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    the insider-outsider
David Ebony
James Dean
Untitled (James Dean in the Rain)
ca. 1955-58
Elvis Presley #1
ca. 1956-57
Untitled mailing
Untitled mailing (If Tears are Dropped...)
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Keir Dullea
Keir Dullea Gone Tomorrow
Untitled (Ray Johnson with Duchamp)
Untitled mailing (Bunnyhead)
ca. 1980s
Letter $10,000 Each Mailing
ca. 1980s
Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson
Photo Bill Wilson
"Ray Johnson: Correspondences," Jan. 14-Mar. 21, 1999, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

Ray Johnson's death by drowning in 1995 was an apparent suicide that remains a persistent art world mystery. Now the artist, whose work is engaged with notions of celebrity, is poised to achieve a level of celebrity of his own. "Ray Johnson: Correspondences," which has just opened at the Whitney Museum, presents some 200 works by the mail-art maestro who founded the New York Correspondence School in the late 1950s.

Ray Johnson would certainly not have approved of the show. It is scholarly, in-depth, concise, consistent, illuminating and serious -- things that have little to do with his art, which is irrational, lighthearted, often silly, irreverently imprecise and inconsistent. In keeping with his Fluxus roots, Johnson would have found a way to add some chaos to the proceedings. As a notoriously difficult artist for dealers, collectors and curators to work with, he most likely would have thrown a wrench into this project to keep it from happening at all.

Organized by Donna De Salvo, curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Oh. (where it is scheduled to appear in early 2000), the show focuses on his elegant and mostly intimate-sized collages featuring schematic portraits interlaced with captions and punning wordplay, carefully rendered with quirky, highly stylized hand lettering and rubber stamps.

Some examples of the doodles, notes and funky and fascinating found objects he regularly mailed to friends and acquaintances are here, but not nearly as many as in the retrospective organized by Feigen Gallery in New York soon after the artist's death. Also on view are vitrines filled with documentary material and memorabilia, plus two video monitors with constantly running films featuring the artist and his work.

De Salvo's approach lends clarity, if not a sense of purpose, to the development of Johnson's seemingly disjointed oeuvre. Arranged chronologically, the Whitney exhibition begins with Johnson's surprisingly accomplished abstract paintings from the early '50s. These colorful and meticulously executed geometric designs reflect his studies under Josef Albers at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s.

Also on view are some striking abstract collages and constructions from the collection of the sculptor Richard Lippold, an intimate companion of the early years to whom Johnson affectionately paid tribute in his work for the rest of his life. Some of these pieces recall the delicately off-handed work of Richard Tuttle, such as the small yellow paper construction that looks like a piece of pre-Columbian gold jewelry. These works show a graceful formal beauty and a certain wispy romanticism.

By the mid-1950s, movie star images, especially of Shirley Temple and Elvis, already appear in the work. Photo-collages such as Untitled (Elvis Presley #1) or Untitled (James Dean in the Rain), from the mid-50s, exude a tongue-in-cheek humor and camp irony that anticipate Pop art. Familiar and not so familiar names of film and recording stars appear alongside names of literary and art world figures and friends. Sometimes the juxtapositions of names have a jarring effect, like those on a misguided seating chart for some bizarre banquet. In the work, Johnson would not hesitate to place Dick Higgins' name next to Shelley Duvall's, for instance, or to team Cher with Mondrian, and Yukio Mishima with Twiggy.

One comes to expect the unexpected from Johnson. Rene Magritte, for example, features a central image of actor Montgomery Clift rather than the Belgian artist. And in Keir Dullea Gone Tomorrow, a photo of artist Ed Ruscha dominates the composition instead of Dullea, the star of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Johnson always said that Charles Burchfield was his favorite painter, yet, in his own work, which is permeated by Dada gestures and absurdist non-sequiturs, he thwarts Burchfield's sense of a communion with nature. Instead, Johnson, inspired by Ernst, Schwitters, Duchamp and especially Cornell, developed what might be described as a kind of mystical approach to the proper name. He invented a schematic portraiture using abstracted bunny heads or sometimes a duck head, which he drew over and over, labeling each image with the name of a celebrity or a friend.

Johnson's early work is encapsulated in his seminal 1965 book The Paper Snake, a collection of poems and drawings, which was one of the first-ever artist's books. A work in the show such as the Untitled mailing (If tears are Dropped...), 1960, is an example of the idiosyncratic poetry similar to his pieces included in the book.

Isolated in his home in suburban Locust Valley, Long Island, Johnson worked diligently on these meticulous collages. Few people were invited to see them. Nor did dealers or collectors show much interest in them. However, every Saturday he ventured into Manhattan to gather ideas, materials and subjects for new collages and mailings. He was a SoHo fixture at gallery openings and hung out on West Broadway, usually surrounded by his entourage for the day, an unlikely assortment of friends, usually artists and writers, and one or two newcomers to the scene. He had a reputation for knowing everybody, and for generously offering to introduce new friends to whomever they wished to meet. I couldn't doubt the claims when, soon after I moved to the city in the mid-1970s, he introduced me to Andy Warhol and my favorite artist at the time, Malcolm Morley.

On Saturday nights Johnson hit the leather bars -- to socialize, not to cruise. He was a beloved figure in some of these places, where his witticisms would lighten the often dreadfully serious business of looking for love. Sipping on a soft drink -- he never drank alcohol or did drugs -- Johnson had friends in stitches with stories such as the one about the obstreperous Fluxus poet Albert Fine, who disrupted an Oldenburg opening at Castelli by shouting that the artist was a "size queen." Or the story about the time his friend, the sculptor May Wilson, received a valuable "dots" painting from the artist Larry Poons. She promptly sanded it, painted it black and used it to cover a patio table.

These weekend experiences were reflected in the weekday mailings in which correspondents often received Xeroxed rows of bunny heads bearing names of stars and friends, and sometimes references to private incidents only Ray Johnson insiders would know about. One untitled work in the show, for example, has a caption that reads, "Dear David Bourdon, Please tell Jill Johnston there's a road out there called Anna May Wong." One could attempt to unravel these bits of information, but there's no hope that any shred of meaning could be garnered from it all.

Johnson was as productive as ever throughout the 1980s, but the show seems to trail off after the late '70s and early '80s, when he was engaged in a long series of silhouette portraits of famous friends. There are only a few works on display from the 1980s and early 1990s, but they are among the most powerful pieces in the show. One of the most memorable is Green (1989), a self-portrait collage in which the artist's face is obscured by a rectangular patch of gaudy, kelly green carpeting.

According to De Salvo, there are no works from his last days in 1995, when his death on Jan. 13, at age 67, stunned the New York art community. Some say he was despondent over the numerous friends that had died from AIDS. Others speculate that he had planned his suicide for a long time and that clues may be found in his work. In any case, art audiences have recently elevated Johnson to the lofty status of art star and cult celebrity, just like one of the favored subjects in his art.

DAVID EBONY is assistant managing editor of Art in America.