The Unknown Ray Johnson Takes the Spotlight

In 1949, a young American artist named Ray Johnson left Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., moved to New York City and began to explore his prolix talents, both visual and verbal.

By the mid-1960s, Johnson (1927-95) had established himself in the downtown avant-garde as a multitasking workaholic: a precursor of Pop, Conceptual and 1980s Appropriation art, a founder of mail art (a term he disliked) and a writer of narratively eccentric, nearly hallucinatory prose.

Most of all he was the creator of muscular noirish collages in black, white and gray that mixed together images of Hollywood stars, male porn and recurring cartoon faces of his own invention — usually labeled with sundry names of his favorite artists and movie stars, sometimes skewed (Veronica Rake).

How did the blossoming of Ray Johnson happen? Some of what came before has been gathered into “Ray Johnson: Paintings and Collages 1950-66,” a small revelatory exhibition at the Craig F. Starr Gallery, organized by Starr and Frances Beatty, of the Adler/Beatty Gallery, which oversees the Ray Johnson estate. This is the first show devoted to this period, and it introduces an early Ray Johnson that is quite different from the one known for his later gritty samplings of popular culture. Any museum would be proud to stage it. Any visitor will find a great deal to learn about how ambition and an almost brutal work ethic can nurture innate gifts.

The artist you meet at Starr gallery is nearly the opposite of his elder. Johnson the Younger has an unfamiliar genius for color, the lapidarian technique of a jeweler and a devotion to evocative abstraction.

The 13 works move quickly with very little repetition, but with a connecting thread of obsession. The show opens with abstract panel paintings rendered in scarily thin lines of radiant color. They owe a great debt to Josef Albers, the painter and theoretician of color, with whom Johnson studied at Black Mountain; Albers’s wife, the textile artist Anni Albers; and the couple’s interest in pre-Columbian art. The dense structures of “Ladder World” evoke Mayan temple facades; “Calm Center” suggests Andean textiles, as well as an encyclopedia of geometric abstraction.

Johnson soon turned to collage, replacing his fine lines of paint with narrow strips of paper razor cut from squares of glossy magazine texts that he layered with color. He then randomly reconstituted the squares, sometimes adding dots and dashes or thin washes or color or sandpapering through the layers.

The results of this mixture of processes are mysterious and almost indescribably exquisite. The reassembled blocks call forth little seas in which fragments of text from the magazines float like wreckage, but also endpapers, miniaturized carpets and Persian manuscripts. The apotheosis of the technique is the magisterial “Birds,” in which Johnson stacked about a dozen blocks of different colors and textures, conjuring another temple or cathedral facade.

Soon, or possibly at the same time, since he was usually vague about dating, Johnson developed an even more arduous form of collage. He started painting on, gluing bits of cut paper to, and sandpapering little tiles of cardboard of varying thicknesses, conjuring both bas-relief and the antique. The hundreds of individually worked tiles in “Ice,” from 1966, resemble shards of ancient floors or frescoes laid out for archaeological study, but also a random history of abstract painting.

The larger works in this astounding show are some of the most intricately obsessive in 20th-century art, and their making may have endangered Johnson’s eyes, hands and, possibly, his brain. But he was really leaving behind color, abstraction and art-historical references to make an art of his time — from his identity as a gay man and the popular culture surrounding him.

Ray Johnson: Paintings and Collages, 1950-66

Through June 29, Craig F. Starr Gallery, 5 East 73rd Street, Manhattan, 212-570-1739;

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