|Ray Johnson… Dalí/Warhol
and others, Main Ray, Ducham, Openheim, Pikabia …
Surrealism is the invisible Ray, which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents.
Surrealism was an essential source of inspiration for Ray Johnson, as witnessed by his technique of collage and frottage, his references to numerous artists and works, the blurring distinction of art and life and the rejection of artistic institutions. Beginning in the early 70s and continuing throughout his career, Ray Johnson turned his attention to the then most reviled artist of the Surrealist movement: Salvador Dali. He altered some of Dali’s most famous pre-war works and traced one of his signature academic crucifixions. Furthermore, Ray advertised one of his exhibitions at the Willard Gallery by gluing an invitation card on top of a Dali reproduction. The rat shape given to the announcement seems to underline the parasitic nature of his art (an anagram of rat) and Dali’s, who shamelessly claimed to be a social and artistic parasite.
Andy Warhol shares some similarities with Avida Dollars1 in cultivating fame and celebrities, with no fear of appearing to compromise himself and contaminating his art with popular media and consumerism. As for his parasitism, he liked to declare that all of his ideas for painting were always coming from others.
How does the “Invisible Ray”, the underground artist, stand between or near these two great painters who constructed such a strong persona and who were a constant source of controversy and intellectual suspicion? Ray, recognized by the New York Times as “the most famous unknown artist”, who refused to have his work exhibited from 1978 to his death, sought anonymity, and dodged the spotlight craved by the other two.
While Warhol showed himself off with flashy pink glasses and shiny wigs, and Dali brandished a waxed moustache and a flamboyant attitude, Ray did not alter his appearance, but chose two different strategies: either representing himself in hidden self-portraits, or through a few photographs, extremely repeated within his work through the process of photocopy. The same unique black and white photocopy can be masked or reduced to the size of a stamp, which is another way to submit his image to the process of reproducibility, with less garish colors and vigorous strokes of painting than Warhol celebrating his Panthéon of stars.
With their distinctive relation to fame, the three artists built nonetheless an image of themselves inseparable from the meaning of their entire work, and confronted their self as artifact with celebrities of their time (Mae West or Marilyn Monroe) and icons of Renaissance (Mona Lisa by DaVinci, Venus by Botticelli), conflating major art historical references with the popular imagery of commercial magazines.
This exhibition examines Ray’s various strategies of a genre of self portrait which paradoxically reflects famous others, their persona and works, and sometimes the mediation of intermediaries. Dali, Warhol, and others: Man Ray who portrayed Dalí, who portrayed Marilyn, whom Warhol portrayed and so forth and so on…
In his installation The Dream of Venus (1939), Dali merged Mona Lisa with St John the Baptist, near a reproduction of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli. He displayed classic painting in the amusement park of the World’s Fair, and used the reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings like vulgar posters at the entrance of a cabaret2, contributing to the sexual ambiguity of his Mona/St John. Warhol also undermined the painterly quality of Botticelli’s painting by using the cropping device of photography to isolate Venus’ face, repeated in a series of various color treatments3. As for Ray, his usage of photocopy and collage either repeated the cropping process (focusing on Venus’ feet nested in the shell) enveloped or got rid of Venus’ head, which the artist replaced with an electric bulb (evocative of Jasper John). Far from being revered by our three male artists, Venus had fallen off her pedestal.
…Mona whom Jackie requested from André Malraux
Mona’s exit from the Louvre gathered crowds in January 1963 and was for this reason a popular event celebrated as such by our three artists4. Johnson displayed the American bill near Mona Lisa on several occasions. Avida Dollars represented himself as a Mona Lisa whose Duchampian moustache was shaped into the dollar sign5. In 1962, when Jackie’s negotiations began, Warhol, as it is well known, undermined the uniqueness of the Italian chef d’œuvre and repeated its outline in an advocacy of our age of reproducibility. Like currency, Mona was reproducible and a sure source of income for any museum displaying the masterpiece. Ray Johnson’s originality in his quotation of Warhol’s treatment of Mona Lisa was to use her duplication as the visual setting for the presentation of his self-portrait. His masked face indeed stands between two vertically cut in half Monas. In other words, the gender ambiguity famously underscored by Duchamp was personally embodied by Ray’s represented face, although hidden. In another collage, Ray sheds light on the obscenity of consumerism regarding Mona Lisa, and merged the wisely crossed hands of the female figure with masturbating hands of a male model (Mona Porn Print). One of Warhol’s series had distributed the face of Mona according to a grid whose last case was filled with the repetition of her hands in an effort to empty the portrait of any psychology attached to a face. Dalí’s dollar bill, right under the nose of the Gioconda, also achieved this effect. No sentimental value should be attached to her face. In a kind of Magrittian way, the modification of the Gioconda by the three artists stated: this is not a face, this is a painting.
Ray Johnson, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali have in common a rejection of psychology. Ray’s embrace of Zen philosophy is in harmony with his propensity to hide his face and alleviate the representation of his ego in his works. Treated as a contemporary bas-relief, with small stacked cardboard blocks pasted with fragments of colored paper works, his worked sur-faces often literally covers the represented faces (his or others’) in a way that recalls Warhol’s often quoted statement : all there was to be seen and discussed in his art was on the surface of his paintings, as seen in the conflict between the painted canvas and the photographic imprint that does not perfectly respect the areas of colors. In this loose overprinting, the face becomes not one but double, and its identity unstable: its outline is not clear and its technique hybrid. Dali’s virtuosity worked at erasing the painterly quality of his canvasses to the profit of the appearance of a photography, where no face should be portrayed. Like in Magritte’s works, faces in Dali’s canvasses are usually veiled.
Johnson masculinized Marilyn, often verging on caricature if it weren’t for the artistic cross-references of his portraits. Marilyn with Water cooler evokes Man Ray’s object New York (1920), as well as Duchamp’s Lazy Hardware (1945) which displays a female mannequin with a faucet sticking out of her upper thigh. Dear Marilyn erects a gigantic phallus that stands out in pink above the signatory outline of Ray’s potato masher. Johnson’s images anchor themselves in surrealist history: his collage of Marilyn recalls Man Ray’s photograph of an eggbeater ambiguously entitled Woman (1920). The spiral shapes are metaphoric testicles right beneath Marilyn’s name. Johnson addressed painting negatively through the name of Duchamp who famously claimed the abandonment of that medium. Ray represented his Comb (peigne in French is the subjunctive form of to paint) like a vagina dentata on which bled a dripping of red paint, a mark that contradicts the so-called impersonal industrial quality of the ready-made. The mock abstract-expressionist trait is also present in Dali’s self-portrait painted in proximity with a photomontage by his collaborator Philip Halsman who merged Marilyn’s face with Mao Tse Toung’s forehead and scalp6. The inversion of gender which inhabits Ray and Dali’s Marilyn and contests the star’s femininity is underscored by Warhol’s technique of Reversals7. This technique disincarnates Marilyn, as does Ray’s representation of her body as a black silhouette which a white background enhances. Throughout the different manipulations of the three artists, the female body became a sort of rendez-vous of experimentation for formal strategies regarding the interaction and “relationship” of painting, collage, photography, stamping, photocopying. With some humor and a determined anachronism, Ray added to these modern ways of reproduction and assimilation of the star’s silhouette the art of cave painting. Is his face excavated (or destroyed) by a caveman, near Marilyn’s black shadow, in an assertion of masculinity?
Warhol did not confront Marilyn’s face with his, but as Billy Name8 has remarked in conversation, his portrait as a transvestite “femme fatale” bears this spirit. The male and homosexual identification with Marilyn is obvious in his first sound movie Harlot (1965) in which transvestites of the Factory were cast as Marilyn and the first cinematographic sex symbol: Mae West. Similarly as Duchamp and Man Ray were behind Ray’s representation of Marilyn, a man was behind his depiction of Mae West, Dali (who was the first artist to represent her in a painting), as well as all the men who give to a sex symbol its aura.
Mae West… and others Myron/Myra, Debbie Harry…
Mae West was first evoked in Minotaure in Les nouvelles du sex appeal spectral. By claiming a sexual preference for “female specters” 9, Dali, as did Johnson with Marilyn’s silhouette, got rid of the “anguishing feminine flesh”. The suggestion that Mae West’s face [which] can be used as a surrealist apartment (1934) responds to the same pulsion. Ray did not comply with Dali’s invitation. The mouth annihilated as the receptacle of “asses”10 in Dali’s surrealist furniture is overdetermined as a mouth : it has a voice that speaks provocatively and her lips have sex appeal. In one collage, Johnson quotes (with a spelling mistake evocative of Op art) Mae’s famous line (borrowed from the male singer Cliff Edwards): “Come up and see me some time.” In another he juxtaposes near Mae West’s name the glossy red mouth of the pop singer Debbie Harry taken from a Polaroid by Warhol. Andy Warhol painted the lead singer of Blondie in 1980 and designed the cover of her single record relevantly entitled: French kissin (1986).
Ray’s Mae West binds our three artists. Her portraits by Johnson also bridge the gap between Surrealism and Pop art. Dali’s double image, which exemplifies his paranoiac-critical method11, is painted on the reproduction of a poster of the movie She done him wrong (1933), a popular source which Johnson revealed by collaging a famous still of Mae West and Cary Grant. Johnson’s interpretation of Dali’s lip-sofa presents a grotesque face, in a double image that trivializes the star as a commodity. He copied a black and white outline of the divan near a sample of colorful yarns which one would find in an advertising commercial catalog. This representation, plus the use of buttons to suggest eyes, contributes to the thesis of Walter Benjamin concerning the “loss of the aura” (glamour of classic movies) “at the age of mechanical reproducibility”. Is it to counteract this loss that his portrait of Mae West presents in its reverse a reproduction of Dali’s 1953-4 crucifixion?
The cinematographic context that permeated numerous works by Ray provides an answer. The Silver Screen functions as a hall of mirrors where celebrities appear one after the other in Johnson’s or Warhol’s works. Here is how Billy Name’s “installation of silver” is described by Warhol : “Silver was also the past – the Silver screen _ Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets./And may be more than anything, silver was narcissism _ mirrors were backed with silver.”12 In 1970, the shifting stars of the big screen could be Mae West or …Jesus. Jesus Christ Superstar was shot the same year as Myra Breckinridge in which Mae West made her come back, and who toward the end of the movie rested her eyes on the raped male character shown on her bed as on the cross13. This scene confirms the Hollywood nature of Dali’s crucifixion, as pointed out by Billy Name. “At that time”, Name recalls, “Dali’s famous Christ14” from 1953-4, also known as Corpus Hypercubus, “was reproduced in all media, it was “the Hollywood movie in painting”. As for Myron/Myra Breckinridge, the transvestite Candy Darling from Warhol’s Factory wanted to be cast for the role. Christ was a role of a sort, a template, that is for sure. This is why Warhol used a children’s book for his representation of the Last supper in 1986, while Ray Johnson traced or cut out the “Cecil B. DeMille”15 dalinian Christ, in a series that goes from 1980 to 1994.
Ray Johnson’s Christs
Ray Johnson has traced seminal works by key artists: Duchamp’s profile, the female beheaded figure of Etant-donnés, or Warhol’s Electric chair. Dali’s Christ thus has an important significance, more than the other works by Dali that he modified16. Johnson cropped approximately fifteen reproductions of this work for the backing of several of his collages, among which one work related to Gala-Dali and two self-portraits.
In Crucified Nancy, Ray seemed to make a statement on painting. Nancy, the cartoon character that humorously replaced Gala in the Dali’s original painting appears to meet her end, as perhaps does Pop art. Would Ray continue Miro’s mission to assassinate painting, whereas his compatriot Salvador claimed loudly that he would come to its rescue, demonstrated by the apparition of the famous Savior as the subject of his monumental painting? Hence the struck-out white rectangle, suggestive of a blank canvas, that occupies the right lower corner and puts painting into question. Ray Johnson’s attack on Dalí’s canvas consists of deconstructing its hypercube (the object of Dalí’s pride). He flattened Dalí’s cross and only kept one single unfinished ocher square out of the eight sides of the cross. By rejecting the illusionary tri-dimensional quality claimed by Dali, he instead affirmed the principles of his bas-reliefs, with the predominance of flatness versus perspective, and a choice of non conventional shapes, like the truncated left upper corner of Crucified Nancy.
In Ray Johnson’s collage, the feeling of thickness in the surface of representation is not provided by geometry but by the use of shadows, particularly important in Dali’s surrealist works, and already at work in the representation of Marilyn in Johnson’s practice. Traced, Ray’s Christ looks as a shadow of a shadow and not a body of flesh, contrary to its theological status. Significantly, it is at the precise place where the body is questioned as incarnated that Ray located a gender manipulation. In one collage of the series, the shadow of Christ’s right arm is replaced by the tilted, cropped, fleshy torso of Courbet’s bare breasted woman. Far above Gala’s head, her rounded left female hip makes one with the strong left shoulder of Christ contracting his fist, whereas below her breasts Christ’s legs are hanging, nailed to the cross by a button, which minimizes the stigmatas as button holes. Ray’s Christ is presented as a chimera of conflicting genders and body parts, or cadavre exquis, in which cutting replaces folding. In this collage, the turned away face of the Christ is transformed into a sleeping figure evocative of Lesbos (Courbet’s women). It is in this ambiguous sexual context that Johnsons inscribed the name of a female sex symbol par excellence: “dear Marilyn Monroe”. The collage creates a monstrous androgynous body which contradicts Christ’s virginity, as well as Marilyn Monroe’s femininity. The inscription “Dear Marilyn Monroe” on the site of Golgotha (place of the skull) referenced in Crucified Nancy by four erect bones recalls Johnson’s collages of Marilyn’s face with skulls. A motif also dear to Warhol.
Some of Johnson’s skulls with a dunce hat evoke James Ensor’s paintings, and carnival. It is a common thought to see the skull as the true image of humanity when fleshy masks have fallen. It is probably in this spirit that Johnson has placed two masked self-portraits in his modification of Dali’s crucifixion, with an allusion to another religious icon: Buddha whose head made of a reverted pot covers his face. The crossed out green mask of the other self-portrait of the series covers entirely Ray’s face, and is only recognizable from the outline of his photographed face reproduced as a photocopy used ad nauseam, like a banal insignificant document. However it is so often repeated that the invisibility at work in its usage is noticeable and prevents Ray from entirely disappearing. He is indeed always within an inch of disappearing. We say in French within two fingers to disappear, like the two fingers of the rabbit head behind which Ray also hides/disguises himself17. The two fingers added in the back of a head behind a subject to be photographed appeared in his alteration of Dali’s Christ with the add on of Courbet’s painting. Gala’s face in front of a profile of Arman which a green rabbit occupies is another allusion to the alter ego of the bunny head and metaphorically unites Gala with Ray.
The color green often predominates in Johnson’s masks. Ray had written to Callie Angell about the 1994 movie The Mask by Chuck Russel and had invited Jasper Johns to “go see the mask”. He related his life and suicide to the opening and closing scene of the movie, in which Jim Carrey’s character, near a bridge, sees a green mask floating among detritus as if it were the face of a drowned person. Far from being sordid, the mask, as soon as it came in contact with a living face, became charged with powers_ creative powers_ like Ray with each work he created. The hero mimicked on the screen several cinematographic stars and metamorphosed himself along canonic body transformations frequently portrayed in cartoons. The innovative special effects of the movie make the masquerade vivid and give a humorous tone to Ray Johnson’s artistic career and final self-portrait. His friend Billy Name has compared Johnson’s suicidal jump into the water to the throwing of the mask by Jim Carrey’s character: “there was nobody behind his mask. Ray was not a person. Neither was Andy. Behind the mask was a formless Ray. Ray’s whole body was a mask. At his death, he threw the mask in the water”.
Similarly, Marilyn Monroe’s face (Ray’s alter ego18), evoked in the artist’s modification of an issue of “Life” announcing her suicide, seems to wear a silvery Venetian mask19. Warhol’s reversal portrait of the star (1978) is no less masking in the darkening of her face that negates the reality of her fair and delicate skin.
Gender…Gala-Dali, a Portrait of a Lady?
Jackie, Marilyn, and Liz Taylor were all married women, as was Gala. To Warhol, their marital status gave them glamour, confided Billy Name. Gala was appealing for this reason to Ray, who represented numerous times her married name Gala-Dali, with which the surrealist turned academic painter signed his canvases. Johnson’s close attention to Dali’s wife and muse made him aware of her little name, Olivetta, given to her because of the tone of her skin. In a famous double image of Gala20 (1932), Dali merged her face with an olive tree; Ray represented her with this trait in Olives attacked. The homophile attraction for the painter’s spouse is manifest in Swimsuit man with accessory in which Johnson staged Dalí’s peculiar artistic signature. The artist indeed absorbed his spouse’s first name as a woman would her husband’s last name. “Gala Dalí to: Gala Dalí” writes Johnson. Who writes to whom? The epistolary redundancy names no one properly. It functions in the collage as a visual and literary framing of a non-conventional couple: a famous lady of Renaissance on whom a male fashion model has been pasted. Ray’s marked his manipulation and creative process by cropping the hands of the black and white photocopy of Portrait of a Lady, by Rogier der Weyden. With a precise network of lines, he meticulously followed so well the folds of the veil of the lady and the graphic details of her portrait that the male model seemed to be wrapped in the toga, in an androgynous mixture of costumes. In his photocopy of the original portrait, the absence of colors left the female face drained of blood. As a result, the pictorial debate which traditionally genders the line as masculine and the colors as feminine became inverted. The colors of the original model now absorbed in the center of Ray’s collage are gathered in stripes, geometrically separated, and they “hold” the male genitals. As for the female nose, it seems to split into the suggestive bulging of the vertical stripes and the red pepper-like shape. Gender difference, in other words, built itself on a stereotyped and outdated artistic debate. Ray’s collaged couple demonstrates that line and color converge and are both masculine and feminine.
The representation of femininity is more complex than it appears. By choosing Portrait of the lady from the National Gallery of London rather than the almost similar portrait from Washington, Ray related his collage to the Christ’s face painted on the reverse of Weyden’s work. Conceptually, the photocopied female face of the Lady is an interface, and opposes, in the recto/verso that she embodies, a virgin male model (Christ) to a male fashion commercial playboy. Structurally, the female face articulates an opposition that splits the masculine identity.
Johnson understood gender as a representation rather than an essence and transformed the stations of the Christ in a kind of pantomime in which his modified Christs showed all kinds of phallic and often grotesque and unusual appendices: a protruding snowman on the chest, a soap holder under the armpit, a double snake-head paired with a Krishna dancer… Johnson is no less ambiguous in his quotation of another religious torture, St Sebastian’s flagellation _another surrealist dalinian motif _ since the Renaissance painter he selected, being called Sodoma, stays in line with his train of thoughts. Again, gender is constructed as long as classic representation is questionned.
Contrary to Johnson, Andy Warhol downplayed the sexual aspect of Christ by choosing to portray him fully dressed in his Last Supper, and by relying on the reproduction of Da Vinci’s canvas found in a children’s book. The satirical aspect of some of Johnson’s modifications is present in the punching bags illustrated with a series of Last suppers drawn by Warhol in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat. In this boxing equipment, the figure of Christ, like in Ray’s alteration of Dali’s work, is literally “attacked”.
Ray Johnson shared with Dada and Surrealism a certain aggressiveness toward Christian themes and a violence exerted on the surface of his images. To a certain degree, his destructive gesture towards his works recalls Antonin Artaud: the strong sanding of his works, the chopping up of his early works of paper to build the tesserae21 of his contemporary mosaics, and the compulsive crossing out of his works. One could build a graphic lexicon of the numerous X’s of his works, made of single or multiple parallel lines, and which act as a signatory mark. One type, called the “perforated X” by Frances Beatty, appears to be a strong punctuation of his work and life22. As seen earlier, many self-portraits are similarly crossed out. It might be his own way of “bearing” his cross as one says. Johnson’s identification with Christ is explicit in a photographic self-portrait which mixes the artist’s mouth and chin with the upper part of a blond Christ crowned with an aura.
Others, Salvador Drairy, Openheim, Main Ray…
Johnson’s alterations of his predecessors (and of their proper name, a trait common to Dali’s fancy spelling) are another mark of his corrosive practice, noticeable in his refusal of traditional art historical frontiers. One usually does not mix Rembrandt and Openheim. Deforming Meret Openheim23famous fur cup into a more contemporary mug, Johnson then stuck a sample of leopard skin onto his roughly sketch, itself pasted onto the reproduction of a titled portrait by Rembrandt: Man with a Golden Helmet.. Similarly disrespectful, he tilted and sanded the Flemish portrait and crossed it out with an X made of six parallel lines. To add to the layer of art historical references and media contradicting each other, he alluded to the imagery of cartoon with two long-nosed creatures whose balloon reads OUCH. Fur does not hurt, but the idea of drinking from a hairy cup is, if not sexual, disconcerting, to say the least. Is it the point, or is it that Ray’s contemporary bas-reliefs incorporate time and art historical references as a medium in a sort of singular glaze made of layers of old masters (High culture), Surrealism (an old time avant-garde), and popular culture which Ray always depicted without the usual “cleanness” of most of pop art?
It is may be less as a painter than an art historian that Johnson paid his peculiar homage to Dali. At the time that Johnson began to question Dali’s work, the Catalan painter has been revered as “the most learned and cultivated art historian of the century” by Thomas Heiss in his catalogue essay of Dali’s 1970 exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery. Heiss’ “appreciation of Dali as an art historian” is visible in Warhol’s Details of Renaissance paintings. Andy’s cropping of Della Francesca’s Madonna del duca de Montefeltro shows a motif that obsessed Dali24 and that is highly significant for Ray Johnson since it is at the root of Dali’s artistic signature. In several of his painted and written works, Dali has compared the suspended egg of the Italian painting to the drop of milk which Edgerton’s famous photograph captured. He similarly painted the circle of the i of his name with the characteristic crown shape that a ball falling in milk creates.
Ray Johnson retold the story in a prosaic way, and without any religious innuendo. Gala-Dali’s highly symbolized signature became Salvador Drairy (Gala means milk in Greek), and Dali a cow roughly sketched with a full udder. Again, Dali was the pretext for projecting a gender transformation.
What Dali’s signature exemplifies as common with Andy Warhol is the fact that their works unite two traditionally exclusive media: painting and photography. Dali’s early works could fake collages or blend the collaged pieces in his paintings. Warhol applied the technique of photography in his Details of Renaissance Paintings, whereas Dali signed his new paintings which he claimed as academic, and inspired by Renaissance, with a signature conceptually shaped and dramatized by photography.
All those names
“A work of art is constructed among parts, and one of the parts of Ray’s art was often the name of another artist”. William S. Wilson25
Candy Darling, Ultra Violet, Billy Name, those famous names of the Factory undermine the subjectivity of traditional proper names. They are common nouns. Billy Name is barely a name. Billy took this name from a form to complete. He filled the blank after “name:” with Name. As simple, and impersonal as that! As he confided, “this is so close to Ray Johnson!”. Man Ray is similarly void, and less “personal’ than Emmanuel Radnitzky. Man Ray, remove the capitals (the mark of the proper name) and you obtain man, ray, a man called like a ray, to which Ray Johnson identified. A ray is also a manifestation of light, hence Man’s rayographs or Johnson’s auratic self-portraits as Christ. A third meaning exists in French: raie. It designates a dividing line, which is at the center of Ray Johnson’s manipulation of Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray: raie du cul _ butt crack in English _ that marks in our flesh our symmetry, and therefore our potential splitting into two. This is at the core of Ray’s creative process and personality and it has been applied to several representations of female icons.
That raie is the subject of The Prayer (1930) by Man Ray, a photograph of a bare female backside. Ray Johnson had this work in the “back” of his mind when he created his Man Ray box (ca. 1973). Though he did not speak French, he nonetheless assimilated the linguistic knowledge conveyed in numerous works by Man, and intensified the artist’s focus on the female buttocks. In the five moticos that his Man Ray box contains, he worked at more or less blocking the “rear” view of Violon d’Ingres. He painted his sanded tesserae in order to “monumentalize” what remained visible of her buttocks: the raie. The crack’s verticality is either raised on the pasted blocks, or aligned and multiplied along a horizontal axis. It is also drawn as a zigzagged crack. In each case, above the block, apart from the raie, Man’s famous sound holes are manipulated by Ray Johnson into a shape resembling Duchamp’s vial, full of Air de Paris. From a Freudian perspective, Johnson’s work is strongly anal, not only in its iconography but in its process of “concatenation”, infinite segmentation and numbering of the images from 1 to 5. For this reason, it seems that the intention of Ray’s additions, namely the motif of the “sound hole” and the “air”, is to point toward the anus which one block stamped with concentric circles probably alludes to (in an enlarged size) and which is obscured by the sitting position of the model.
The feminine bare body in the manner of Ingres is no longer treated ideally in Johnson’s alteration, and Ingres’ proper name is belittled as a common expression for hobby (violon d’Ingres). One thinks of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. which projected the buttocks of a woman, synonymous of her burning desire for men, right onto the face of a famous Renaissance masterpiece. The recto/verso mechanism observed in other works by Johnson is again fully exploited in this collage (hence the fetus pasted wrongfully on the backside of the female figure) and works on two levels, faithful to the surrealist aesthetics: on a visual and linguistic level.
Johnson’s artistic interest in Dali’s wife has also to do with another male artist’s appropriation of Gala: Man Ray who represented Dali and his wife, with between them the object by Man Ray called Main Ray (Hand Ray, 1936), a hand wrapped with threads and placed vertically as if it were Gala’s extra third hand to her two crossed hands. Ray’s intervention consisted of cropping an erect finger out of the negative space between the couple, then covering it with a cut-off latex glove that acts as a condom. Ray’s manipulation was obviously erotic and can be interpreted as a plastic rhyme with Gala’s black hat. As a result, the female head of Dalí’s wife evokes more a straight-up male attribute (on the verge of being ripped off) than the famous vulva hats which women seem inclined to wear, according to Tristan Tzara26.
Ray Johnson’s intervention also targeted Man Ray’s name, which echoes his. Man Ray himself had mirrored his creative practice into his name and coined his photograms rayographs after himself. Ray Johnson had similarly objectified his name by projecting his patronymic into the realm of common names. In several collages that are part of his mail art he pasted the encyclopedic entry of the sting ray, the flattest fish there is, a pure surface which makes one with the bottom of the sea, and whose appearance painted by Chardin made the fish look like a face 27.
Ray’s practice is more complex than a simple joke. The incessant task of infinite additions, characteristic of his practice of collage, made him add a finger to the added hand by Man Ray, who added an i to his name Man which his object Main Ray illustrated. In Man Ray Box, Ray added to the sound holes drawn by Man Ray another block, and another block, adding a butt crack to another butt crack, prolonged in a tesserae covered by a zigzagging line, or a spiraling one, or a block that would hide the butt crack and so forth and so on. This is what Derrida28 has called “the logic of the supplément”. You add and add and add and it never stops. A mask after a mask, after another mask, because there is nothing behind, no one with a stable self, and nothing that can stand for it. What is missing manifests itself as a lack that nothing can fill but that nonetheless exists, as the compulsion to fill the lack demonstrates.
The sensation of a radical void, essential in Dali’s perception of himself as not having or feeling a body other than putrefied, is also manifest in Warhol’s experience of life and his desire to stay on the sole surface of existence. Here is how he described his pleasure in front of TV, symmetric to his absence while his static abandoned camera was shooting his extremely long movies:
Apparently, most people like to watch the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I am just the opposite: if I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same _ I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.29
William S. Wilson has explored in depth the sense of emptiness that inhabited Ray’s representation of himself and his desire to stay on the surface for metaphysical reasons extraneous to Warhol or Dali’s apparent superficiality. He described his friend as “a man who felt empty in several ways, and philosophized about Nothing and Nothingness”30.
The abyssal void of Ray Johnson’s world is proportional to the narrow surface where he chose to locate his creativity, giving to the surface of his works a complex and multifold status. That surfaces mirrored famous female faces often masculinized or split _ altogether revealed and masked, revealing and masking _ and acts as an interface, like the Lady of Renaissance, articulating a contradictory representation of masculinity: a Christ/playboy. Warhol and Dali are part of the general dynamics and provide other surfaces and faces to reflect and deform. Surrounded by their own void, they serve as a platform for further reflections and alterations.
One of Johnson’s last photographs, a self-portrait, shows the artist’s reflection while on his knees photographing a cut in half work, which slits vertically the backside of a woman. This process is enhanced by the seam in the mirrored doors of the truck that divide in its exact center the negative space between the two fragments of the work. This thin line, the seam, is the tightrope on which Johnson’s works suspends itself and gives itself to the viewer.