Ray Johnson and Dick Higgins: Reciprocities by William S. Wilson

As an epigraph for The Paper Snake manuscript, Ray Johnson included a haiku about cutting a finger. He quoted a haiku by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa, “The Rush Hour,” as it was translated and collected in a 1957 Grove Press book called The Poetry of Living Japan (Ninomiya and Enright, catalogued by the Internet Archive):

At the wicket
The finger is clipped together with the ticket.

Ray’s manuscript, as represented by the proofs, dated 29 October 1964, opened with the name of the poet, the title, and that haiku printed as three lines:

Fuyuhiko Kitagawa
the Rush Hour
At the wicket
the finger is clipped
Together with the ticket.

The Kitagawa poem at the beginning of his book served Johnson’s purposes of demurral. He quoted Fuyuhiko Kitagawa’s “The Rush Hour” to bring the problems he was having with Dick Higgins as editor and publisher into The Paper Snake. For him, that haiku was about what was happening to his visual art. In the poem, a person was injured while passing through a technological system, just as Johnson’s manuscript would be injured going through the printing press. The values within technology differed from the values in Ray’s practice as an artist. A technology used clock-time, time clocks and assembly lines. Ray’s father worked a shift on an assembly line in Detroit. Ray worked on his own schedule in his apartment, often with his parody of an assembly line.

After the haiku, Johnson had placed three lines he titled “a valentine.” Dick Higgins, after cutting the translated haiku which reproached him, moved “a valentine” to become the last poem in the book, transforming it into an apparent expression of love for Alison and Dick, which ends the book.

Dick, by using his power to edit Ray’s work, revealed differences in their aesthetic, moral and monetary values. From Dick’s point of view, he is publishing at his expense a book of Ray’s gifts to Dick Higgins and to his wife, Alison Knowles. Ray’s gifts of verbal and visual works on paper were supplemented by a few of Ray’s drawings from about 1944. One of Dick’s purposes is to do good for Ray, who at the age of thirty-five has not had a significant show to sell his collages in a gallery. Dick Higgins is not yet thirty years old, but has the power of money, which he is putting at the service of the art of his own time. He is not using his money as he had been taught within his family and his society. Rather than publishing books that could make a place for him in standard publishing, he is publishing anomalous books to further discussion of the ideas and images in an emerging community of artists.

Dick and Ray were radically different as men, but they were together at about the same distance from standardized citizens in the workforce that is held in reserve as man-power for mass production of commodities. The book they planned was far from any standard uniform book, which conformed to uniformed values. Their book, The Paper Snake, would have the recognizable identity of a printed book, but would be as different from any normal book from a commercial press as both men were from standardized American men. Ideals, ideas and images of men were agreed upon in the consensus of their society, but Dick and Ray disagreed. Dick was publishing work by people and their art who were together in being at equivalent distances from their society.

The Paper Snake would represent changes in the purpose of a book. According to his plans, Dick would print a book by an electrical machine applying mechanical operations to aesthetic materials for financial profit within a commercial system. Working within commitments to his aesthetics, Dick’s values were subversive of technological values, but he had a business to try to keep balanced. Early in the process, Ray sensed that such technological and commercial values would injure his aesthetic handiwork, quite the way a ticket-punching mechanical gadget could injure a hand.

Dick and Ray, although together at a distance from the binding agreements of their society, were far apart as individuals. A convention in publishing allowed the “creativity” of an editor to decide upon and to impose a title different from the title chosen by the author. Thus, the title The Paper Snake was chosen by Dick, not by Ray. Ray wrote to May Wilson in Maryland, expecting his book, “Papa R Snake,” to be published on Valentine’s Day, 1965: “I got proofs today for the Dick Higgins book on Ray Johnson and I always find anything in public or print an embarrassment because I’m so dumb. But it’s going through and is called Paper Snake, a title I did not ask for. I wanted it to be Papa R. Snake.”

Ray’s words, “Papa R Snake,” do get printed on page 15 of “A Book about Death,” serving a different purpose. For Ray, anything intended for one specific purpose could serve a different purpose. A principle within his life, justifying himself in erotics and in art, was that an object identified by its purpose could serve a different purpose. An object serving different purposes did not necessarily lose its identity. A different purpose for anything, an image clipped from a magazine or an orifice of anatomy, added a layer of identity, possibly increasing possibilities. Ray would use the letter O as identical with the zero, 0, while the sign was still also O. The letter Z, designed for a phonic purpose, could with a twist become identical with the letter N. Then, that N, formerly Z, could with a reverse twist still be identical with that Z. Ray had, since puberty, been divided within himself, as both the good son and the gay boy, using parts of his body for purposes which differed from biologically authorized purposes. A task was to work out his identity as one man, in spite of differences, which seemed to divide him in two. Ray acted on the suggestion of Modernism to “Make it new” by constructing new purposes.

Ray Johnson, page 15 of A Book About Death (1963-1965), offset lithography. This page – the last – was printed on February 16, 1965. Collection of William S. Wilson.

Ray Johnson, page 15 of A Book About Death (1963-1965), offset lithography. This page – the last – was printed on February 16, 1965. Collection of William S. Wilson.

Ray was approaching the printing of his images and sale of his gifts from his correspondence with Dick and Alison. He did not explicate his aesthetic, ethical and financial values, which differed from the values of technological and mechanical reproduction administered by an editor and publisher. But as usual he rendered his values implicit in his actions, as in giving gifts as an expression of a philosophy of gifts. By 1964 Ray had transfigured his diagnosed psychological problems into his aesthetic philosophy, correlated with his moral and even financial philosophy. Years earlier, his “psychological problems” had been recognized as apt for therapeutic interpretations, as with Freudian or Jungian technologies of mind. He remembered bitterly that he had lived in the house of a Jungian therapist, hoping to be cured by her therapeutic interpretations of his images. Later he found purposes in his “problems” which transformed into his philosophy.

As an adult over thirty-five years of age, Ray would not allow reduction of the visual and verbal truth he was working toward to diagnosable “psychology” that required therapy. Resisting interpretations of his aesthetics or of his ethics, he refused reduction of his conscious commitments to unconscious motives. As he developed his own ideas and images of mind, he did not attempt to probe as though going down in a deep image. He moved an image laterally to overlap another image on the same surface. That surface, as much as anyone could know, was all that anyone was going to know. He did not explicate the value of “gift” as a concept. He moved the word “presents” to overlap the word “presence,” showing that presents had a bearing on his value of immediate presence. His present of an object or image annulled any prior purposes, bringing it purposelessly into a purposeless momentary presence.

Ray’s papers were organized into a manuscript and then typed in a fair copy, perhaps by a public stenographer who worked at odd jobs for anyone in a commercial office building. The “master-set” of proofs were copied from the typescript by a printer, “Sid,” 29 October 1964. The text, never outside its context of being published by Dick, began with that translation of a haiku. Ray offered no information about the source of the text, and no evidence of permission to reprint. He did not credit the translator. Printing such an appropriated text would serve Ray’s purposes, but would have been troublesome for Dick Higgins as editor.

In Ray’s theme of correspondence with variations, two objects could be identical, as the alphabetic letter d is identical with the letter b, but is reversed to serve different purposes. Such reversals as identical shapes in different positions are meaningless in ordinary events. However, for Ray, that two different letters, d and b, were identical, merely reversed, had a bearing on the reversals in his erotic love. Noticing small reversals as analogies to his more significant reversals, he had seen “db” as a visual event in the name of a friend, “Podber.” For him, the word “tid-bit” occurred with the reversal of its two ends, the “ti” and “it,” as though two ends of what would be a palindrome. But the possible palindromic reversal was thwarted by an interior reversal, with the “d” as both identical to and as different from the “b.” No detail in a design was too small to signify.

The reversal of two alphabetic signs—identical but back-to-back—would be meaningless for ordinary people. But for Ray, reversal, which had been a problem in adolescence, had become a governing theme and axiomatic image of his life. Nevertheless Ray did not interpret reversal as a concept, as interpretation required leaving the present and presented surface in order to descend into cavernous depths. He explained himself with examples, as with his overlay of one reversal upon a different reversal. A familiar word TOPSPOT was used to claim that a “spot” was superior in a hierarchy of spots. TOPSPOT, as a palindrome, was itself in a top spot in a hierarchy of words. Ray, who set hierarchies into fluctuations, re-wrote TOPSPOT as POTSPOT. Then, the reversal of TOP to POT got the word “pot” repeated, although the word “POT” was not at the top of Euro-American words.

Ray was changing the word TOPSPOT to accord with his commitments to his own Buddhism and Daoism as those religio-philosophies served his purposes. The word “pot” was a word that could suggest the specific emptiness that was functional within a container. Creation within the emptiness of existence, creation ex nihilo, could occur within a pot of emptiness. A pot was a container of creative emptiness. Any text that manifested within that emptiness was shaped by the context of a pot. Thus, a pot that was a fact was also an image for Ray, an image of a space where creation could occur. A contained emptiness in a pot correlated with the simplicity of silence.

Ray had been becoming himself by being a man who would change the purpose of anything. He worked to find his purpose for objects and for images that had been discarded as purposeless. That is, he made objects his own by changing their purposes or purposelessness to his purposes. As an artist, he found purposes for things that had served different purposes or which had lost their purposes. As a man, he was widening and deepening the purposes of organs and orifices of his body, using them for purposes beyond nutrition and reproduction.

In 1964, Ray and Dick had different purposes, which put him in danger of another person having power over him. He included his worry for his book in the haiku reporting an injury to the flesh of a hand by a technology. A technology served purposes like counting passengers and invalidating tickets in order to transport commuters efficiently and economically. Ray’s work as assembled into a book was going to go through technological operations, which could pain him. In a contrast between the purposes and values in the technology of electronic printing and Ray’s purposes and his values, technology had explicit purposes, Ray had implicit or tacit purposes. Throughout his aesthetic experiences he annulled purposes or otherwise changed purposes. And throughout his erotic love he used his body for purposes apparently not evolved for those purposes. His survival as man and as artist meant obeying self-set laws aligned with self-set standards.

Ray would find discarded objects and papers. Purposeless trash could become gifts from dumpsters. In the early 1960s, around midnight, I frequently drove him to a laboratory at I.B.M. to visit Toby Spiselman. He would spot the trashcan in order to rescue Gerber-Plotter papers that were redolent of technologies. Walking on Broadway, he would find multiple leftover copies of a playbill which, discarded, had become material for art. He rescued a broken lamp from the trash and studied it for an improvised purpose, supervening its prior purposes. When he retrieved a letter or a photograph from an abandoned house or from a gutter, he demonstrated his reality of anomalous purposes by finding different purposes for an object that had been refused because it no longer served somebody’s purposes.

Ray, often changing a purpose by nullifying a purpose, would try to find a different purpose peculiar to himself. As he arose within Finnish-Lutheran and then Church of Christ, Scientist, theologies, he learned, as he was taught, that transcendental purposes could give meanings to lives. A mysterious divine purpose could justify tragic destructions of a good. But by 1956, when I met him, he experienced himself as a self-developing and self-organizing artist within this self-developing and self-organizing Cosmos. He saw no final purpose without or within the Universe, and he experienced no necessities in the local and limited purposes of his society. He acknowledged no reason not to decide on purposes for himself, while allowing that he lived among people with purposes of their own. In the foreground, Dick Higgins had his own purposes in accord with his different values. Dick was intensely purposeful in work and in play.

Ray might use almost anything within a collage or to give as a gift. He gave me a collage with the body of a dead mouse that he found in old papers I had given him. He gave May Wilson a dead raccoon that served no practical purpose. In 1948, he had experienced erotic love in a hearse that was no longer used as a hearse. Years later he and Richard Lippold followed Greta Garbo on 57th Street in Richard’s hearse, perhaps forgetting its original purpose and aura, whether or not Garbo did.

Ray set aside any idea or image of an ultimate purpose when he committed himself to ideas and images in his uses of a Buddhism, a Dao and a Manhattan Zen. He had arisen within a verbal language that was not adequate to his experiences. But with his radical treatment of verbal words as visual objects with spatial extension, he prevailed over abstract ideas by changing the purposes of phonic words to visual images. When he could, he annulled purposeful uses with his unusual uses. His communications and his gifts had no practical purposes any more than his inconsistent lists, yet even his gifts of non-linear lists were becoming content in a purposeful book.

Ray protested the depletions and distortions of his colors when printed in a two-color process. He expressed his sadness forcefully to me. He had once written to Dick, “I want to live and die like an egg.” An egg as an object represented the wholeness and unity of a continuous surface. Visual lines and the lines of thought should turn toward each other as a unity, like the continuity in the surface of an egg. In a complementary idea, Ray had learned “egg” as a criterion for the wholeness and unity of a life. In 1964, although I had written and published nothing about visual art, Dick asked me to write a statement to be printed on the dust jacket. I had never written about visual art and had no idea how or what to write something Ray would read, but in 1964 I did not think that writing about art had to make sense. Aware that Ray felt that his work was being clipped at the wicket, I wrote: “Since a change in style is a change in meaning, this book is a translation of Ray Johnson into Dick Higgins. Reading this is like reading over Dick Higgins shoulder or hearing him read them out loud. Ray Johnson makes eggs out of omelets and Dick Higgins eats them.”

Years earlier, as a student at Black Mountain College, Josef Albers had given Ray an exercise: To write his name backwards. Then, through experiences, Ray varied his signature in accord with the immediacies of his experiences. His signature was as much as possible a spontaneous improvisation at that moment. Dick advertised a special limited edition of The Paper Snake in a prospectus: “The author’s signature is stamped in imitation gold on the front cover; this edition comes with an original work by Ray Johnson.” Ray was disheartened by the differences in styles and in values between Ray and Dick. The sale of his original work betrayed his principle that no person should gain money from the work of another person. In his life and in his art, he transformed facts into images. His signature was always an image combinable with other images. Dick’s copy of his signature in imitation gold flattened his imagistic signature into a fact. Dick’s reality was focused on a different plane. He publicized Something Else Press under a name he gave himself, Camille Gordon. Much in his impersonal business as publisher was personal.

Ray handled money throughout his practical life, but he worked to get the value of a quantity to become also a quality. Money had financial meanings he tried to overpower with aesthetic meanings. When he could, he transformed the facts of money into images of money. As images, money had meanings that could participate in his supervening meanings. In that process of transfiguring facts into images, he turned his aesthetic values to align with his ethical values. He subordinated purposeful money to his impractical purposes. Such gifts were a method of eluding the power of money. He rendered an object into a gift in order to achieve his governing purpose, which was to change purposes within objects even as he changed purposes within his flesh. By finding his own purposes for discarded facts, which he found as images, he was constructing possibilities that became available after negations. For Ray, to give a gift negated financial purposes. To sell his gift meant negating Ray’s purposes.

Dick Higgins, generous as a publisher, was aware that he would not earn back his money spent to print their book: “I gagged, knowing that I was unlikely ever to recover my investment in the project…but I used that price [$3.47] anyway” (“The Hatching of The Paper Snake,” Lightworks #22, 2000, editor Charlton Burch). Dick, who generously gave away books, and who pointedly gave me a broken grandfather’s clock, could interpret his financial loss as his gift to Ray. He was both exchanging gifts with Ray and selling Ray’s gifts to him and to Alison.  Dick’s interpretation of the meaning of gift was too different from Ray’s interpretation for them to understand each other.

As an eccentric artist surrounded by people who were squares, Ray did not conform to the rectitude of rectangles. He had been challenged by the right angles of rectangles, so in turn he challenged rectangles with erratic curves and other non-conforming lines. He often gave those irregular collages, which he named “moticos,” as gifts. He was changing the purposes of images, while changing any destruction of purposes into his own constructivist purposes, however indecipherable and illegible his purposes might be. A moral point was that his idea of gift and his impulse to give a gift originated only within him; his gift was an authentic communication without the violence often used as proof of authenticity.

A tenet of Modernisms is “Make it new.” Ray had to make it new because almost nothing in social existence or in art described, explained or otherwise illuminated him in his predicaments. He changed his predicament into possibilities and opportunities by supplementing “Make it new” with “make it do.” Living among the poor in a slum put him within a community of people who needed to make it do: “Use it up,/ Wear it out,/ Make it do,/ Or do without.”

Yet Ray, with his decision and his choice to imitate poverty, had the luxury of choosing to make it do. A poor look was a meaning. When he used a cheap process like printing the pages of “A Book about Death,” he used the medium precisely as it was, not as an imitation of something that could look more expensive. He had uses for looking poor. In a contrast, Dick moved his press to 5th Avenue for the prestige of the location. That he used imitation gold to imitate a signature was a fact. Ray accepted anything that anyone did as a fact of experience, usually without expressing his judgment, but holding in reserve his power to turn the facts of others into images for him. He tried to get his problems with the book within the book, but with the cuts by Dick, facts about The Paper Snake were never transfigured into images.

Dick was funding a business where he hoped to do well enough by doing good. He had to think with facts of money, paying a staff, while Ray had decided to think with the facts of money as images. Dick’s matters of fact broke into Ray’s truth-in-imagery, his truth of images and his truth with images. While Dick necessarily worked with actual places like an office, Ray worked with the semblances of spaces. A fact within Dick’s places could become an image in Ray’s aesthetic spaces.

The differences between Ray and Dick included different values of the past and of the structure of events in relations with the past and the present. Dick was associable with Fluxus, with the word flux suggesting a continuous succession of changes. Flux overlapped “flow,” but differences between Dick and Ray matched differences between a flux of tide and a flow of tide. Changes within a flux for Dick could differ from changes within flow for Ray. He liked to say, “I am the ocean, and like the tide, I mash up everything.” Flux, as successive changes, included the prior stage, changing the immediate moment by giving the present moment a relation to its past. Dick worked in events that were accountable to foundations in the past and in his specific past. In strong contrast, Ray understood himself as foundationless. Abjuring foundations both as facts and as images, constructing moments of immediate presence, he worked with the flow. He also worked with the spin. He put his spin on the word “world,” spelling “world” as “whirled.” For him, to be real was to set in motion or to be set in motion. Within the flow, he put his spin on his flow.

A percentage was to be paid to Ray as his earnings (royalty). Regardless of the small scale of publishing a book to be sold for three dollars and forty-seven cents, the publisher paid a “royalty” to the author, here a sum perhaps smaller than the cost of calculating it. No significant proportion existed between the quantities of money and the qualities of values. But Ray was determined that no one would receive money that he had not earned with his work. No one should profit from the labor or work of anyone else. But in his self-stylization, as autonomous as an egg, he did not explain his thoughts about the value of the money to other people.

Within his methods, Ray was thinking how to render the facts of quotidian money into images, which would elaborate upon themes in his arts, not contradict them. A fact of money as a quantity was to become an image of money as a quality. His decision on a price of $3.47 was hors commerce. The sum of fourteen avoided thirteen, which he judged to be a menacing superstition distorting experiences. Fourteen was an interesting numeral because it was next to the meretriciously interesting numeral, thirteen. Ray was explicit when he told me that he wanted people to purge such superstitions in order to move freely and to move on. He intended that his uses of thirteen would show the numeral to be as benign as any other neutral numeral. However, the response was usually the opposite.

Ray often used both first and last names of anyone, in what I took to be Scandinavian or at least Northern European custom. But when he addressed Dick as “Dick Higgins,” Dick interpreted the apparent formality as aloofness. Ray could bring out differences with a shift of tone, registering a difference between “Dick Higgins” and “Dear dear Dick Higgins.” The word “dear” indicated that Ray was paying a dear price, yet that Dick was still dear to him:

Dear dear Dick Higgins,
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo hoo hoo.
Boo hoo hoo hoo.
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo hoo hoo.
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo.
Boo hoo hoo hoo.
Boo hoo hoo hoo.
Poor Ray Johnson

Ray is suffering for the truth of his work when the printing is like clipping a finger to invalidate a commuter ticket for the vehicle that will set him in motion. The “Boo hoo” poem for Dick Higgins expresses Ray’s problems with their book as clipping his work, even before the cuts have occurred. Ray would have begun his book with his sorrow about his work being clipped, and he would have ended it with his tearful lament in the comic-book language, “Boo hoo.” However, with economic power giving editorial power, Dick Higgins clipped the haiku and moved Ray’s poem, “a valentine,” from page 1 to page 47, to end Ray’s book with “a valentine.”

Ray’s theme of words as extended physical objects with visual qualities was smuggled into “a valentine.” His theme was carried by the visual italics as three identical words printed with three visual differences:

A heart is not so far.
A heart is not so far.
A heart is not so far.

Ray does not tell, but, wanting Dick to understand, he shows his meanings and his valuation of the visible over the aural. A visual change like italics can become a change in the purpose of a word. A change in the visual marks changes meanings and uses. Experiences for Ray were linguistic events. A phenomenon was a linguistic phenomenon. But verbal events or linguistic phenomena were as visual as verbal. Linguistic experiences within mind were also physical experiences within matter. A word or a name had a size and a quantity of letters. Words as physical extensions correlated with other physical objects in the material whirled.

Ray’s sense of identity and difference differed from Dick’s sense of identity and difference. To Dick, money was a fact. To Ray, money was an image. The facts of the two-color printing off-registered Ray’s precise colors as facts, not as his images. A little later he was asked to make a collage, which would be reproduced as a photograph to be printed by Bill Copley for distribution by “The Letter Edged in Black Press.” The title of the portfolio was “S. M. S.” The initials were code for “Shit Must Stop.” The context was aggrieved, and so was Ray, who used that context for his layered and exasperated response to Dick.

In a whole composition with three separable parts, Ray juxtaposed a photograph of Dick as a prospering boy, dressed in new clothes, probably for Easter. He quoted information about the absurd dying of a child: “A 2-year-old girl choked to death today on an Easter egg.” Thus, Ray returned to his theme of worldly injustice. A theodicy interprets an ultimate justice as the reality in spite of the injustice apparent in the mysterious purposes of God. Ray has associated the conflict between divine purposes and mundane human purposes by positioning a photographic image of Dick with news of a purposeless death. The dying of a child, “today,” has immediacy as evidence of the injustice of the ways of God to his creatures. The child dies by choking on an Easter Egg that pertains to Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection of life. Easter had justified the ways of God, puncturing the appearance of evil destruction to reveal the absolute reality of the Divine Mind. The Crucifixion became other and more than it appeared to be when the dead Jesus was revealed as the Living Christ. Easter reversed evil to good as an eternal divine comedy. Therefore, Ray constructed a collage about injustice for “The Letter Edged in Black Press,” under the specific imperative that the “shit must stop.”

 A 2-YEAR-OLD GIRL CHOKED TODAY ON AN EASTER EGG with childhood photo of Dick Higgins Ray Johnson, 1967 Collection of the Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York

A 2-YEAR-OLD GIRL CHOKED TODAY ON AN EASTER EGG with childhood photo of Dick Higgins
Ray Johnson, 1967
Collection of the Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York

The problems with the appearance of The Paper Snake were to Ray a matter of his life and the choking to death of his reality. Ray was given the power to realize his own purposes within processes of mechanical reproducibility. He instructed the photographer explicitly, as with this note: “…shadows should not run into other shadow” (5 December 1967). But although he was reproaching Dick Higgins, he also was no longer in a universe presided over by a transcendental God. He was dwelling within his universe of immanent compassions. He had written a letter accepting the world of things as they are to the Whitney Museum. He whirled his feelings: “Dear Whitney Museum, I hate you. Love, Ray Johnson.” Dick was still dear.

Years later Dick sold some more gifts of Johnsoniana to a responsible German collector, Herman Braun, an admirable archivist. Ray, when he was in love with a boy named “Pete,” named his cat “Pete.” A cat was an image of improvisation and of spontaneity, of unscripted and unrehearsed immediacies. A cat would sit on the grass without an apparent purpose. Any two cats could be compared, but three cats had incalculable interrelations insofar as they were identically cats, yet also were identical in being different. A cat for Ray was a gift of qualities he wanted for himself—another image of elasticity. So, after Dick told him about his other gifts and the secret sale, Ray typed a letter to Dick: “I opened the front door and looked out. On my front lawn were sitting three cats in different places. Maybe you could sell those three cats to a German art collector?”


These notes are provisional, so I look forward to further help from Barbara Moore, Michael von Uchtrup, Diana Bowers, Julie Thomson and Frances Beatty. Editing by Blake Hobby. Written with the support of a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

William S. Wilson was introduced to Ray Johnson by Norman Solomon, early Autumn, 1956, and last spoke with him when Ray called collect from Orient Point, New York, 3:53 pm, January, 13, 1995, on his way to a performance.