How do you draw a Ray Johnson? The artist’s contours can be difficult to trace. Johnson had been living in seclusion on Long Island for nearly thirty years, appearing mostly through the art he sent friends and strangers in the mail, before he jumped off a Sag Harbor bridge in January 1995. Yet he was also a queer gadabout whose extensive network—established in person and maintained by post—led his friends in the three-artist collective General Idea to affectionately dub him “Dada Daddy.”
In “What a Dump” at David Zwirner, curated by writer Jarrett Earnest, those friendships are represented quite literally in a series of silhouettes that Johnson completed between 1976 and 1989, which adorns the gallery’s back wall. A profile of his Black Mountain College classmate Ruth Asawa appears alongside those of Kenneth Anger, Scott Burton, Louise Nevelson, and many others. Elsewhere, silhouettes of figures such as William Burroughs are incorporated into densely layered collages that employ the cut-up technique Burroughs used in his own writing. Camp icons James Dean, Bette Midler, and Liza Minnelli crop up like the mementos of an obsessive fangirl in clippings from magazines and newspapers.
Anchoring the show is Johnson’s 1957 cover design for the New Directions paperback edition of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886). The design featured Étienne Carjat’s 1871 photograph of the enfant terrible, enlarged to reveal the grain of benday dots, which would later resurface as a paper mask in David Wojnarowicz’s 1978–79 series “Arthur Rimbaud in New York,” excerpted here. In 1971, Johnson invited readers of an art magazine to modify a page printed with the poet’s mug and mail it back to him. A grid of their submissions shows Rimbaud painted in various stages of drag, his image dissolving into caricature and contradiction.
“Every image is a self image. Every image is a mirror,” wrote General Idea in the inaugural 1972 issue of FILE, the Toronto-based collective’s satirical art magazine. The line, a retooling of Rimbaud’s dictum “I is another,” could describe the art Johnson mailed them throughout the ’70s, which was often adorned with portraits of celebrities as identical cartoon bunnies. Exchanged among queer artists, the cartoons seem to claim both the predilection for dress-up and the camp appropriation of certain idols as coded markers for homosexuality. “Judy,” for Judy Garland, was once a popular shorthand for “gay man”; Johnson made every starlet into slang. Taking famous names and guises, he reminds us of the endless ways the self can be refashioned as another.
The artist’s language is best read “ass first,” as the poet Kevin Killian suggested in 2014. In Untitled (The Poet The Poem), 1994, a portrait of a bare backside labeled “The Poet” floats above an abstract collage titled “The Poem.” Employing humor to shit on convention, Johnson godfathered an irreverent community of queers and—through the form, content, and circulation of his work—embodied what Frank O’Hara called “personism,” an art “evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity.” As Dada Daddy, Johnson loved to play corrupter and voyeur, taking General Idea member AA Bronson and photographer Jimmy DeSana to their very first New York leather bars. In an accompanying essay, Earnest notes that these tours were “equal parts pedagogy and pleasure.” A vitrine at Zwirner holds Johnson’s leather jacket, an emblem of macho gay culture he gleefully painted with pink Mickey Mouse heads. It sits alongside a rubber stamp the artist made that read “Collage by Sherrie Levine,” a puckish attempt to appropriate the arch-appropriator, and postage stamps by General Idea, branded “AIDS.” The grouping seems to suggest that conceptual art and masculinity are both forms of drag, while offering a macabre reminder of the deadly virus that circulated like mail art among gay male artists at the end of the twentieth century.
Earnest has taken the show’s title from an asinine joke he found in Johnson’s archive: “If you take the cha cha out of Duchamp you get what a dump.” “What a dump,” Bette Davis’s bitchy aside in the 1949 film Beyond the Forest, “became an acidic slogan for queers,” Earnest notes, “an indictment of the gender roles of a straight world in postwar America.” Like all camp references, it traveled as widely as Johnson’s favored medium. Painted on the walls of David Zwirner, it flings life-giving vulgarity at art history and dares us to have fun with it. High above the dump, Johnson is still mooning us in the sky.