Reading Ray 1 by Johanna Gosse

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

Johanna Gosse

PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College

Though we don’t know precisely when Johnson sent this collage to Stan VanDerBeek, or what it might tell us about their relationship, we can speculate that the two met at Black Mountain sometime during the summer of 1950, while VanDerBeek was enrolled in the summer session and Johnson came to campus for a visit.[1] VanDerBeek had arrived at Black Mountain in the fall of 1949 with the intention of studying with Josef Albers; later, he recalled that he had “essentially sat on the side of a mountain for about a year in complete silence” during his period of residence at the College.[2]

Perhaps it was this self-imposed vow of silence that Johnson is referring to in this triple portrait of Marcel Marceau, the legendary French pantomimist. It is even more tempting to think of that other great master of the art of silence, John Cage: could the mime be a stand-in for Cage himself?[3] Consider, too, that Marceau named one of his classic pantomime routines “The Cage.”

Turning to the text sprinkled across the surface of the collage, we can discern the name of a little-known German-born photographer, Rolf Tietgens (1911-1984), directly above the image of the fallen matador on the left-hand panel of the collage. Did VanDerBeek, who had studied photography with Hazel Larson Archer at Black Mountain, know Tietgens’ work, which ranged from portraiture to documentary to surrealist experiments? And what to make of the small patch positioned between the two left-hand Marceaus, of what appears to be a close-up on a geometric textile design? Is this a reference to the geometrically-inclined Josef Albers, Johnson’s and VanDerBeek’s esteemed teacher? Or better yet, does it refer to Anni Albers, the master weaver?

The range of possible correspondences suggested by this work must have intrigued VanDerBeek, himself a brilliant collagist who began making animated collage films in 1957. Besides collage, Johnson and VanDerBeek also shared a fascination with global communication networks. During the 1960s, both men instrumentalized these networks for aesthetic and potentially subversive ends; Johnson, through his mail art practice, and VanDerBeek, with his techno-utopian experiments in new media.

For instance, in 1969 VanDerBeek wrote a proposal for an international artists’ residency program, where groups of artists would tour the globe for the purposes of cultural exchange and arts education—somewhat like a travelling Black Mountain College. The proposal speaks to VanDerBeek’s belief in the power of art, technology, and mass communication to bring artists in contact with the world population:

I see my idea as an experiment in global aesthetics and communication, bringing together artist’s (sic) from all over the world to work together with the latest technologies in an attempt to understand that it is the world itself that we relate to, and it is the people and artist’s (sic) of the world that we all relate to. [4]

VanDerBeek’s notion that art is a fundamental form of human communication, one that is both deeply relational and has a primary role in promoting utopian goals, has remarkable parallels to Johnson’s own attitude toward art’s role in society. The fact that these two figures both emerged from the intellectual and creative hotbed of Black Mountain College is, of course, no coincidence—and serves as a continuing reminder of the range of influential and even catalytic encounters that occurred there.

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  1. Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002): 216.
  2. Harris, 183.
  3. VanDerBeek’s time at Black Mountain did not coincide with Cage’s residence during the summer sessions of 1948 and 1952, but Cage’s influence was undoubtedly still felt in the fall semester of ’49 when VanDerBeek arrived. Johnson had befriended Cage during the ’48 summer session, and later the two were neighbors in the same tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
  4. VanDerBeek, Stan, “Artist in Residence to the World,” Nov. 1, 1969. Accessed online <http://www.guildgreyshkul.com/VanDerBeek/SVB-re.html>.