“Always It Is Something Else”: Relevant Quotations for The Paper Snake Compiled by Michael von Uchtrup

“the word is not dead / it is merely changing its skin”—Dick Higgins in Thirteen Serious Considerations, self-published (1978)

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“I saw Ray around town for several months before I met him, which was at a [June] 1959 concert where I asked him if he were Jasper Johns. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m Ray Johnson.’ We got to talking and soon to walking and not long afterwards to visiting. It is … how I met Alison Knowles … That was thirty-six years ago, and Alison and I are still together.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins” (1995)

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“The first thing Ray ever sent me was a green marzipan frog…”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Marcia Tucker, curator, The New Museum, New York (3 July 1970)

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“Dear Ray Jay, There are seven apples in my hand, and you would be welcome to all of them except that you are not here, and I will eat them for you and dedicate the process to you. … May I offer you my watermelons? … You are the most wonderful person [in] the world, in the whole wide world.” Signed “Dick an Anonymouse” —Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (undated). Higgins would later state it was probably written in August 1959, which would make it the earliest known letter exchanged between the two.

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“Jpe Pgrym / Pp upi 1/2p;odj upit dli;;”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (20 September 1959)

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“Your fingers have been eaten by snakes.”—Ray Johnson, “For Dick Higgins” manuscript (29 September 1959)

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“Certain of our colleagues have discovered that Capellanus is not dead, that the war is over, that a master-student relationship is highly desirable, that Black Mountain is a gasoline refinery, that Cuba is revolting… Sooner or later one must face the grim possibility that, as time passes, we are not getting any younger and we may yet turn out to be mushrooms.”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (19 November 1959)

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“Who is Dick Higgins? Why, he is an angel with only one wing. Pray for Peace. Report obscene mail to your postmaster. Son of a bitch.”—Note from Ray Johnson to William S. Wilson (mailed 27 June 1960)

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“In the early days of Fluxus, say, in 1962 and 1963, George Maciunas and I agreed … that the key problem in Fluxus … was how to get the goods to the people. His solution was the inexpensive, almost-ephemeral hand-made art multiple. Mine was … a series of variations on a Theme of Book – to publish source materials in a format which could encourage their distribution through traditional channels, however untraditional their concepts or implications.”—Dick Higgins, “The Something Else Press: Notes for a History to be Written Someday, Part 1” (20 June 1978); New Lazarus Review 2.1 (1979)

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“Something Else Press was founded on the spur of the moment.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins”

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“When asked what one is doing, one can only explain it as ‘something else.’ Now one does something big, now one does something small, now another big thing, now another little thing. Always it is something else.”—Dick Higgins, “A Something Else Manifesto” (1963?); published in Manifestos, Something Else Press: A Great Bear Pamphlet (1966)

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“The day after I decided to start the press, I wrote that ‘Something Else Manifesto’ which I am still quite happy with. Then the next book was Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake, which I decided to do the day I wrote the manifesto.”—Dick Higgins with Eric Mottram, “Call It ‘Something Else’” (recorded 14 February 1973); Spanner no. 9 (1977)

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Postface, New York: Something Else Press, 1964.

Dick Higgins, Postface, New York: Something Else Press, 1964.

“Ray Johnson… is the thoughtful collagist, also he does synthetic dramas and some poems, which very often make use of the mails. He knows all about things like knives and poisons, rats and clocks, air and packages, glue and ink, Brooklyn and belly-dancers. … Perhaps Ray Johnson runs deeper than any other living artist.”—Dick Higgins in Postface/Jefferson’s Birthday, the first publication by Something Else Press (autumn 1964)

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“My second proposed [Something Else Press] title was … 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… In the second place, Johnson was without gallery representation… Third, though … most of us Fluxus artists considered him somehow one of us, he did not work closely with [George] Maciunas and was thus considered something of an outsider to Fluxus. Therefore, since I did not want to compete directly with Maciunas’s Fluxus publications, I ran no risk of offending would-be Pope George if I published Ray Johnson.”—Dick Higgins, “The Hatching of The Paper Snake

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“It was an atmosphere of bracing intellectual exchange and intense camaraderie, the only exception being Dick’s more competitive relationship with Maciunas’s Fluxus…”—Barbara Moore, hired by Dick Higgins in January 1965 as the first Something Else Press editor, “A Poor Man’s Keys to the New Art,” Primary Information, New York (2008). Online.

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“The story about Dick Higgins, is that he is trying to fight me not I – him. Since he started his publishing venture he has tried as hard as he could to duplicate my efforts by asking Fluxus people… to publish with him not me… I don’t mind at all when he publishes people like Tomas Schmit, Al Hansen, Ray Johnson, [Jackson] Mac Low who are not planned for Fluxus publications… There are enough unpublished people around he can use. There is no need for piracy…”—Letter from George Maciunas to Ben Vautier (summer 1968). Reproduced in Fluxus Codex by Jon Hendricks, Abrams (1988)

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“I [had] decided the next book should be a cross-section of the things Ray had sent me over the previous six years. So, having little room at my own place, I packed them all into two suitcases, visited my mother and spread everything out on her dining table. I sorted the book into piles-performance pieces, poems, collages, things to be typeset, things to be reproduced in Ray’s writing —taking care to include at least some of each category. I knew the book would be hard to sell, so I didn’t want to make it a Big Important Book; I chose the format of a children’s book, set the texts in a smallish size of Cloister Bold (an old-fashioned Venetian face), decided on using two colors to simulate four (which I could not have afforded), and then laid out the pages in a way which I felt would invite the reader to experience Ray’s pieces as I did on receiving them.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins”

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“A few years ago you sent me a blue and white collage, very neatly cut into three pieces, submerged in a huge carton of ripped-up collages. I rescued them, and now I figure maybe the right thing to do is to use them for the cover of the book…”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (17 November1964)

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“I asked him what the book should cost; he said immediately ‘$3.47,’ a thoroughly unusual price. I gagged, knowing that I was unlikely ever to recover my investment in the project … but I used that price anyway…”—Dick Higgins, “The Hatching of The Paper Snake

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“It turned out that to do 700 books cost [sic] very nearly the same as to do 1700, so I figure on doing about 1700, selling them at $3.47… . Each book will cost about $1.65 to make, … so if I sell half the books I will break even. Based on that, I figure on giving you 45% net profit. … You should … get the copyright so when I get sick and tired of the Something Else Press, and you can bet your ass I will, all rights will automatically go to you.”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (17 November 1964)

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“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…”—Letter from Ray Johnson to May Wilson, artist, mother of William S. Wilson (4 November 1964)

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“Keep sitting at your typewriter, cool, collected, and all fears about the book will go away.”—Letter from May Wilson to Ray Johnson (circa January 1965)

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“My book Papa R. Snake appears Valentine’s Day, yes it does. Tell your mama tell your pa.”—Letter from Ray Johnson to friend and BMC alum Marie Tavroges Stilkind (18 January 1965)

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“One of the worst days of my life.”—followed by a lamentation of how little mail Ray had received —”Other postcard is the third I have received this week from Something Else Press about my own book Paper Snake. The other two postcards from them were to other people care of me. It was like receiving no mail at all to receive these three items. There are days like holidays or Sundays when there is no mail delivery and the box doesn’t function. But that’s very philosophical. I think I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.”—Letter from Ray Johnson to May Wilson (8 February 1965)

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“Somebody will paint beautiful faces all over the sky. / Somebody will start bombarding us with really wonderful letters… letters / full of truth, and gentleness, and humility…”—Text which appeared in The Paper Snake’s original typescript and was excised from the book because it was “Soon It Will” from Kenneth Patchen’s Selected Poems, New Directions (1957)

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“Ray Johnson’s Paper Snake will be bound up by Valentine’s Day. There are two editions: the Regular Edition [of 1,840 copies] has a printed cover which matches the jacket; it costs $3.47. The Autographed Edition (…limited to 200 unnumbered copies – numbering’s vulgar) is bound in Joanna Lacqroid, costs $12, and is sold only by the PVI Gallery … New York.”—Something Else Press Newscard #1 (circa January 1965)

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“Ray, who had at first been displeased by the project, …became very enthusiastic as [it] developed. Where at first he had refused to title the book, later he called it “The Paper Snake” … And when … the book was being bound … I took Ray over to the bindery to see it being cased in… By then he was delighted and wrote me one of the few formal letters ever received from him thanking me for doing it.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins”

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“Congratu;ations [sic] on your beautiful book about Ray Johnson. He is a major artist deserving of recognition.”—Letter from Ray Johnson to Dick Higgins (16 February 1965)

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“No Idea is clear to us until a little soup has been spilled on it. So when we are asked for bread, let’s give not stones, not stale bread. Maybe we have no bread at all, anyway. But why not give a little chicken?”—Dick Higgins, “A Something Else Manifesto;” published in Manifestos, Something Else Press: A Great Bear Pamphlet (1966)

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“Ray Johnson picks up crumbs and hands back bread. … This book is a translation of Ray Johnson into Dick Higgins; reading these is like reading them over Dick Higgins’ shoulder, or hearing him read them aloud. Ray Johnson makes eggs out of omelets and Dick Higgins eats them.”—The Paper Snake dust jacket text by William S. Wilson

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“As for its reception, the book was a puzzler to even the most sophisticated readers at the time. Even someone who was a regular correspondent of Ray’s … wrote me an outraged letter saying what a silly book it was. Such people usually felt that Ray’s mailings were and should remain ephemera.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins”

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“Please rush special delivery. Situation here desperate.” —Anonymous note sent with The Paper Snake order form asking that 100 copies of the book be sent to “Mens Washroom, Grand Central Station” (21 February 1965)

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“. . . Destiny’s tot, the irrepressible Ray Johnson, under the dubious aegis of Nonesuch Press (a subsidiary of Haphazard House), has permitted to be published a slender volume called “The Brick Finger Bowl.” Hearsaid is the rumor that this venture has been jointly underwritten by the Black Mountain Institute for Advanced Studies in Invertebrate Paleontology, The Crown-Zellerbach Fund for Outrageous Uses of Paper Pulp, and the legendary Knolls-O’Higgins Foundation (a tax write-off). … Professor Wilson’s jacket blurb should be sufficient warning to the wary that O’Higgins has yet again contrived another advertisement for himself – coals to Newcastle, as far as we’re concerned… The irony here is that this tawdry megalomania has been insinuated into an otherwise scholarly work by Dr. Johnson – truly among the world’s most dedicated herpetologists. …”—Joke “review” of The Paper Snake (7 March 1965) thought to be circulated by Stanton Kreider

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“Johnson’s opus is trenchant, ambiguous, yeasty, profoundly dishonest, chock full of pizzazz, and choked with ambition of the meaner sort. … One may hope for greater selectivity in any further publications Johnson may essay – and yet, as it stands, the present none-too-slender volume … is truly a work which every man, woman, and child in the Western world can afford to overlook.” —Parody of Something Else Press Newscards #1 and #3 (18 March 1965) and thought to be circulated by Stanton Kreider

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“All the junk rescued and distributed by Ray is galvanized for only a moment, and then it sinks back into the clutter.”—Anonymous note, a full page with a single typed sentence, mailed to William S. Wilson on 17 May 1965

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“There were almost no reviews, but one did appear … one of the most scorching reviews I have ever seen, complaining the book was precious and completely trivial, a pleasure to an in-group.”—Dick Higgins with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins”

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“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 is copyrighted, I don’t know why — that seems excessive caution.”—Review attributed only to “M.B.” One magazine (February 1966 or later)

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“Higgin’s [sic] Postface / Jefferson’s Birthday’s [sic] and Johnson’s Paper Snake’s [sic] slithered in large numbers aboard the good ship Goettingen, on March 5th, bound for … Koln-Muhlheim … where Tomas Schmit, our industrious European correspondent, hangs his hat. So the European brethren can finally get our books without a hitch…”—Something Else Press Newscard #3 (circa March 1965)

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“Ray Johnson … may well be New York’s most famous unknown artist…”—Grace Glueck in “What Happened? Nothing,” New York Times (Sunday, 11 April 1965)

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“The Something Else Press, New York’s farthest-out book publisher, is swinging into its second non-profit year. A sort of underground Harry Abrams, Something Else Press has a publishing list that’s – well, different. … Its runaway best seller (322 copies) is Primer of Happenings and Space/Time Art by Al Hansen… S.E. has also published such texts as The Paper Snake, a book of whimsies by collagist Ray Johnson, and An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a history of all the objects on a table in the Paris room of artist Daniel Spoerri. … S.E. also contemplates re-issuing a series of out-of-print works by Gertrude Stein…”—Unknown reviewer in The New York Times (10 March 1966)

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“Ray Johnson is not only the finest of American collagists… he is also the author of innumerable whimsical fantasies and reminiscences, often pointed, which masquerade as playlets, poems, letters. These are mailed to friends, to friends of friends, to anybody to whom it seems appropriate to mail something … A cross-section of his work, received by Dick Higgins over the years, has been assembled into … one of our most beautiful books.” —What to Look for in a Book—Physically & Catalogue (1965-66) by Dick Higgins for Something Else Press

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“As of today we’ve sold … 216 books, 16 x .0624₵ [= 3% of PAPER SNAKE’s wholesale price] is .9984₵: your percentage doubles at 500 books, so it’s a start. Love, DH”—Postcard from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (December 1965)

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Something Else Press Royalties Policy, 1966. Collection of the Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York.

Something Else Press Royalties Policy, 1966. Collection of the Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York.

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“As of 11/30/66, there have been sold 368 copies of The Paper Snake, regular edition… 29 of the special edition have been sold… The total royalty is $16.34 [less $7.43 already paid = ] a total of $8.91, for which we therefore enclose a check.” —Letter from Marilyn Quarez, Something Else Press bookkeeper, to Ray Johnson (19 December 1966)

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“Really, I do expect to sell about 3/4 of the books over two years or so…”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (17 November 1964)

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“As of 1/13/68, 504 copies [out of 1,840] of the regular edition of The Paper Snake have been sold… Enclosed is a check for $9.75.”—Letter from Marilyn Quarez, Something Else Press bookkeeper, to Ray Johnson (31 January 1968)

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“The Robert Kennedy assassination, the [Andy] Warhol shooting [by Valerie Solanas, acquaintance of May Wilson], and the Ray Johnson attempted stabbing all happened within twelve hours. At four in the afternoon [on 3 June 1968, the art critic and Warhol-Johnson friend] David Bourdon called me from the hospital where he and Viva were with Andy and told me what had happened. Later, when I went out to get the Times, three guys jumped me and ran after me with an eight-inch switchblade. It was a close call.”—Ray Johnson with Richard Bernstein, “Ray Johnson’s World,” Andy Warhol’s Interview (August 1972)

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“As of today, the New York Correspondence School became the Long Island Correspondence School.”—Letter, Ray Johnson to arts publicist and Ray Johnson friend George Ashley (22 June 1968)

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“Johnson, a soft-spoken … young man, is an artist known mainly for the sensitive collages he exhibits at New York’s Richard Feigen Gallery and for a remarkable and mystifying book called The Paper Snake.”—John Gruen in “The Underground: A Mysterious ‘Correspondance’ School,” Vogue (September 1968)

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“Ray Johnson is the only tempting minimalist: he reduced line and color to a serpent.”—Nicolas Calas in Art in the Age of Risk, and Other Essays, Dutton (1968)

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“In 1965 my Something Else Press published a selection of Johnsoniana, The Paper Snake … based on what he had sent to me, or had had other people send to me in his name, or on copies of things he had sent to other people over the course of seven years. It’s still by far the best Johnson material available.”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Marcia Tucker, curator, The New Museum, New York (3 July 1970)

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“We were discussing … the publication of a book of letters, poems and drawings, The Paper Snake. It was Dick Higgins’ idea to do it and it was made up of all the things I had given to him or mailed to him over the years before it was decided that I was an artist, because I wasn’t an artist. … And for years I had been writing plays, making drawings and doing rubbings and being an artist but not thinking about it. I was just doing those things in a complete naive state. And then suddenly it was announced that I was an artist, a poet … I was suddenly someone that I hadn’t been before. So I decided to play the role of the ‘artist in the art world’, which I never wanted to do, and I’ve been playing it ever since. The irony is that I still do what I’ve always been doing. I still do those things that are not art, the giveaways, and the throwaways, the free poems and the birdsongs.”—Ray Johnson with Richard Bernstein, “Ray Johnson’s World,” Andy Warhol’s Interview (August 1972)

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“[By 1973] I was … disgusted by the way things were going at that Press (even to me it was obvious that I was in no position mentally to become active there again) … Some time that summer or fall I even resigned, not just from the management of the Press, but from the Board of Directors… I called [a sanitorium] and committed myself… Now, over four years later, I am still one drink away from madness, and am enjoying that distance one day at a time.”—Dick Higgins, “The Something Else Press: Notes for a History to be Written Someday, Part 2” (20 June 1978); New Lazarus Review 2.3-4 (1980)

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“When Something Else Press went bankrupt in 1974 there were still around seven hundred copies of the original 1,840 copies [of Paper Snake] left; most of these wound up in a tomato warehouse in Vermont …”—Dick Higgins, “The Hatching of The Paper Snake

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“Dear Dick Higgins, I’m sitting here waiting for something to happen. – Ray Johnson”—Note from Ray Johnson to Dick Higgins (13 September 1977)

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“I’m afraid that others may have, inadvertently “spilled the beans” to you about something that should be good news to you. I have just mailed my collection of your writings, works, mail art etc. from 1958 to 1966 to [German art collector] Hermann Braun…”—Letter from Dick Higgins to Ray Johnson (15 May 1986)

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“Dear Dick Higgins, / I opened my front door and looked out. On my front lawn were sitting three cats in different places. Maybe you could sell these three cats to a German collector? / Ray”—Unmailed letter from Ray Johnson to Dick Higgins (November 1987)

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“Dear William S. Wilson, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I know what I’m talking about – Ray Johnson”—Note found in Bill Wilson archive (16 November 1994)

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“The New York Correspondence School Bunny was murdered today. 12.30.94”—Mail art flyer by Ray Johnson, photocopied for distribution days before his suicide on 13 January 1995

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“[Ray] was much loved, though he’d never have believed that.”—letter from Dick Higgins to W.S. Wilson (5 February 1995)

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“The important thing is that [Ray’s] work not be lost, that it and the message go out into the world… He made the paradigm, and it is up to us to make of it our own.”—Dick Higgins in “Ray Johnson: Obiter Dictum,” Print Collector’s Newsletter (May-June 1995)

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“… Johnson’s image is expanded many years after the fact, as he almost certainly knew it would be. … [In 1964] 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…”—Dick Higgins, “The Hatching of The Paper Snake

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“This collection [The Paper Snake] … can be seen as Ray Johnson’s love letter to eternity. [It] may also be a love letter to reality (and some of its attendant social constructs) written by one who may have found himself an outsider. … The Paper Snake is the cornerstone of Johnson’s early work. One of the first artist’s books, it remains a true landmark of post-war American art. It evokes the spirit of its author … echoes of The Paper Snake will be heard for a long time to come.”—David Ebony in “Ray Johnson, from The Paper Snake to Shelley Duvall,” New Observations (May-June 1995)

 

Works Cited

Higgins, Dick with Ruud Janssen, “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins.” Conducted via the postal service between April and December 1995. Online at or in print: MAIL-INTERVIEWS: PART 1. Breda, Netherlands: TAM-Publications (2008). This volume also includes a mail interview with Ray Johnson—cut short by Ray’s death in 1995—and interviews with Alison Knowles, Clive Phillpot, Norman Solomon, and others. See Related Publications.

Higgins, Dick. “The Hatching of The Paper Snake.” “This piece was written by Dick Higgins in May of 1995. In October of 1998, he died at 60 years of age.”—Charlton Burch, Lightworks editor. Higgins’ essay appeared in Lightworks #22: The Ray Johnson Issue, 2000: A special issue devoted to Ray’s life and art, with contributions by former BMC students Norman Solomon and Marie Tavroges Stilkind and dozens of other Ray Johnson friends. This essay is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared and also appears in this BMCS volume. See Related Publications.

It is due to the foresight and longtime dedication of Charlton Burch and Ruud Janssen that these two crucial sources of firsthand information about Dick Higgins, Something Else Press, and The Paper Snake came into being.

Other quotations were culled from original documents in the collection of William S. Wilson and among the holdings of the Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York.

Julie J. Thomson has contributed enormously to the cache of data from which these selections were drawn, as have Barbara Moore, Bill Wilson, and Diana Bowers of the Ray Johnson Estate. My sincere thanks are extended to each of them for the time that they invested in this project, and the many insights they shared.

For Lance Kinz (1951-2015), whose presence in the Ray Johnson circle will be missed.

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Michael von Uchtrup is an archivist based in New York who has been working since 1999 on various collections of material relating to Ray Johnson, primarily the “official” NYCS archive of William S. Wilson. Ray Johnson’s biography has been writing itself on his hard drive, encouraged by a residence at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice in 2012 and correspondences with some of Ray’s closest friends spanning the last quarter century.