Ray Johnson was a pop artist, friend of Andy Warhol and one of the key figures in international mail art (aestheticised communication in the form of a ‘paper net’ that acted as a precursor to the world wide web). He committed suicide in 1995 and had dropped out of the New York art scene years before that, opting instead for non-commercial underground activity. Johnson was a major figure in the early years of American pop art, but more recently had been largely forgotten beyond an international underground scene that idolised him. I was in communication with Johnson in the 1980s when he initiated a correspondence with me. I’d been aware of him for quite some time before he wrote to me, but I’d never mailed him anything because I figured he must be inundated with letters and requests. That said, Johnson was very much a countercultural figure, so it felt strange to attend a major retrospective of his work at Alex Sainsbury’s new gallery Raven Row in Spitalfields, London.
The show covers everything from Johnson’s early collage works right through to his mail art material. It is the largest exhibition of Ray’s art ever seen in Europe, but he made so much that no retrospective could ever be comprehensive. I’m told about 60 percent of the work in the Raven Row show is owned by Johnson’s estate, who lent it framed, so a less formal system of display was unfortunately not an option. Much of Johnson’s work was ephemeral and designed to be handled by the recipient rather than placed under glass in a gallery. Seen out of context by people who don’t understand that Johnson set out to circumvent the conventional gallery system, his playful output might prove impenetrable. Those who encounter this problem need to think of Fluxus and the Situationists, then take a side-ways leap.
The opening was packed and the overwhelming majority of those attending were London art world insiders who seemed to have no idea who Ray Johnson was, and the few who paid any attention to his work appeared very puzzled by it. Most were present for the event, the first night of Alex Sainsbury’s huge new non-commercial gallery. The following is a typical example of an overheard conversation:
Person A: What do you think of this then?
Person B: It’s a great way to spend 30 million pounds!
Alex Sainsbury refuses to be drawn on how much money he’s put into his new space, so unless this overheard conversation was between Raven Row insiders (which I doubt), then the figure cited is just a wild guess. That said, it’s obvious a lot of money has been sunk into the venture. The outer fabric consists of two Grade I listed eighteenth-century Huguenot silk merchants’ houses and the nondescript commercial building that stood behind them. Likewise, many hours of hard thinking clearly went into deciding what to strip out and what to retain. The architects responsible are 6a, a team made up of Tom Emerson and Stephanie MacDonald, who originally met as students at the Royal College of Art and now live together as a couple. The RCA connection is continued in the form of Sainsbury’s assistant Alice Motard, who has just graduated from the curation course taught at that college. The space is clean but retains plenty of period details. I can’t say the rococo plasterwork is to my taste, but it is apparently completely authentic. The building is located just off Bishopsgate on the edge of the City of London, and close to Liverpool Street station. From the front windows you can see the site of the final and most bloody Jack The Ripper slaying, whose victim Mary Kelly shares a name with an iconic 20th century feminist artist. At the time of the murder in 1888 the location was known as Dorset Street, but it is now a multi-storey car park. For much of the 20th century neighbouring Artillery Lane in which Raven Row stands was also run down, and a doss house situated just yards from this tasteful new art venture only closed down 10 or so years ago.
Alex Sainsbury is a keen observer of the London art scene and with Raven Row he has set out to transform it by introducing important but neglected artists to an overly commercialised sector. He’s certainly done his homework, I was introduced to him at an opening in Hackney last year and he not only knew who I was but also that I’d been in correspondence with Ray Johnson. Likewise, he’s written the main catalogue essay for the Johnson show, not something I could imagine Charles Saatchi doing. The Raven Row opening was a crush and those present were very much from the middle and lower-strata of the art world. I spotted no big names. The artists I ran into included photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, film-maker Mark Waller, mixed media experts Jemima Stehli and Janette Parris, magician turned artist Jonathan Allen, sound manipulator Richard Crow, and S. E. Barnet (currently showing in the tiny Five Years Gallery in Hackney). In terms of curators those visible to me were mainly from the assistant level at the Tate, Ben Borthwick rather than the likes of director Nicholas Serota. It might be this mix of people was a tactical decision on Sainsbury’s part and that he is looking to have an impact on the art scene from ground level up rather than working with a top downwards model of influence. Or it could be that a more select and sedate event with even better food and wine was held for major art world names before the hoi polloi arrived. Your guess is as good as mine! That said, Camden Arts Centre director Jenni Lomax was all present and correct alongside the hoi polloi, but then she also sits on the Raven Row board.
Leaving aside Clive Phillpot, Simon Ford and Alastair Brotchie, the opening appeared bereft of those I know with a long term interest in Ray Johnson. But then most of those who’ve dug Johnson since way back when operate completely outside conventional art circuits. I didn’t see anyone I knew in the eighties who’d been involved in the London mail art scene. The Johnson preview was very crowded but even so my impression was the likes of Mark Pawson, Stefan Szczelkun, Mike Leigh, Hazel Jones and David Jarvis, just weren’t present. Which is a shame because I’m sure they’d have really enjoyed seeing so much of Ray’s work in one place, while the good wine would have totally grooved them. Simon Ford asked me if there were still hardcore mail artists about who might turn up to protest against a curated Ray Johnson show. My feeling was that the overwhelming majority of the anti-art brigade would be very happy to see his work getting wider exposure. Fordie also expressed surprise that Tate archivist Adrian Glew didn’t appear to be present, since he has a long history of interest in the marginal arts. Perhaps Glew was busy elsewhere, I certainly didn’t clock him at the Johnson beano.
Eventually most people moved on from the overcrowded gallery and across Commercial Street to Christ Church, a Hawksmoor building, which was the scene of further partying. A lot of people had emerged from the woodwork for the event and I found myself talking to the likes of Kodwo Eshun and Jane Rollo. I hadn’t seen a London art world shindig that was quite so rockin’ for at least two years. So it felt particularly surreal that it should be for a major Ray Johnson retrospective! But with this nudge from Alex Sainsbury, and a little help from stuff like John W. Walter’s 2002 Johnson documentary How To Draw A Bunny, it can’t be long before the entire London art world starts acting as if it grew up on Ray’s oeuvre.
Please Add To & Return To Ray Johnson is on at Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, London E1 7LS, 28 February-10 May 2009.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!