This 2002 documentary on the elusive, enigmatic artist Ray Johnson really gives us a lot more than it promises. Almost from the beginning, it is suggests that “no one really knew Ray Johnson” and then, through interviews and close-ups of his art, the film proceeds to give us one insight after another into the man’s genius.
First of all, if you are not familiar with Ray Johnson’s art, this movie will enlighten you very quickly, whether you are looking at one of his happenings, the many postcards he drew and sent to friends and acquaintances or the masterful collages that he frequently changed or cut up for his customers.
A major influence on Andy Warhol, Johnson pretty much ignored every major bid for success and instead chose to always go his own way, creating work that now seems so obviously brilliant that we wonder how he could have avoided success. Everyone in the art world of the 1950’s through the 1990’s knew who he was and what his brilliant contribution to the art world consisted of.
Never married, he seems to have had an amorphous life of relationship, palling around with both men and women, including many artistic luminaries such Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, Richard Feigen, Morton Janklow, Judith Malina, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist.
For one commission, he decided to drop footlong hotdogs over Long Island. Johnson offered a major collage for $2,000, but a patron countered at $1,000. When they settled on $1,500, Johnson promptly sent the collage with 1 / 4 of it cut off. He did a number of profiles of one person and when they started dickering on the price, Johnson began to make major changes, adding more art, changing some of them to the point that you could no longer recognize the cameo at all. And every time he made a change, he would begin the dickering process all over again, as they became more valuable with each change.
On January 13, 1995, he dove off a bridge into Sag Harbor off Long Island, an apparent suicide. For many weeks beforehand, he had told friends that he was working on his greatest work of art yet. Authorities found his house completely organized with all of his art facing against the wall except for one portrait of himself.
From Wikipedia: “His body washed up on the beach the following day. Many aspects of his death involved the number “13”: the date; his age, 67 (6+7=13); the room number of a motel he’d checked into earlier that day, 247 (2+4+7=13), etc. Some continue to speculate about a ‘last performance’ aspect of Johnson’s drowning.”
Directed by John Walter and with music composed and performed by Max Roach, this is a compelling film, bound to keep anyone interested in the arts completely engaged. The great views of Johnson’s art are worth the price of admission. I highly recommend this movie!