In German the word Gesamtkunstwerk might refer to a life seen as a total work of art, from the clothes chosen to the music, conversations, habits, and wall hangings in which one is swaddled. Ray Johnson lived such a work even unto his death on Friday the 13th of January 1995, when he dropped into Sag Harbor and resolutely backstroked to oblivion. In 1965, he had been characterized by the New York Times as "the most famous unknown artist in New York"; throughout his life, he could count Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, James Rosenquist, and Merce Cunningham among his close associates and admirers; he was considered one of the country's first performance artists (see the foot-long hot dog drop from a helicopter over the East River); his "moticos" and star "portraits" from the 1950s were credited as precursors of pop art; his "nothings," held in response to the Fluxus artists' "happenings," were widely anticipated among East Village mavens; and his New York Correspondence School -- a free-floating, ever-changing network of friends and strangers that distributed artworks through the postal system around the world -- became legend. And still, no one seemed to know anything about him, which is the core of John Walter and Andrew Moore's fascinating documentary How to Draw a Bunny. Even while creating a mesmeric vision of Johnson through photographs and film footage of the artist and his art, as well as through interviews with his family, friends, and creative cronies, the directors return again and again to blank spots in the image.
"I really didn't know who he was," admits artist Richard Lippold, who had an intimate relationship with Johnson that spanned 25 years.
"Ray wasn't a person -- Ray was art," explains longtime friend and Factory denizen Billy Name. "People took [drugs] to get to where Ray was all the time."
"He was on this other planet," agrees Johnson's New York City art rep, Richard Feigen.
Johnson's prolific, nearly compulsive output never diminished, and neither did his isolation. In December of 1994, one month before his suicide, Johnson announced the death of "bunny," the distorted Wittgenstein figure that had become ubiquitous throughout his career, and still his final performance appeared to come as something of a surprise to everyone who "knew" him. It looks like Walter and Moore include these musings on Johnson's death almost as a testament to the artist's perverse sense of humor -- because, in the end, the police investigators who got to know Johnson solely by what he left behind seem to get as close to explaining the true essence of Ray Johnson as anyone. How to Draw a Bunny shows Friday through Thursday, April 9-15, at 6, 8, and 10 p.m. (with additional matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.) at the Roxie Cinema (3117 16th St. at Valencia). Tickets are $5-8; call 863-1087 or visit www.roxie.com.
The Rom have been called many things -- Wanderers, Vagrants, Bohemians, Travellers, Gypsies, Sinti, Zott, Luri, Nawar, Jats, and more -- depending on where they've landed. They do little to set the record straight. In fact, they seem to prefer there be no record at all. They claim no land and dispatch no history, and yet their influence has been felt in music and art throughout nearly every culture to grace the globe over the last 4,000 years. No doubt, if five Roma were asked whether there should be an International Rom Day, the debate would stretch through one day and night, into the next and the next, until the reason for the debate was forgotten altogether. But if five Roma were asked to sing out their people's praises, what a divine racket one would hear. With that in mind, International Rom Day has been announced, and the artists will come on Friday, April 9, to the Slavonic Cultural Center (60 Onondaga at Alemany) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12; call (510) 649-0941 or visit www.slavonicweb.org/scc.html.