Ray Johnson's creation."—Billy Name, regarding avant-garde artist Ray Johnson
I understand that pop singer Britney Spears once attended the Sundance Film Festival but found most of the films she saw there confusing. "The movies here are weird," she reflected afterward. "You actually have to think about them."
Allowing that Britney may have been ill equipped for the task, I wonder what she would have made of this 2002 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner?
Facts of the Case
This film from first-time feature documentarian John Walter attempts to probe the mysterious life and equally mysterious death of one of the legendary figures of the Pop Art scene, using interviews with the contemporaries who knew and respected him as well as examples of the man's work.
I'm willing to bet that you've never even heard of Ray Johnson.
I'm not surprised; a lot of people haven't. Even when he was in his prime, Johnson was called "the most famous unknown artist in America," and the only people really familiar with him—if familiarity is even possible with such an elusive personality—were other pop artists and those who frequented "the scene." Called "the founding father of mail art," he never achieved the sort of fame in his lifetime concomitant with Andy Warhol. Nevertheless, Johnson is considered by many to be one of the most talented artists of his generation. On January 13, 1995, Johnson's body was found floating under the Sag Harbor bridge in New York, near buoy number 13. Johnson, 67 (add it together), had spent the previous night in a motel, room number 247 (add it) of the Baron's Cove Inn (count the letters) in Sag Harbor Cove (get it?). Was it an accident? Or the last bizarre work of an eccentric, enigmatic artist? It would seem that nobody really knows, not even the people who knew him best.
So, who was Ray Johnson? John Walter seems to have asked anybody he could—friends, family, lovers, fans—and they all have essentially the same answer: "I don't know who Ray Johnson was." How To Draw a Bunny doesn't try to unravel the mystery of Ray Johnson (but then, who could?), opting instead to present a portrait of the artist as a mystery. By anyone's standard, Ray Johnson was a peculiar sort of person. Even though he created intricate collages—quite intriguing and beautiful—Johnson's major contribution to the world of modern art was the concept of "mail art": usually photocopied reproductions that he sent en masse to people he knew and to people he didn't. Director Walter has appropriately arranged his film as a sort of moody, clever, whimsical collage, using digital video, 16mm film, and archival footage of Johnson; interviews with agents, gallery owners, friends of Johnson's, and the police officer who investigated his death; photographs of the artist and his art; and a soundtrack that ranges from Al Green to Sonic Youth, all tied together by an original score by jazz drummer Max Roach. Despite the varied nature of the components, the picture and audio quality is amazing (and audio clarity is an absolute necessity for an interview-based film of this type).
You might think that a documentary about someone so elusive would be frustrating, and on some levels, you'd be right. But Walter has put his documentary together in such an engaging, entertaining, infectiously enthusiastic way that you can excuse even the bohemian excesses of the New York Pop Art scene and put yourself to work as a detective exploring the one-of-a-kind Johnson. Lots of clues are provided for your casework: A wealth of deleted interviews and stories are provided, along with a seemingly endless gallery of the incredible collages Johnson made. The commentary is one of the best that I have ever heard, a testament to what the filmmakers were willing to do to make this movie (the stories about getting permission to use some of the still photos would in themselves make for an interesting short subject), and a gold mine of insight into the various personalities they dealt with and interviewed.
Did I find this documentary interesting? Well, yes—sort of. It is well made, engaging, playful, even vaguely sinister at times. Johnson's story is fascinating enough to hold your interest, and curious enough to keep you from hitting that remote. Strange flashes of what may well have been genius abound: Take his series of astounding collage portraits of agent Morton Janklow…but then again, take the equally complex series of letters Johnson sent Janklow while attempting to negotiate the sale of those portraits over the next few months. You keep expecting Jack Palance to pop up somewhere and growl, "Believe it…or not!" So really, my issue isn't with the filmmakers, who do the best they can to cast light on a bizarre personality, but with the subject himself. I've always cast a skeptical eye toward those "artists" who are respected and admired because they are mysterious and unknowable, which often translates into "Nobody knows what the hell this guy is talking about, but I can't figure it out, so it must be important." It seems like so much rubbish to me; as an artist myself, I tend to think that if an artist has anything that is indeed profound or insightful to say, he will find a way to say it with clarity. Now, I've been told that my artistic tastes are very 19th-century (which I consider to be a compliment), but I can't see how anyone can praise the genius of a man who runs in circles with a wheeled blackboard or beats a cardboard box with his belt while hopping on one foot. Because if that makes him a genius, I know a lot of geniuses who can't do their performance art because of the sedatives the doctors make them take and those pesky straitjackets they have to wear. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it's perfectly understandable that few people outside of the art world have ever heard of Ray Johnson, despite his talent; I say that even though it places me contrary to the opinions of art world luminaries such as Christo, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Chuck Close.
On the other hand, mad though he may be, Johnson seems to go about being himself with a twinkle in his eye, and you get just the slightest impression that you're being kidded on a grand scale. Certianly, Johnson is likable—not nearly as pretentious as most of those who inhabit the New York art scene. I'm glad to know about the fellow, but I think that I've spent all the time I need to with him. So I suppose that for those who like this sort of stuff, this would be just the sort of stuff they'd like. Others may wish to be more wary. Ultimately, the most satisfying thing about this documentary is that the filmmakers refuse to attempt to define the undefinable Johnson; instead, they leave all the work up to you, allowing you to accept or reject him as you will. You'll have to draw your own conclusions about Johnson, his art, his life, and his mysterious death, which should leave lots of room for discussion with friends afterward—proving once and for all that opinions are like armpits: Everybody has a couple, and a lot of them stink. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to work on my documentary about the most sublime and influential artist of the 20th century: Alfred Henison.
Students of art will no doubt find this documentary fascinating, and you can probably use it to impress that waifish girl at the coffee house who's always reading Camus and Wittgenstein. Heck, if you're feeling adventurous, give it a try. At the very worst, you'll have expanded your horizons and gained an awareness of a very talented kook, and you'll be able to add to your store of wine-tasting party conversation.
And yes, instructions are given on how to draw a bunny.
Not guilty. I guess.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director John Walter and Producer-Cinematographer Andrew Moore
Review content copyright © 2004 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.