Thoughts on Dick Higgins’ Paper Snake by Clive Phillpot

Although The Paper Snake, first published in 1965, states on its title page that it is “by ray johnson,” this is not completely true. The content would certainly seem to be by Ray Johnson, but the book itself is the conception of the publisher Dick Higgins. Much later, in 1995, Higgins said that even as he commenced publishing under the name Something Else Press, he had had the idea that it would be a “most worthy statement” if he were “to assemble into a suitable format a collection of … ephemeral pieces by Ray Johnson.”

This collection of pieces by Ray Johnson is comprised of examples of Ray’s, by then, well-established practice of mail art. Thus The Paper Snake is actually a Johnsonian mail art anthology from the early 1960s. It includes some marvelous prose pieces, including new versions of proverbs such as “never lend or borrow a fly” (not a bee!), as well as lists, jokes, and poems such as the classic:

I am now
in my frog
legs frogs
leg period.

It also includes “page 10” of his Book About Death from 1964, as well as two of his flyers advertising his graphic design work, “Mississippi” and “If Tears are Dropped…”.

Dick Higgins stated in his 1995 essay on “The Hatching of The Paper Snake” that Ray “decided to call the book The Paper Snake to indicate that it was a work in its own right.” In a telephone call to me in 1992 Ray said categorically that: “The Paper Snake … was Dick Higgins’ title.”

This remark helps to confirm that The Paper Snake was subject to Dick Higgins’ conception of the book. Higgins also said that he did “most of the work [him]self in consultation with Johnson.” And further that “the book was to be a statement made in collaboration with a visual artist.” Higgins was in the driving seat.

By 1965 Ray Johnson had been involved in making several books of which he was the sole creator. There were the unique collage/moticos books from the mid-1950s that had been inspired by Ray’s visit to the exhibition of graphic work and “Libri Illeggibili” by Bruno Munari at the Museum of Modern Art in the Fall of 1955. He also made some small offset books such as Book of the Month in 1956. Later, as part of a very different venture, he published the thirteen loose offset pages of the so-called Book About Death from 1963 to 1965.

The description of The Paper Snake as an artist’s book or book work is not accurate. As has been said, it is an anthology of an artist’s work graphically presented by the publisher rather than the artist. It is not a book like one of Ray’s 1950s collage books such as Th Thee for and Lai Book, which uses sequencing, overlappings, and openings to express a flow of visual ideas, nor does it have the coherence of the “Libri Illeggibili” of Munari. Even Ray’s little Book of the Month is dependent on sequence and the book structure.

However, even though The Paper Snake disappoints in not being an integrated art work, it did serve a very useful function. By attractively anthologizing Ray Johnson’s writings with some of his graphic work, it helped to publicize his sensibility and achievements to a larger audience than his earlier mostly one-on-one communications.

One of the inclusions in The Paper Snake is a letter from Ray on borrowed official stationery from the Department of Housing and Buildings of the City of New York dated 23 March 1964. In this letter, addressed to “Pat,” Ray Johnson says, “Steve told this dirty joke about a crack-up at the airport.” Now, in the interest of academic full disclosure, I can report that in a telephone call of August 1992 Ray explained it to me:

“Do you remember my piece in The Paper Snake? :
A joke: What was the crack-up at the airport?
A WAC doing a handstand!”

~

The quotations are from Dick Higgins’  The Hatching of The Paper Snake,” Lightworks #22 (2000); Charlton Burch, editor.

 Clive Phillpot entered Ray’s airspace in 1981, when Clive started receiving things in the mail. Thereafter mail and phone calls proliferated, and some ‘books’ materialized (see C. Phillpot, BOOKTREK, 2013.) Born in England, Clive lived in New York from 1977 to 1994, when he was Director of the Library of the Museum of Modern Art. He is now back in London working as a writer and curator.