On Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake by Frances Beatty and Elizabeth Zuba

Over the course of their friendship, Ray Johnson sent Fluxus poet, artist and publisher Dick Higgins an endless influx of mail art; in Johnson’s words “all my writings, rubbings, plays, things that I had mailed to him or brought to him in cardboard boxes or shoved under his door, or left in his sink, or whatever, over a period of years.” In his 1995 essay “The Hatching of The Paper Snake,” Higgins says:

Back in 1963 when, out of a mixture of desperation and naïveté, I founded Something Else Press in order “forever” to publish the best work which others could or would not, after my own Jefferson’s Birthday / Postface (1964), my second proposed title was to be a sort of Ray Johnson sampler. Why? In the first place it was clear to me that his collages and other major works were among the most innovative pieces being done, on par say with the best of Johns and Rauschenberg, who were considered the superstars of the time. . . . I was fascinated by the way that the small works which Ray Johnson used to send through the mail seemed so rooted in their moment and their context and yet somehow they seemed to acquire new and larger meaning as time went along. . . . Since a book is a more permanent body than a mailing piece or even our own physical ones, I could not help wondering what it would be like to make a new body for Johnson’s ideas as a sort of love letter or time capsule for the future.

The Paper Snake is a very experimental solution to the question what to do with Johnson’s very experimental work—how to compile, exhibit and circulate it. By 1964 Johnson was known in the art world as a collagist, a performance artist, a mail artist who established his own New York Correspondance [sic] School, and an artist whose personae and life were also his art. Higgins describes it: “The process of interrelationship of art and life, which we in Fluxus referred to as the ‘art/life dichotomy,’ found its own form in Johnson’s sendings and those whom he stimulated to act in a parallel manner. Too, the personal had a greater role in Ray’s work than in Fluxus works; one would not learn much about Ray’s very private life and loves (other than a few names) from his work, but one would learn who liked herb teas, the size of composer Earl [Earle] Brown’s cat ‘Sam,’ and similar seeming trivia which gave personality to life.” Johnson lived and articulated his experiences through collage; however, the connecting of disparate elements and unbedding of fixed relationships wasn’t limited to paper: people, events, ideas, life’s occurrences and concurrences were the pieces and bits that Johnson aligned and juxtaposed with thick paste and scissors and sent through the American postal system.

By the early 1960s, Johnson was already exhibiting his collage works in New York’s galleries and alleyways, but it was this other wild, living “correspondance” of Johnson’s that Higgins wanted to capture and reveal, if only through the tiniest of windows, to readers. In many ways, The Paper Snake was the first public exhibit of Ray Johnson’s mail art. If it hadn’t been for Higgins, there may have never have been one at all. Art for Ray Johnson was simply the way he perceived and engaged with the world, and he cared very little as to whether or not persons outside of his correspondence network ever saw or read it.  It was Higgins’s foresight that brought The Paper Snake into being long before it could be widely appreciated. Upon its publication, The Paper Snake was met with much consternation and bewilderment by the press. One reviewer wrote, “I tried to find out what the subject of The Paper Snake is, but I’m still mystified. Somewhere along the line I missed the point or lost the thread of the argument and was unable to retrieve it.” The Paper Snake of course is not to be “read” but to be experienced through its thrilling secret passageways. Now, years later, The Paper Snake is embraced for its very thread-less collage, rife with multiplicity and possibility.

Ray Johnson was that perfect mix of committed artist and indifferent recluse out of which legends are made. In response to a question about his writings in a 1977 interview, Johnson said, “Well, I shouldn’t call myself a poet but other people have. What I do is classify the words as poetry. Something Else Press published a book in 1965 called The Paper Snake  … [Dick Higgins had] saved all these things and designed and published a book, and I simply as an artist did what I did without classification. So when the book appeared, the book stated, ‘Ray Johnson is a poet,’ but I never said, ‘this is a poem,’ I simply wrote what I wrote and it later became classified.”

He made what he made and let others receive the work as they pleased: The unanticipated, the unexpected, and the unknown were part of the correspondances. Johnson also trusted that those meanings he could not see when making a piece would nevertheless present themselves and reach out across time and space in ever new correspondences. Tapping into other, un-realized meanings, or systems of meanings, via an acute attention to the small and the unmomentous, is one of the most mind-bending and vertiginous aspects of Ray’s work.

Postscript by Frances Beatty

When I leaf through The Paper Snake and “sample” Johnson, he feels very near. His always mischievous, deeply poetic writing feels extremely personal. Johnson spoke in the way that he wrote, in a collage of significant chatter—it was hard to keep up and you could not press rewind. It was the correspondances—Ray knew how to connect or relate everything to everything else. When I finally met him in 1977, I was working on my dissertation at Columbia and had dozens of pictures of Renaissance, 19th and 20th century works of art scotch-taped to the wall in my tiny apartment to use as “flashcards” for my Ph.D. exams. Ray named all of them but one.  He was able to store an infinite number of images, words and phrases, and he was always on the hunt, always discovering or inventing linkages.

I discovered The Paper Snake in 1975, before I met him, while I was teaching a seminar at Ramapo College and reading Beauvoir’s Down with Childhood with my Continuing Ed students who were mostly women old enough to be my mother. Two days ago, I opened The Paper Snake and found this excerpt which immediately connected me to that time:

Also by Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of a dutiful daughter
The long march
Blood of others
She came to stay
America day by day
Must we burn de Sade
The second sex
The mandarins
Violet ray lamp in small leather case

There are always these coincidental correspondences between Ray and me, as if he is grabbing at my mind from the grave. I thrill to them. One imagines one is inside of Ray’s head, experiencing him experiencing life. I hope new readers will get this magic, connect with Ray in their own ways, through the marvelous facsimile of this seminal artist’s book, The Paper Snake.

 

Works Cited

Higgins, Dick. “The Hatching of The Paper Snake.” Lightworks No. 22 (2000). Charlton Burch, editor.

Johnson, Ray with Randy Delbeke and Diane Spodarek. “Ray Johnson Interview.” Detroit Artists Monthly (February 1978).

 

Frances F.L. Beatty first met Ray Johnson in 1977, while working on her Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia University. Beatty wrote a review of a Johnson exhibition for Art/world after being introduced to Johnson by Richard Feigen (who showed his work from 1967-72). She saw Johnson often on his visits to New York and became a “correspondent,” exchanging numerous missives with him. Beatty joined Richard L. Feigen & Co. in 1980, and began a 15-year, frustrating but fascinating campaign to convince Johnson to let the gallery have an exhibition of his art. Seven days before his suicide (on Friday, January 13th, 1995), Johnson called his long-time correspondent and said, cheerfully and encouragingly, with no hint of his real meaning, “I am going to do something… and you’ll be able to have your show…” Thus, after Johnson’s death, Richard L. Feigen & Co. became the exclusive representative of the Ray Johnson Estate, and Beatty curated the 1995 Ray Johnson Memorial Exhibition. Ever since, Dr. Beatty has championed Johnson’s work, curating and collaborating on a number of subsequent exhibitions. As president of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and director of the Ray Johnson Estate and its unique Johnson archive, she continues to supervise the ongoing cataloguing of the Estate’s collection, welcomes interested scholars and remains dedicated to expanding awareness of Johnson’s innovative work.

 

Elizabeth Zuba is the editor of Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson 1954-1994 (Siglio Press, 2014) and an anthology of contemporary U.S. poetry, La Familia Americana (Cosmopoetica Madrid, 2010). Her forthcoming publications include several translations of Marcel Broodthaers’ texts and poetry—Pense-Bete (Granary Books, 2015), 10,000 Francs Reward (Printed Matter, 2015), and a yet untitled selection of Broodthaers’ poetry and projections (Siglio Press, 2015)—as well as a book of her own poetry, May Double as a Whistle (Song Cave Press, 2015).

 

Editor’s note: This essay was written as an insert to The Paper Snake as re-issued by Siglio Press in 2014. It appears here courtesy of Siglio Press founder Lisa Pearson. The Paper Snake reprint is available at the BMCM+AC or via Siglio Presssee Related Publications section.