Reading Ray 2 by Julie J. Thomson

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

Julie J. Thomson
Independent Scholar and Curator

Johnson includes three Marcel Marceaus in two collages that he sent to Stan VanDerBeek in the 1950s. VanDerBeek was not the only person to receive images of Marceau from Johnson. In a 1956 letter to his friend William S. Wilson, Johnson mentioned he was sending eight Marcel Marceaus to Wilson’s mother, the artist May Wilson. Why did Johnson use images of this famous mime and how does Marceau relate to the ways this collage can be understood?

During the 1950s Marceau was starting to achieve international recognition, and his tour of the United States in 1955 and 1956 included performances at New York City’s Phoenix Theater. It is likely that these appearances made copies of this image of Marceau available to Johnson. A mime communicates through gestures instead of using words. Following this line of thinking, my discussion will focus on Johnson’s gestures in these two collages.

The lettering filling many of the surfaces of these collages demonstrates Johnson’s graphic design talents, particularly his skills in lettering which he advertised in various promotional flyers in the 1950s. Johnson often attributed his lettering skills to his studies at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers. In a 1977 interview conducted by John Held Jr. Johnson said, “I can’t write, but I can sure hand-letter.”[1] To write means to put words on paper, to compose and send a letter, or to express one’s thoughts in words. To letter means to write out letters on something. Here Johnson is not writing, he is lettering as well as playing with the meanings of the word letter and also the meanings that come from combining letters.

Johnson omits the spaces between letters in order to stress that he is lettering not writing. This choice emphasizes the letters as letters, not words. The act of mailing these collages to VanDerBeek, can be considered letter writing, and it is this that Johnson makes literal, he writes letters. In doing so he demonstrates that his letters can only be turned into words when someone reads them; a person who inserts spaces to form words in his or her mind or by even re-writing the letters. In order for the letters to create words and possibly meaning, the viewer must become an active participant. These explorations of the relationship between letters and space is apparent in some of Johnson’s other 1950s works including his BOO K OF THE MO NTH, a book containing these groups of letters on each page, and his 1958 collage that fragments a poem by Beat poet Gregory Corso into letters.[2]

The parallel lines in the rubbing repeat the lines on the shirt worn by Marcel Marceau. The appearance of this rubbing, and what it consists of, benefits from Gene Swenson’s discussion of the work of Salvador Dali in the 1966 exhibition catalog for The Other Tradition. Swenson writes: “Curiously related to Max Ernst’s rubbings- his discovery of ‘hidden’ images- are scientific experiments that show certain particles ordinarily at rest move when someone ‘merely’ looks at them interacting.”[3] The act of rubbing a crayon or pencil over a surface, as Johnson has done in the circle here, can make its individual particles more apparent. With his lettering and omission of spaces Johnson reveals to the viewer how these letters at rest move when someone reads them (or tries to read them). DoyouseewhatIamsaying?

Like Marceau’s pantomime, Johnson’s gestures, expressed through collage and mailings, similarly required a participant in order for his work to exist. As these works leave the collections of their original recipients they find new potential participants to approach them from new perspectives. Here, and throughout his practice, Johnson’s work is ultimately about process, experience and participation. I read these letters as forming the words:

Rolf Tietgens a[bout] that later
Worn out than irony. black exemplar of limp work.


Stan VanDerBeek deep 

Their converted tradition all imp, frivolous mid-air situation of together.

The minimum stifling. Lawrence part mosaic over painting cross their situation.

Other readers may have the same or different readings of these letters. As we see in this section of the journal, when more than one person engages with Johnson’s work, the conditions Johnson created allow us to see the same collage in new ways.


  1. John Held Jr., “Illogical as an Instructive Process: An Interview with Ray Johnson,” 2 December 1977,
  2. For images of these works see Donna DeSalvo and Catherine Gudis, Ray Johnson Correspondences, (New York: Flammarion, 1999), 42 and 203.
  3. Gene Swenson, The Other Tradition, (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1966), 23.