Ray Johnson, Jackson Pollock Artforum, 1972-86-87-88, 9.14.86
A complex work that was still in the artist’s collection at his death in 1995, Jackson Pollock Artforum is structured around a highly personal lexicon of friends, peers and artworld fascinations, including Johnson’s mentor Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, V.V. Rankine and Paul Feeley. The composition is ringed by a stele-like motif roughly in the shape of Michigan, Johnson’s home state. A keen eye might pick out the December 1968 cover of Artforum, as well as the half-abraded form of a handwritten letter that reads: “Dear Whitney Museum — I hate you. Love, Ray Johnson.”
William S. Wilson, Untitled Clip, 1965
A scene of a youthful, almost buoyant Johnson shot on Super-8 by his greatest chronicler and close friend William S. Wilson, whose collection forms the basis of a Ray Johnson survey opening November 26 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Johnson is shown entering the gate of a jardin à la française during a trip back to New York from Tilghman Island, Maryland.
Nicholas Maravell, Ray Framing Himself, excerpt from Ray at Hofstra, January 3, 1987
Outside looking in, inside looking out — a brief impromptu performance in which Johnson puts his Delphic face to full use, filmed at the Hofstra University Museum of Art on January 3, 1987.
Nicholas Maravell, Ray Bunny Walk, excerpt from Ray at The Heckscher Museum, April 1987
A short, impromptu collaborative performance at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, New York, involving a sheet of paper emblazoned with Johnson’s trademark bunny head. Johnson instructs a young, bemused museum worker in how to walk along the banner, a kind of dance upon a drawing.
Marlon Mullen, Untitled, 2015
Mullen, who has worked for almost three decades at the NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California, takes the images for his paintings from the covers of art history books and art magazines such as Artforum and Art in America. Mullen often subtly transforms his source material, eliding words and imagery to create new meanings and readings. The adjoined words “in” and “art” were possibly taken from a page in a Time-Life history of Van Gogh.
Karen Kilimnik, My Judith Leiber bag, the royal house of Scotland, 2012
For this painting Kilimnik re-appropriates the Scottish coat of arms as previously appropriated by the cult purse designer Judith Leiber for one of her kitsch-couture bags. The work’s delicately rendered red-glitter lion claws menacingly at the confines of its composition.
Robert Hawkins, The Last Dodo, 2020
A fabled figure of the 1980s and early 1990s East Village art and punk scene, Hawkins is known for a lyrically realistic surrealism that blends humor with biting social commentary and a devious sense of the absurd. In recent years, the tragic figure of the extinct dodo bird has become a motif, each portrait conveying comic resolve in the face of utter hopelessness.
Richard Prince, Untitled, 2020
This is the first of an entirely new series based on the jokes of late Borscht Belt comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose standup archives Richard Prince acquired after the comedian’s death in 2004. The Dangerfield jokes, alternatively handwritten or typewritten, are collaged onto the canvas and painted over in the artist’s hand, extending and personalizing Prince’s longstanding interest in paintings as jokes and jokes as paintings. A slight variant of this joke was taped by Prince to a side door of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the height of the 2020 pandemic shutdown.
Peter Nadin, First Mark; Thumb Imprint, 2002-2005
A key figure of the downtown art world in the late 1970s and 1980s and a founder of the experimental art space 84 West Broadway, as well as the collective known as the Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince and Winters, Nadin dropped out of the commercial art world in the 1990s, devoting himself to a years-long project of reconceiving his notions of painting. This sculpture originated as a piece of clay Nadin carried in his hand on his upstate farm. He cast the clay in bronze, buried it and left it in a stream for months before retrieving it. First Mark; Thumb Imprint is a patinated portrait of a hand and a portrait of the land.
Peter Nadin, Stu Sugar Standing in the Water, 2020
Stu Sugar Standing in the Water marks Nadin’s return to unconditional painting after the completion of the conceptual cycles First Mark (“Unlearning How to Make Art”), Second Mark and Third Mark over the course of more than a decade. Depicting a lone, masked, ambiguously forbidding figure whom Nadin has embodied in performance and films, the painting plays on themes of animistic landscape and primitive human mark-making for which Nadin, whose work is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been known.
John Fahey, Untitled, c. 1998-2000
Cult guitarist John Fahey (1939-2001) is best known as the pioneer of fingerpicking style he called “American primitivism,” whose roots reach back to the antebellum Deep South and earlier, to African and European folk traditions. In his hands, the music possessed contemporary resonances with Minimalism and punk. In the last years of his deeply unsettled life, Fahey began to draw and paint, sometimes offering works for sale at his concerts. The pieces, made with tempera, acrylic, spray paint, magic marker and even anti-freeze, migrated from motel bed to motel bed, ending up eventually in the bedroom of a rental home in Salem, Oregon.
Richard Hell, Untitled (“for a long time I used to go to bed”), 2021
One of the progenitors of punk rock, Hell (born Richard Meyers) has worked primarily as a poet, novelist and publisher since moving to New York in 1966. This glyph print, rendering the first lines of an English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, revisits one of Hell’s first literary works, uh, an experiment in visual poetry published under the heteronym Ernie Stomach by his own Genesis : Grasp Press in 1971. The font, created by Hell using X-Acto-knifed mylar templates and a felt-tip pen, is intended to mystify the alphabet and make it “sexy,” transforming reading into a more performative act, a dance of the eye and mind.
Ray Johnson, Taoist Pop Art School, 1994
Taoist Pop Art School is thought to be the last work exhibited during Johnson’s lifetime. He donated it to a charity auction of pieces that all featured the color red, organized by Barneys New York for the benefit of the Children’s Storefront in Harlem. The piece remained in Barneys’ windows for the month of December 1994 before being auctioned by Christie’s on January 1, 1995, purchased by Glenn O’Brien, a friend and frequent correspondent of Johnson’s. Johnson took his own life two weeks later, on January 13, 1995, in Sag Harbor, New York.
Scott Covert, I Had A Wonderful Life, 1997-2020
For more than three decades, Scott Covert, a pioneer of the East Village’s Club 57 theater and music scene, has made deeply personal vanitas-memento-mori paintings and drawings based on direct rubbings of gravestones in cemeteries he frequents across the United States and around the world. I Had A Wonderful Life mimics an ascension painting, featuring Brooke Astor, the grande dame of New York society, as the Virgin Mary, surrounded by putti comprised of Warhol superstars Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. The anarchic poet and painter Rene Ricard, one of Covert’s mentors, was added to the painting as a final touch, at the bottom, perhaps at the virgin’s feet, perhaps in hell.
Scott Covert, Family Affair, 2015-2017
This spectral gray painting incongruously pairs the names of the members of the Clutter family, whose 1959 murders formed the basis of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, with the name of the Gwynnes, in their day the most famous family of American magicians, whose ornate headstone sits in Lakeside Cemetery in Colon, Michigan, resting place of more magicians than anywhere else in the world.
Erik LaPrade (David Hammons), THIS IS NOT DAVID HAMMONS’ PHONE #, c. 2013
David Hammons, a patron saint of generative absence and artworld elusion, gave this telephone number to the writer and photographer Erik LaPrade during a chance meeting about eight years ago in the painter Ed Clark’s studio. LaPrade had asked to visit Hammons’ studio to photograph him. The number, written hastily by Hammons in LaPrade’s pocket notebook, turned out, when called, to be disconnected, as it remains to this day.
Matt Connors, Clarice Three, 2020
Connors’ paintings and drawings are deeply informed by his engagement with the world beyond painting — avant-garde music, conceptual photography, design and architecture, and poetry. Of the ethereal work Clarice Three, which is presented in the gallery in its own liminal space, like a portal between parts of the room, Connors wrote: “From time to time I make a painting that has no paint, that is more like a drawing on canvas, and usually they are some of my favorite works. I made this one and stopped right where I was because it’s so mysterious and open to me.”
Ray Johnson, HA HA HA, c. 1970
A piece of embellished mail art sent to the writer, editor and gentleman-about-town Glenn O’Brien, a frequent recipient of Johnson’s correspondence. The visual equivalent of a cartoon laugh, and also an exercise in deadpan minimalist seriality, the work holds its own corner, chuckling away.
Olivia DiVecchia, is not Aristotle’s metaphysics, 2019-2020
Composed of two unbound copies of Aristotle’s Metaphysics re-assembled with repair tape into a long frieze, this is a conceptual work that functions as a drawing. Over more than a year, the artist painstakingly combed through the pages of the Metaphysics, covering in off-white gouache every word except for ‘is’ and ‘not’. Working from two copies so that every page was allowed to face forward, she then extracted a musical score based on the placement of the words ‘is’ and ‘not,’ using the binaries as notes, translating language and space into rhythm and tone in a way in that evokes John Cage, one of Ray Johnson’s teachers at Black Mountain College.
Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was a seminal Pop Art figure in the 1950s, an early conceptualist, a performance artist and a pioneer of mail art. His preferred medium was collage, a quintessentially twentieth-century art form that reflected the accelerated collision of disparate visual and verbal information bombarding modern humanity. Integrating texts and images drawn from a multiplicity of sources — from mass media to telephone conversations — Johnson’s innovativeness spread beyond the confines of the purely visual. After graduating from Black Mountain College in 1948, he staged what Suzi Gablik described in Pop Art Redefined as perhaps the “first informal happening” and moved into mail art, artist books, graphic design, and sculpture, working in all modes simultaneously. Johnson not only operated in what Rauschenberg famously called “the gap between art and life,” but he also erased the distinction between them. His entire being – a reflection of his obsessively creative mind – was one continuous work of art. His works reflect his encyclopedic erudition, his promiscuous range of interests, and an uncanny proto-Google ability to discover connections between a myriad of images, facts, and people.
William S. Wilson
William S. “Bill” Wilson (1932 – 2016), born to artist May Wilson in Baltimore, was one of Ray Johnson’s closest friends and his unwavering champion. Johnson chose Wilson as the archivist for the New York Correspondence School and Wilson generously welcomed students and scholars to his Johnson archive and wrote essays that provided deep insight into Johnson, his era, and his work. Wilson received an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University and taught at Columbia University, The Cooper Union, and the School of Visual Arts. A collection of his short stories, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka was published in 1975, and a novel, Birthplace, in 1982. Ray Johnson ℅, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago opening in fall 2021, features works drawn almost exclusively from the Art Institute’s recently acquired William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson.
Nicholas Maravell (b. 1955) is a New York painter and video artist. His work has been shown at numerous galleries, including O.K. Harris Gallery. Videos by Maravell of Ray Johnson have been included in Johnson’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1999; at the Kunsthalle Museum in Bremen, Germany, and at the Anthology Film Archives. His footage was also included in the 2002 documentary about Johnson, How to Draw a Bunny. Maravell was an adjunct associate professor at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and worked as an assistant to Alex Katz from 1979 to 1989. He is the editor of Alex Katz: The Complete Prints, published in 1984 by Alpine Press.
Marlon Mullen (b. 1963, Richmond, Calif.) is an artist member of the NIAD Art Center, a progressive studio in Richmond, California, that supports the endeavors of artists with disabilities. In 2019 Mullen was included in the Whitney Biennial and the same year, as a recipient of the 2019 SECA Art Award, his work was included in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Mullen, who has autism spectrum disorder and communicates mostly nonverbally, has had solo shows at the Atlanta Contemporary, Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon, JTT gallery in New York and White Columns. The first monograph of his work was co-published this year by JTT and Adams and Ollman.
Karen Kilimnik (b. Philadelphia, Pa.) draws correspondences between romantic tradition and consumer culture, bringing a haunting sense of beauty to contemporary art, filtered through imagery from the worlds of ballet, childhood, romantic painting, pop music, film and fashion, time-travel, and even witchcraft. Recent solo exhibitions include Château De Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison (2016); Le Consortium, Dijon – La Romanée Conti (2014) and the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich (2012); In 2011, Kilimnik created a stage setting for the ballet Psyché by Alexei Ratmansky, at the Opéra national de Paris. Her work is held in numerous prominent public collection, including the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and LA MOCA. Kilimnik lives and works in Philadelphia.
Robert Hawkins (b. 1951, Sunnyvale, Calif.) has been an underground hero in the art world since the 1970s, having emerged from the East Village punk scene and established himself as a self-taught painter, working in a style that been called “pseudo-realism,” mixing high and low influences with wry abandon. His work has been collected by fellow artists and writers like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn O’Brien and Jim Jarmusch. Among Hawkins’ first exhibitions was a group show in 1980 at the Mudd Club Gallery, curated by Keith Haring. After many years in New York, Hawkins now lives and works in London.
Richard Prince (b. 1949, Panama Canal Zone) is one of the most celebrated American artists of his generation. Working in sculpture, painting, photography, writing and book-making, he has created an encyclopedically self-referencing body of work that explores high and low American culture and plumbs the image bank of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For decades, Prince has also built one of the best postwar collections of rare books, manuscripts and ephemera in private hands, encompassing publications and archives by fellow artists, novelists, poets, screenwriters, musicians, criminals and comedians. A retrospective of his work was organized by the Guggenheim in 2008. In 2011, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France hosted American Prayer, an exhibition centered on Prince’s book holdings, exploring the ways in which his collections have become works in themselves.
Peter Nadin (b. 1954, Bromborough, U.K.) is a painter, sculptor and poet whose work explores the practice of mark- and image-making as fundamental, evolutionary human functions. The son of a sea captain, Nadin grew up near Liverpool in a close-knit family. He attended art school at the University of Newcastle and moved to New York City in 1972, becoming involved with a group of artists that included Jenny Holzer, Daniel Buren, Richard Prince, Sean Scully, Lawrence Weiner and Chris d’Arcangelo. With Jenny Holzer, he published three collaborative books of poetry and images. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including ones at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Yale Center for British Art, Brooke Alexander Gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and James Fuentes Gallery. His work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was included in the 1988 Venice Biennale.
John Fahey (1939- 2001) was a pioneer of experimental finger-picking guitar and composition, drawing from the history of folk and blues music to create a style he called American Primitive. His work was deeply influential for a generation of musicians across genres, from blues and country to punk and minimalism. In the last years of his life, Fahey began to paint and draw obsessively while on the road or in the hotels and apartments where he lived, giving most of the work away or selling it for little. The cover of Sonic Youth’s final album, The Eternal, is emblazoned with a mandala-like work by Fahey.
Richard Lester Meyers (b. 1949, Lexington, Ky.) has been known by the stage name Richard Hell, one of his numerous heteronyms, since 1972. He is a poet, novelist, publisher and a member of the seminal early punk bands the Neon Boys, Television, The Heartbreakers and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, whose 1977 album Blank Generation is one of the defining documents of the punk movement. His autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, was published by Ecco/Harper Collins in 2013, and Massive Pissed Love, a collection of his nonfiction writing was published by Soft Skull in 2015. A facsimile re-issue of Uh: Flip-Movie Dance Alphabet Peepshow Toy Enigma Boring Book, which Hell published in 1971 under the pen name Ernie Stomach, was published by Cuneiform Press in 2019.
Scott Covert (b. 1954, Edison, N.J.) is an artist based in New York but found more often on the road. A collaborator with Off-Broadway theater companies in the late ’70s, he was a founding member of Playhouse 57 at the storied Club 57 in the East Village, alongside friends Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman and Andy Rees. In the mid-1980s, at the urging of friend Cookie Mueller, he began a series of paintings and drawings that continues to this day, based on memento mori rubbings of gravestones, works that function as deeply-layered, text-based history paintings.
Erik La Prade (b. 1949, New York, NY) is a poet, photographer and non-fiction writer who has spent decades chronicling the worlds of contemporary art and literature. His subjects have included Robert Frank, Ed Clark, John Baldessari, Chuck Close, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg. A collection of his interviews, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and The Green Gallery, 1960–1965, was published in 2010 by MidMarch Arts Press. His writing has appeared in BOMB, Art in America, Artcritical and other journals. His next book, Weather, is forthcoming from Last Word Press later this year.
Matt Connors (b. 1973, Chicago, Ill.) is an abstract painter who draws from an eclectic range of visual influences, including modernist design, architecture, conceptual photography, music and film. Recent solo exhibitions include In Here, Herald St, London (2019); Figure, The Modern Institute, Glasgow (2019); Hocket, Canada, New York (2017) and Look up at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels (2018). Institutional exhibitions include: New York Painting, Kunstmuseum Bonn (2015); The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, MoMA, New York (2014) and Painter, Painter at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2013.) His work is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN, among others. He runs the publishing imprint and record label Pre-Echo Press, and has been the subject of several publications including GUI(L)D E, published by Karma in 2019. He lives and works in New York and Los Angeles.
Olivia DiVecchia (b. 1987, Argyle, Texas) is an artist working across sculpture, drawing, photography, video, sound and text. She considers her practice as that of an amateur polyglot, a non-specialist squinting her eyes at a constellation of signs. In 2020, she received her MFA in studio art from Hunter College. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.