The Paper Snake reminds us of the life of an extraordinary artist, who helped introduce me to Dick Higgins. I like that it remains aloof and experimental, like Ray. Ray wasn’t a member of any organization. Whenever he visited he would bring me some object from the street and I would, with, add it to my table of found pieces. The book captures his haphazard delight in placing objects that reflect his interest in found things and friends. Something Else Press provided a toehold for people into the community in which Dick was involved. The Paper Snake was an early expression of that. The nature of the fact that it is a book of letters is analogous to that community. If you sent a letter to Ray he would answer it immediately. He was a correspondent par excellence.
—Alison Knowles, May 2015
In September 2000 and thereabouts I conducted a couple of long interviews with Alison Knowles about the period of the late 1950s and the early 1960s when Fluxus, Something Else Press and The New York Correspondence School first acquired their names. Our talks explored the context in which The Paper Snake was created and published. It was only after our interviews were typed up that I discovered something that may have attracted Ray to Alison’s mother: the name of her malady, Raynaud’s Disease. It is not the first time that a Ray Johnson inside joke delivered a time-delayed punchline.
—Mark Bloch, May 2015
MB: So how’d you meet Ray Johnson? Did you meet Ray first, or did Dick? Because I know that Ray introduced you, is that not true?
AK: No. I first met a woman named Dorothy Podber, who was a very close friend of Ray. Did you ever hear of Dorothy Podber? She was also a friend of Daniel Spoerri’s, briefly, and was a kind of amazing underground, kleptomaniacal little Lower East Side girl that I just adored. And we’d run around visiting strange bookstores and clothing stores. And she was a hoot. She really was very interesting in terms of her take on New York and the kind of thievery that she would be involved in. She also helped women who needed to lose their babies, because in those years there wasn’t any easy abortion available. She was a mixture of a philanthropic person and a kind of crazy woman. I just adored her. And Ray liked her very much too, because she was very smart and would careen around with him at night also. So, she said to me one day, “You know there’s going to be this party, and you’d really like the guy who’s going to give the party.” It was Dick. So she took me to this party and that’s where I met Dick.
When was that?
1959. And as far as when I exactly met Ray, it’s my memory that it was through Dorothy… The fact is, that Ray Johnson visited me in my loft at 423 Broadway. And at the time, I had started to live with Dick Higgins. And this was after the Cage class had begun. So it must have been, it must have been ‘59 sometime I first met Ray. And he came into the room and I was excited to meet him because Dorothy had said, “Well, you know, it’s fantastic imagery, he’s a wonderful artist, he works with these little cards and he pastes things down, you’ll love the work.” And I guess I’d seen something, but I got very excited that I was going to be visited by Ray.
So I put my paintings all around by the potbellied stove… It wasn’t a fixed-up loft. It had its own heat, we dragged the ashes out at night, and we were there illegally. Ray looked all around, came in the door and looked all around at these big Abstract Expressionist paintings I had done, for the exhibition at the Nonagon Gallery on Second Avenue. Either I was taking them to the exhibition, or I was finishing up with [Adolph] Gottlieb, I forget, but I must have had twenty paintings out for Ray to look at. And he walked all around, looked at all the paintings, and then we just talked about this and that a little bit in Ray’s own strange style, and then he put his hand on the icebox and said, “I really like this.” You know? And it was really a mind-boggling piece of theater for me to figure out that he’d taken in the paintings, but he really liked the icebox very much. [Laughs.] And after that I began—we all did—to realize that when Ray was in the room, we were in on a kind of spontaneous theater piece, and he would say and do things to sometimes disturb you.
What was your take on him and that sort of life-as-theater thing in relation to his art?
I think he was just a theatrical kind of person. He wanted that from himself. He wanted people to be shocked and taken aback and remember the words that he spoke to them, and the exchanges, because they would then appear on collages, and he would use them as ways to contact you by mail… I think what I’m trying to say is that, for me, to have people watching me make a graphic work—usually I’m working with someone. Because I work on these big sheets of paper. And this very private insular world that Ray worked with, with himself, was totally different from his stature as a performer, a person meeting him with a couple of other people or meeting him on the street. It was astonishing.
I can bring in this picture here that Ray sent me. It says, “Moo helped Laughton, Hugh and Louis search for tiny rocks among the dried beans” and it says, “Please Send to Alison Knowles” on one side of this. But then very few people would realize that, or maybe even notice that he’d made little red fingernails on all the characters in this picture.
So, even though it’s just a newspaper clipping, rather than one of Ray’s collages, the reason he sent it to me is because of the hands. And the reason that the hands are important is because at the time, we talked a lot about my mother, who had Raynaud’s disease—the ends of her fingers—there was no circulation—she finally had to have an operation in her brain. Even so, Ray, when he would call me up, would almost taunt me, and say, “How are your mother’s hands today?” And it was that blend of cruelty and engagement. And you say well, “Having a nice day?” or something, but someone really gets your attention with [Ray’s] kind of remark. I found that very interesting.
And what do you think about that slightly—or maybe not so slightly—sadistic side of him?
Well, the dark side comes up because of these quite cruel remarks or, they weren’t often so cruel as sarcastic taunting barbs he would throw at you, and then you would try to respond. So he was looking for a kind of wit, and as I say, kind of asking that of himself as well.
Do you think that that originated perhaps from a kind of unhappiness that he had inside? Because he was so gentle, but then there were these zingers.
Well, he didn’t have a lot of ease working with anybody in the art world, as you know. Even art dealer Emily Harvey could never get him to either let her buy a work, or have a show. He was one of those people, a little bit like Robert Filliou, or Albert M. Fine…
I remember [when] Hermann Braun, my dear friend who has bought Dick’s work and mine for years, wanted to meet Ray here in New York, and I arranged for Hermann to come to dinner. Two days before, Ray sent me a card, and called me that the Mr. Braun he was supposed to dine with would not be seeing him because he would not be coming. You know, well that’s all right—you know—for Ray to do that, if he needed to, but it hurt Hermann very much, and it bothered me. I’d made preparations. And … that behavior [was] constant throughout his whole life. So you just—we all just accepted it. If Ray was coming, or if Ray was going to send us something or be on the phone, you didn’t have a clue what was really going to happen. It was a piece of theater.
His artwork was huge. It wasn’t just what you could see in a collage. These stories are somehow his artwork and it’s almost like we still don’t know what to do with them.
No, we really don’t. We really don’t.
We don’t know how to classify it.
[William S.] Bill Wilson has done a lot of work, cross-referencing the collages, referring to the other collages, and there would be twelve, not fourteen eggs, you know, the fine points, because Bill has studied the work very deeply. But I think we all retain this huge mystery about what drove Ray to work, and what went on in his inner mind. And there’s still a lot of stuff I can’t understand.
I guess what I’m wondering is—you were all doing the intermedia thing, and Fluxus was beginning, and so—did you ever think of what Ray was doing as his artwork? Or was it just, “That’s wacky Ray’s personality!”?
No, I think it was a little more than that. Because, everybody didn’t get it, didn’t [get to experience Ray’s] theater-behavioral things. I think—and Bill Wilson’s said it to me—[with] a lot of people, [Ray] didn’t think it was worth it to muster up a little show. Some people didn’t concern him at all. [He’d] just bypass them, even if they were in the room—he was very choosy, fussy. But once you got kind of on a list, why, you could count on getting his collages too. Dick got many more than me. Coco Gordon got a lot of collages. And I think that as far as its being part of his oeuvre, it would certainly be that these connections would be made with something he’d said, or you’d said to him, that would connect you to someone else. He was very guarded about letting non-artists in, or people he couldn’t play with, like museum directors, or, you know, people who were trying to get art history information or give him a show—as I say, terrible problems with Emily Harvey because she wanted to show his work, but he wouldn’t sell anything. I see [Ray] as a whole person, a whole package. And I think you can’t separate [from] the collages, and [his] remarks in them, that he was gay, that he was cruel, that he needed communication desperately, that he really loved people and followed them for years with his exchanges—all those things… a very complex personality.
You told me once a little bit about those early correspondences that he had with Dick, and something happened to them? Somebody bought them?
Well, Dick needed to sell something. He sold a shoebox full of Ray Johnson collages to a man named Herman Braun, in Remscheid [near Dusseldorf]. And then … some of those came back to this country in a portfolio, and I showed them to Gracie Mansion, who was interested in a show of them… they kind of got out of the shoebox a little bit. This man [Braun] had paid almost nothing for them, actually, in terms of what they were worth, but who knew what they were worth in 1980? This was the person who wanted to meet Ray, and that’s what happened to people that saw his work, is that they perceived that it was a very interesting man, interesting person, that they’d like to meet Ray Johnson. This wasn’t so easy. Because you’d see he’d set something up and make a joke of it, or send you off on your own.
Someone like Daniel [Spoerri] would perceive that as Ray’s way, as I would, of expressing himself to you, in a rather profound way, that you wouldn’t forget. I mean Daniel is not going to forget [being sent by Ray] up to a Bronx car wash. And I’m not going to forget [Ray’s jabs about] my mother’s hands. I don’t think anyone in the world knows my mother suffered from Raynaud’s disease, except maybe my daughter. But Ray picked on it, as a way we could know each other, come across to each other, speak to each other.
I’m interested in how his mailings changed over the years. At first he would send envelopes with a few loose things in them, wouldn’t he? Or, were they partially put together, almost like collage elements…
I can only really speak about the small pieces when they began to be put together. And that was maybe before I even knew Ray. In 1958 he started to do those things. These were without words. They were just the slivers of paper glued down in layers. Again, there’s something kind of painful about the precision of the cutting, and the gluing, which is always impeccable, you never saw any glue leaking out the sides of the paper. You know? Imagine gluing down a sixteenth-of-an-inch sliver of paper. His desk was obviously with sculptor’s tools, I mean surgeon’s tools. Otherwise, imagine it. So those small collages were maybe about four inches by two inches, around that, so he could fit it in an envelope. And they were often sanded. So he would build up these layers of paper and then color them, or spray on them, or whatever, and then sand them. I had a very nice one, which was three connected little blocks of cardboard, and they all referred to something about Elvis Presley, I think? But there was a picture, the Seurat view of the walkway with the woman with the bustle [A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte —1884 (French: Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte], and that was in there too, sanded back, green spray paint, and these three pieces obviously belonged together.
Some of the things that are in [Ray’s] shows are really just things that he had mailed in an envelope. They were just very ephemeral little objects, weren’t they?
[They were] the pieces that I remember best though, because those things are usually lost, except on someone like Bill Wilson. [The works in] Dick’s shoebox of collages were definitely about the same size and height and all, and they were pieces that were glued, and sanded, and had no words, or had very few words in them. Most people who begin to relate to Ray Johnson have to have the writing, have to have the funny way he would make letters, because you immediately identify it as Ray’s work, and most people need these identity clues, I think, to begin to appreciate art. They say, “Oh well, it’s beans, it’s going to be something by Alison,” or, “oh, look at those scrawly letters, that’s Ray Johnson.” And they begin to feel acquainted with that, and it’s a place to begin looking at an artwork.
Is Ray the person you think of when you think about somebody using the mail for art?
Yes, definitely… But once the New York Correspondence School really got going, Ray would constantly be stopping it and shutting it down, you see because that pulled him into the museum world, which pulled him into the art world. And he didn’t want, didn’t perceive himself as wanting others to perceive him there. You know, he was very careful that he was perceived as an outsider. The bunch of us exchanging art by mail, not me, not people that I was working with, to go to Europe, to go with the Fluxus group—these little plastic boxes that [collector Gilbert] Silverman bought up later that George Maciunas was doing—that’s as close as I would say there was to anything approaching what Ray was doing.
What about when Bob Watts made stamps? Do you connect that at all?
No, I think that was just like an artist’s communication, with the metaphor of communication with stamps. Bob Watts didn’t send much out with those stamps. For me there’s only one mail artist, and that was Ray.
I heard that he and George [Maciunas] didn’t really—
Oh no, they [weren’t] able to get along at all. In fact, Ray really didn’t work with anybody but himself and another person, you see what I mean? It was always this theater thing. He wouldn’t be working with a group of people, a group of artists to make a show in Wiesbaden, that just—something he wouldn’t even consider doing. It would be hard enough to get him to appear, as I say, to come to dinner. Let alone agree to work out something, and the whole thing about working with this Fluxus group anyway was that we were all very compatible.
AK: Do you know these books? These are two of the Great Bear Pamphlets. One [“Chance Imagery”] by the master of the event score, George Brecht. But this is the first of the series, “By Alison Knowles”. It was printed in 1965. And since this, the first one, all of these appeared [motions to list on back cover] and I think this production of these little pamphlets is maybe—Dick Higgins as a publisher—I think it’s his greatest work.
MB: More than the Something Else Press?
Well, they were printed by the Something Else Press, but [were] a little adjunct. He called it the Great Bear Pamphlet series. As a group they are more important than the books, yes.
Really? Because they were original?
Well, they’re easily distributed. I don’t just mean it because I had a pamphlet, since I did other books for the Press. I mean it because it gave an American public a chance to see the work of people like George Brecht, Philip Corner, Robert Filliou, Al Hansen, [Swedish ethnographer] Bengt af Klintberg… People that existed either in Europe or in an underground and suddenly [we] had something [we] could [distribute]… So I’m very grateful to Dick.
So when you did yours… did you just sit down and write a bunch of pieces for the pamphlet [“By Alison Knowles”]?
No. I got back from Europe the first time after the ‘62 concert in Wiesbaden, Germany — one of the first Fluxus Festivals – and at that concert we met Filliou and Brecht and Klimtberg and Wolf Vostell and we all did this week of concerts together, some just for a few nights. Vostell and [Nam June] Paik just contributed for a few nights but then someone else would come in. And it was the first performance of this work. And so when we got back home, Dick proposed [it] to me, since I’d written most of these pieces while I was involved with these concerts to have something to do the next day. And as Emmett Williams said, “We must present a united front,” as if we all had been doing this all our lives. “And so what’s your piece for tomorrow?” So we’d prepare our piece for tomorrow the night before, literally. We had a week of evenings to produce, and none of us had ever been together as a group before.
Did George Brecht have any [scores] that were already prepared? His existed pre-Wiesbaden?
Oh, yes. He had some from 1961. The concerts were ‘62. But he also had notebooks… So he had a lot of work ready to go. So when Dick got back from the first trip [to Europe] he started to produce these Great Bear Pamphlets. He invited me to write up the pieces that I had just [performed] for a pamphlet. So that’s how I got [“By Alison Knowles”] together. I think it has a lot of freshness because I’d just done them. I’d just, literally, performed those pieces in Germany and France and Copenhagen. I didn’t have notebooks behind me. I had been a painter so I would think of something at lunch. I said, “What about if I made a salad?” He [Dick] said, “That sounds very good. Make a salad [during] the concert tomorrow.”
Is that how “Make a Salad” came about?
Yes, I was eating lunch. And Dick said “What you going to do tomorrow?” So the context for doing these works was so dramatic and vibrant and a necessity of simply producing work right away, I think, pushed us all to do very interesting things. So you get a sense of why I honor these Great Bear Pamphlets. I think they are the basis for performance art in this country. They really put it on the map in a way. Other things were going on in performance [at] La Mama and the other performance [venues]… The Performance Garage…
The Living Theatre?
The Living Theatre, of course. But, here was a cohesive little bundle of 17 little books [the Great Bear pamphlets] by people who were involved in something called “performance art” which you, most people, thought had always been around. Not so, not so.
Now did you really think of it as “performance art” then? I didn’t know that term was around then.
Actions. Joseph Beuys called them Actions.
I was always wondering when that term came in. But all this was after Dick had taken the [John] Cage class [“Advanced Composition”] at the New School, right?
And George Brecht was in that class?
Yes. And Al Hansen. And Allan Kaprow. And Jackson Mac Low…
But they weren’t in Wiesbaden, so it wasn’t as though you saw Brecht’s notebooks and said, “Oh, I can make a salad tomorrow.”
I’d sort of left painting but I was in a kind of interim space when I ran into Cage and Dick… I very dramatically left painting and destroyed the work I’d done, and now I wish I could hear some of those Adolph Gottlieb and Richard Lindner talks [again]. I value those painting years very much even if I don’t have objects to show. I value the experience.
Do you wish you had those [paintings], or not so much?
They weren’t so good. But it doesn’t matter.
So [you miss] just the lectures?
The lectures. But also, I learned how to organize a surface and then I could step into a book and organize a page without being self-conscious about where to put the type or what type to use… because painting actually involves organizing a surface. Whatever type of painting you’re talking about, you’re organizing a space outside of yourself. Putting something in it, and it’s not that different from a stage or a page of a book.
So how did it work that you were able to absorb that stuff from the Cage class?
I knew all the guys in it, you see, and we were all fraternizing on weekends. Al Hansen from the class began to do Happenings. And Allan Kaprow also was doing Happenings and Brecht out in New Jersey was working with Bob Watts and so these people had a lot of information… All of us have some way that began something out. In the USA, in the ‘60s, we really began something out, kind of fearlessly.
Do you have memories of Dick saying something like “Boy, this class is really going to be something…”?
[Laughs.] I’ve seen photographs. Dick always has his conga drum. He stood at the back. He had a drum. They had different things they were looking for. He was looking for help in music and sound. Jackson [Mac Low] was a poet. You see him sitting there, taking notes on everything; Brecht just sitting there. I kind of know what these people were like. And I can imagine the vitality of that class. I can just imagine it.
And from the class there was one woman, Florence Tarlow. She became very instrumental in Dick Higgins’ theater pieces because Dick thought he was going to go into theater. Which he did. He wrote a lot of plays. At Northwestern [University] you can look at his plays you can see how wonderful and absurd they are. Things like “Someone walks out into the middle of the stage, pauses, looks up at audience and says, ‘Shall I cut the wood now?’ There’s no wood. There’s no one else on the stage. But then the light will change to violet and he’ll leave.” [Laughs.] We did some of those at the Living Theatre, those plays. And then I was involved in a [Allan] Kaprow happening out at the [George] Segal farm [in New Jersey]. It’s hard to describe that time to students now because the context of doing artwork is so different.
I want to slow down, freeze moments, and investigate …
Walking into a Simone Forti dance or something one night, and the next night you’re wandering around with Ray Johnson and Bill Wilson, somewhere on the Lower East Side, picking up pieces of paper and talking together…
Do you recall any interaction between Ray and [John Cage’s New School] class?
Only with the people involved in it. He had known John at Black Mountain College. I think they weren’t two people who were drawn to each other very much. Ray chose whom he wanted to see or send something to. Ray at a social gathering is something you could not predict. He could do something outrageous. Or he could disappear. Or he could finally find someone to talk to for a little while and take them out for a walk. It’s just his attitude with other people was totally unpredictable. And I often think it’s because he was actually a very shy person. And for him to get it on with anybody took a performance turn, and there were people who would not have him in their house just because of what they’d heard he might do… Piling things up, arranging their room for them…
But Ray and Dick…
I think Dick’s little book on Ray is lovely. The Paper Snake. But just to go back to the importance of the context, I don’t think you could have Ray Johnson functioning right now. I think his use of the time and the people and the space of the ‘60s enabled him to interact and perform all the time and I don’t think we have that space now. We have it when a few people meet and do things together but basically we’re standing in different places.
But this space where people would go from The Living Theatre to the Judson [Church] to wandering around with somebody at night to feeding the baby in the morning…It’s almost like an ozone layer, [and I] feel like it’s maybe not healthy to tell kids about it, because they have to make it for themselves. They have to find their own way in the world that we have now.
What part did the 1960s play in the whole art-life dichotomy? It sounds like a big part. Life was just a big canvas.
Right. There you go. That’s well said. A big canvas. [Don’t] forget that this was all played up against [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] DeKooning, [and] painting had been changed in America—whether you like it or not. I didn’t particularly relate to what Pollock was doing. But I knew those men a little bit at the Cedar Bar. So again, that was part of this interaction, this space where painting was changing; actions were coming; people were going to Europe.
Things were changing.
I was being told how to organize, how to do it. All that just broke down. And someone’s work here would be better than mine or mine would be better than theirs. But that all broke down when Cage would stand up there and ask the class to make one sound, in the next minute, that was short and acoustic. [Hits table.] So you’d have a little composition right there.
Could you just tell me a bit about Wiesbaden, what led to your going there, and so on, maybe with an eye on the communications that took place? How did you end up there, and how did you know where to go and what to do?
It was done by mail. The books that people had already written—the poetry of Emmet [Williams], and Dick’s poetry… these people had found out about one another through concepts like Concrete Poetry, and were often in correspondence. And Dick, even though he didn’t actually publish his book JEFFERSON’S BIRTHDAY / POSTFACE [Something Else Press, 1964] for a number of years, I really think he was imagining [earlier] that he would someday publish. Become a publisher. Except publishing—it’s hard with this world of the computer and the Internet.
The ways that you communicated with people were to send them notices to have a concert together, or to show them your artwork, to send it to them. But see, where Ray took that is he made it really his own medium of expression. Whereas the rest of us—I was painting, Dick was writing theater pieces, small plays, a hundred plays, and Bob Watts and [George] Brecht were having everyday jobs, and yet meeting at night in New Jersey to put some of these things together and to find out if we could do this piece together, since I knew how to silkscreen… [But] the easy communications of the Internet, the email—we don’t realize anymore what [we were] up against [in the 1960s] trying to get through by phone to someone in Europe. Everybody wrote letters. You know? Wrote letters! Amazing.
These exchanges were transcribed and excerpted especially for BMCS. Thanks are due for help received from the Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co.
Alison Knowles (b. 1933) and her husband, the late Dick Higgins (1938-1998), were early pioneers of the Soho [New York] loft scene, leading to their participation in Fluxus and the founding of the Something Else Press in the early 1960s, cementing their lifelong friendship with Ray Johnson. Knowles created Beans Rolls, one of the earliest artist’s books, House of Dust, the first computer-generated poem, and The Big Book, The Book of Bean and most recently The Boat Book, all publication-sculptures one can walk through. She continues to call her Soho loft home.
Mark Bloch (b. 1956), originally from Cleveland, Ohio, lived in California and impersonated Ray Johnson before 1982 then moved to Manhattan and met Ray who was delighted, requesting more of the same. They corresponded by mail, phone and in person. Bloch became a Johnson and Communication Art researcher prior to Ray’s death, and was one of the first artist-writer-archivists to migrate to the Internet.