His life was his art, his death its coda


The line often blurred between Ray Johnson and his work. A film offers him a new gallery.

March 11, 2004 |Steven Rosen | Special to The Los Angeles Times
Suicide is always a tragedy. Yet in the mysterious case of artist Ray Johnson, who jumped off a bridge into Long Island’s Sag Harbor on Friday the 13th in January 1995, the act also was a final performance piece.It was filled with references to the unlucky number 13, including his age, 67 (6+7=13). And at his home in Locust Valley, Long Island, police found stacks of Johnson’s artworks facing the wall. Only a small portrait of him faced outward — as if he were staring at them.

In “How to Draw a Bunny,” a new documentary about Johnson’s strange death and stranger life, director John Walter tries to make sense of a man who once said of himself, “I’m very, very serious but underneath it all, it’s a Dada joke.”

“The more you investigate, the more the mystery of Ray’s death is dissolved into the larger mystery of Ray’s life, which is how anyone can live every day as if it’s a work of art,” Walter says during a telephone interview. “You couldn’t find that place where you know Ray’s life is separate from Ray’s art. You can’t locate that border.”

Influential within the art world, Johnson was largely unknown to the general public. Johnson was born in Detroit and schooled at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, and in the 1950s he started making collages full of accessible pop-culture references and a methodically developed private symbology.

Further, he mailed much of his art to friends as correspondence, thus adding a conceptual component to the way he made his art, and himself, available. Superb at drawing, he also liked to make cartoon-like rabbits.

Johnson tried to take his art to a different level by staging what he called “nothings” — pranksterish performance pieces — such as dropping hot dogs from a helicopter or running around a gallery in circles.

Among friends and admirers of Johnson who appear in Walter’s film are far more commercially successful artists such as Christo, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. Among the collectors interviewed is Hollywood producer and screenwriter Gerald Ayres, who refers to Johnson as “a crazy aesthetic clown.” Walter also got Richard Lippold, who while married had a long, intimate relationship with Johnson, to talk.

The 39-year-old Walter, also from Detroit, grew up interested in rock ‘n’ roll, Japanese monster movies and Marcel Duchamp. But he had never heard of Johnson until a Detroit bookstore owner with similar interests invited him to an in-store performance by Johnson in 1988. “But my punk band had practice, so I couldn’t go,” Walter says.

Walter went on to forge a career in documentaries and independent film — he recorded sound effects, for example, for Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II.” By the time of Johnson’s death, he decided he had a worthy subject for his first feature. With producer-cinematographer Andrew Moore, he contacted Johnson’s estate and got permission to proceed. (An only child who lived alone, Johnson’s closest relative was a first cousin.)

The result, as might be expected, is not a straightforward documentary. Walter aims for his own collage-like cinematic effect by mixing black-and-white interviews with archival color and video footage of the soft-spoken Johnson and his art. He calls particular attention to sound, using excerpts from Japanese monster movies as well as music from the band Destroy All Monsters. Walter uses an original score by jazz drummer Max Roach that is all brush strokes.

“Initially, what I wanted to do was do something that was really fun for an audience, in a way that learning about Ray’s life was really fun for me,” Walter says. “Ray’s work had a lot of humor. I felt if I could find a way of making film that was a collage, I’d be able to avoid giving a lecture on collage to the audience. They could experience it viscerally.”

In the end, all the complex reasons for Johnson’s death may be unknowable. To some extent, he was a mystery to all his acquaintances. As Billy Name, Andy Warhol’s assistant and a Johnson friend, told Walter: “He didn’t disconnect from his work. He was Ray Johnson’s creation. Somehow, it seems like he did himself in as another of his performances.”

Although “Bunny” won a Special Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, it is only now getting its theatrical release from Palm Pictures. Walter hopes the increasing public awareness of documentaries and the success of recent films about the mysterious work of environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy (“Rivers and Tides”) and the unconventional family life of architect Louis Kahn (“My Architect”) will help “Bunny.”

“It’s not so much the ravings of a lunatic now to say I have a documentary about an artist you haven’t heard of,” says Walter, who already has completed a new film about director Ted Demme. “For a while, I thought I was doing the most uncommercial thing I could possibly think of. But it seems there is an interest out there in eccentric characters and true-life mysteries.”

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