Reading Ray VanDerBeek Deep


Ray Johnson, Untitled (Marcel Marceau 1 and 2), ca. 1950s,
collage on corrugated cardboard, 5 x 2.85’’; 5 x 3’’
© Ray Johnson Estate, Collection of Johanna VanDerBeek

With his mailings, Ray Johnson sent collages filled with numerous references to addressees, possibly the person’s name, shared experiences, or other correspondances (the –dance intentionally emphasized by Johnson). In the 1950s, Johnson sent a pair of collages to Stanley VanDerBeek, filmmaker and fellow Black Mountain College alumnus. VanDerBeek’s 1950s films used stop-motion animation and occasional collage techniques. According to accounts, while not enrolled at Black Mountain College at the same time, Johnson and VanDerBeek met during a return visit Johnson made to the school.

These collages plays with references and associations they shared; VanDerBeek would have understood Johnson’s combinations in his own ways. Even to its original recipient, the openness of Johnson’s practice allowed for multiple interpretations. To demonstrate the range of perspectives possible, we offer a selection of entries by four writers, each offering an interpretation or commentary upon Johnson’s work.

Suzi Gablik remarked about Johnson’s work, “It is a question of waiting, not for time to finish the work, but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur,” a memorable quote Ray Johnson included in several mailings.[1] Johnson’s practice relied on his recipients actively participating, the work evolving through process. Fifty or so years after these collages were made, we offer a range of new readings in the pages that follow.

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  1. Gablik, Suzi, “700 Collages by Ray Johnson” in Location, (New York, NY: Longview Foundation) Summer 1964, 55.