RAY JOHNSON | I LOVE YOU ALICE B. TOKLAS MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ray Johnson spent much of his artistic career developing a complex collage aesthetic. And although it was almost entirely done in private, it speaks to the artist’s deep, personal relationship to modern and contemporary art. A work like I Love You Alice B. Toklas, for instance, embodies much of Johnson’s later artistic program, and his indebtedness to modernism.

 

Born in 1929, Johnson was lucky enough to attend Black Mountain College, the famous but short-lived educational experiment in the hills of North Carolina. There he met many other artists who would soon become titans, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham. And before the artist became a recluse in the 1970s, after which he stopped showing his work and willfully removed himself from the New York art scene, Johnson remained entrenched in contemporary art. But thereafter, working from his home on Long Island, Johnson continued to develop his collage practice, only now it seems that in lieu of physical interaction with the art-world, Johnson substituted a conceptual interaction.

 

I Love You Alice B. Toklas does several things that many of the mature works on display at Matthew Marks Gallery do. Three disparate scraps of paper and board form a subtle, near-monochromatic collage that contrive to form both a spare yet successful composition and an homage to a queer legend. Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s longtime partner, and the women were held in high regard by many of Johnson’s generation, like John Cage. Johnson’s collages often become personal interactions with famous figures—a kind of play-acting where the artist engages both his contemporaries and those of a former generation that he admires. There is, then, something undeniably dialogical about Johnson’s late work. Some works are literally no more than a list of famous people that Johnson has recently had sit for him (the one great exception to his intense solitude). There is perhaps something melancholy about his work too—something that speaks to the man’s growing isolation, and perhaps loneliness. In any case, the collages do speak, and they often speak directly at those who Johnson knew.

 

John Cage Shoes, for instance, is not a collage but a rather brilliant portrait of Johnson’s old college chum. What could saddle shoes say about the composer? I’m not sure, but both do express a wry playfulness (which Cage scholars often overlook). I could almost imagine that other man wearing these to one of his concerts…

 

Dear David Smith and Jackson Pollock Fillets are perhaps less playful. Here Johnson, who abandoned painting (and by extension, medium specificity) wholesale very early on, seems to burlesque two giants of abstract expressionism—a painter and a sculptor who embody that medium-specific tradition. In one, Smith is clashed against Dali’s Crucifixion, which has been at the Met since 1955, and it appears beside a name, Barbara Streisand. Smith’s work (aside: go to Storm King and see his exhibition before it closes) never had the surreal histrionics of Dali’s, and Streisand’s identity as a camp legend and gay icon openly challenge Smith’s sober, hypermasculinist practice/personal identity. Johnson takes Pollock down a peg in a simpler manner: equating the painter’s ejaculatory works to a kitschy presentation of chicken almondine (the recipe seems significant too, as if Johnson is saying that Pollock had his own recipe for aesthetic success).

 

In the end, Johnson’s works abound with art historical and cultural quotations. It’s a treat to see so many late collages in one place, and it’s no surprise that Matthew Marks has extended the show. Have yourself a look while you still can.

 

Four on the Floor #2

Jaimie Warren | Megan Marrin | Ray Johnson | Arghavan Khosravi

Ray Johnson, “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” 1969. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Ray Johnson, “John Cage Shoes,” 1977. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Ray Johnson, “Dali/Dear David Smith/Barbara Streisand” 1974-94. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Ray Johnson, “Jackson Pollock Fillets,” 1973. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Ray Johnson, “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” 1969. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

RAY JOHNSON | I LOVE YOU ALICE B. TOKLAS MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ray Johnson spent much of his artistic career developing a complex collage aesthetic. And although it was almost entirely done in private, it speaks to the artist’s deep, personal relationship to modern and contemporary art. A work like I Love You Alice B. Toklas, for instance, embodies much of Johnson’s later artistic program, and his indebtedness to modernism.

Born in 1929, Johnson was lucky enough to attend Black Mountain College, the famous but short-lived educational experiment in the hills of North Carolina. There he met many other artists who would soon become titans, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham. And before the artist became a recluse in the 1970s, after which he stopped showing his work and willfully removed himself from the New York art scene, Johnson remained entrenched in contemporary art. But thereafter, working from his home on Long Island, Johnson continued to develop his collage practice, only now it seems that in lieu of physical interaction with the art-world, Johnson substituted a conceptual interaction.

Ray Johnson, “John Cage Shoes,” 1977. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

I Love You Alice B. Toklas does several things that many of the mature works on display at Matthew Marks Gallery do. Three disparate scraps of paper and board form a subtle, near-monochromatic collage that contrive to form both a spare yet successful composition and an homage to a queer legend. Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s longtime partner, and the women were held in high regard by many of Johnson’s generation, like John Cage. Johnson’s collages often become personal interactions with famous figures—a kind of play-acting where the artist engages both his contemporaries and those of a former generation that he admires. There is, then, something undeniably dialogical about Johnson’s late work. Some works are literally no more than a list of famous people that Johnson has recently had sit for him (the one great exception to his intense solitude). There is perhaps something melancholy about his work too—something that speaks to the man’s growing isolation, and perhaps loneliness. In any case, the collages do speak, and they often speak directly at those who Johnson knew.

John Cage Shoes, for instance, is not a collage but a rather brilliant portrait of Johnson’s old college chum. What could saddle shoes say about the composer? I’m not sure, but both do express a wry playfulness (which Cage scholars often overlook). I could almost imagine that other man wearing these to one of his concerts…

Ray Johnson, “Dali/Dear David Smith/Barbara Streisand” 1974-94. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Dear David Smith and Jackson Pollock Fillets are perhaps less playful. Here Johnson, who abandoned painting (and by extension, medium specificity) wholesale very early on, seems to burlesque two giants of abstract expressionism—a painter and a sculptor who embody that medium-specific tradition. In one, Smith is clashed against Dali’s Crucifixion, which has been at the Met since 1955, and it appears beside the name, Barbara Streisand. Smith’s work (aside: go to Storm King and see his exhibition before it closes) never had the surreal histrionics of Dali’s, and Streisand’s identity as a camp legend and gay icon openly challenge Smith’s sober, hypermasculinist practice/personal identity. Johnson takes Pollock down a peg in a simpler manner: equating the painter’s ejaculatory works to a kitschy presentation of chicken almondine (the recipe seems significant too, as if Johnson is saying that Pollock had his own recipe for aesthetic success).

In the end, Johnson’s works abound with art historical and cultural quotations. It’s a treat to see so many late collages in one place, and it’s no surprise that Matthew Marks has extended the show. Have yourself a look while you still can.

Ray Johnson, “Jackson Pollock Fillets,” 1973. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Four on the Floor #2

Jaimie Warren | Megan Marrin | Ray Johnson | Arghavan Khosravi

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and we'll send you the next issue of Four On The Floor. It's a great way to discover lesser known artists, and to keep pace with the city's art-world. It's also totally free, a lot of fun, and you can opt-out at any time.

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