Arts

Ray Johnson’s Elusive Dream: ‘I Want to Dance’

“I am now so very excited I cannot sleep,” the artist Ray Johnson wrote to a friend after a visit to Chicago in 1949. “I have suddenly got the idea in my head that I want to dance.”

Johnson, 22 and fresh out of art school, had immersed himself in books on modern dance subjects — Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham. “In Chicago we saw the wonderful dancer Sybil Shearer,” he wrote. “I was taken with her — respected her so much because she seemed such a complete artist in every way.”

Johnson, the collage and mail artist whom The New York Times once called “New York’s most famous unknown artist,” did not go on to have a career in dance. But his animated letter raises an interesting question: What does dance have to do with his art?

The recent discovery of a group of early Johnson collages sheds some light. In January 2022, the Art Institute of Chicago received a message saying that some Johnson material had been found. The message came from the Morrison-Shearer Foundation in Northbrook, Ill., which oversees the estates of that “wonderful dancer” and choreographer, Shearer; and the photographer Helen Balfour Morrison.

The choreographer and dancer Sybil Shearer. “She seemed such a complete artist in every way,” Johnson wrote to a friend when he saw her dance in Chicago in 1949. Credit…Helen Balfour Morrison

The foundation had stumbled upon something major — a group of 30 early collages that Johnson, who died in 1995, had mailed to Shearer in 1955. “The Shearer collages are so exquisitely handmade,” said Frances Beatty, managing director of the Ray Johnson Estate. “I hadn’t seen anything like that in the later mail art.”

After the Ray Johnson Estate authenticated the collages, the Art Institute purchased them. (As a Chicago Objects Study Initiative fellow there, I worked on researching and cataloging the collages.) They have since been published online.

Previously unknown to scholars of Johnson’s art, these works tell a new story, not just about his friendship with Shearer but also about the community of dancers and choreographers with whom he developed his artistic voice.

The 30 collages are each irregularly shaped and can fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. To make them, Johnson took the cardboards used for pressed shirts, cut them into puzzle-piece-like shapes and layered them with bits of paper, printed with images or text. Several are of period movie stars: Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando. Others are of historical figures and images: Shakespeare, a reproduction of El Greco’s “Boy Blowing an Ember.”

Johnson referred to these early collages as “moticos” (an anagram of osmotic), a term he coined both for the collages and their fluid status as objects circulating in the world. In the early 1950s, he produced moticos in large quantities and displayed them in unconventional settings: across the floorboards of an art studio or between the planks of a sidewalk freight pallet. On one occasion, he placed them on the body of his friend, the art historian and critic Suzi Gablik, making her a human gallery of sorts. Gablik would later describe this ad hoc performance as the “first informal happening.”

In the same year Johnson mailed the collages to Shearer, he wrote “What Is a Moticos?” a short text about his new concept. A moticos, he explains, is associated with motion — you might find it on a moving train or on the top of your automobile — and also ubiquitous: “It may be in your daily newspaper.” For Johnson, a moticos is always waiting to be found, and once it is, treasured and protected so it can be discovered again: “Make sure it is in a box or between the pages of a book for your grandchildren to find and enjoy.”

Johnson with his moticos in New York City in 1955. The collages he sent to Shearer were of a similar size.Credit…Elisabeth Novick

The Shearer moticos were found tucked away in her attic. When writing to Shearer, Johnson called the group “Taoist Collages,” probably because they included written verses from the “Tao Te Ching,” a foundational work of Taoism. Broken into fragments, this text functions like connective tissue for the set, suggesting that individual collages might be pieced together into a single moticos poem.

Johnson probably came across the “Tao Te Ching” at the Orientalia bookstore in New York City, where he worked in the 1950s. The bookstore helps to trace another kind of connective tissue — the web of friendships that tethered Johnson to the New York avant-garde dance community in those years. Like Johnson, Nicola Cernovich, Orientalia’s manager, and his loft-mate, Remy Charlip, attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a hub of interdisciplinary artistic activity. All three were close to the choreographer Merce Cunningham — who founded his company at the college — and his collaborators: the composer John Cage, the dancer Viola Farber and the artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Given Johnson’s proximity to this group, his assertion in the letter that he would study dance — “probably with Merce” — comes as no surprise. But the newly discovered “Taoist Collages” write another chapter of Johnson’s dance story, one involving Shearer.

Born in Toronto and raised in Nyack, N.Y., Shearer began her career performing with the Humphrey-Weidman company in the mid-1930s. After touring briefly with Agnes de Mille, she debuted her solo choreography in 1941 at Carnegie Hall. Like Cunningham, she was interested in pure movement — the body and gesture abstracted from narrative and pantomime, while still embodying what the dance historian Susan Manning called a “gestural quirkiness.”

A 1957 photo of dancers from the Merce Cunningham company performing in front of a moticos screen by Johnson.Credit…Jerry Schatzberg

Shearer was a technical and creative force. “She can do anything with her body” the critic Margaret Lloyd wrote. “She can liquefy it to the point of dissolution, or coil it taut as a steel spring, only to let go in lashes of energy.”

Unlike Cunningham, who made a career in New York, Shearer left for Chicago soon after her successful Carnegie Hall show and devoted herself to choreographing and teaching in the Midwest. She met Helen Balfour Morrison, a portrait photographer who spent the rest of her life supporting Shearer, contributing costume and lighting design, publicity and filmic documentation.

“Helen was her life partner — her Louis Horst, her John Cage,” Manning said, referring to the collaborative and romantic partners of Graham and Cunningham. Shearer purchased land on Morrison’s property in Northbrook, a northern suburb, and lived alongside Helen and her husband, Robert Morrison.

Johnson and Shearer became friends through the sculptor Richard Lippold, whom Johnson met at Black Mountain and with whom he was romantically involved from 1948 to 1974. Lippold, too, was enmeshed in the dance world: his wife, Louise Lippold, trained and performed with Cunningham; Richard wrote about dance and worked as an editor for the journal Dance Observer. The Lippolds, admirers of Shearer, became her friends after Cunningham introduced them.

Johnson had a front-row seat to these friendships, but as Richard Lippold’s secret partner, his position was complicated. In 1949, Johnson joined him on a trip to Northbrook where Morrison and Shearer had invited Lippold to lecture and exhibit work. “A young painter friend of mine will be with me,” Lippold wrote to Morrison, “and I’d appreciate if he could be housed as well as me, since he will be of considerable help en route.”

One of the “Taoist Collages” that Johnson sent Shearer. Frances Beatty, director of the Ray Johnson Estate, called them “exquisitely handmade,” adding, “I hadn’t seen anything like that in the later mail art.”Credit…Ray Johnson. Untitled (Taoist Collage), 1955. Research Center Purchase Fund. The Sybil Shearer Collection of Ray Johnson, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
Another in the “Taoist Collage” series: The works include written verses from the “Tao Te Ching.”Credit…Ray Johnson. Untitled (Taoist Collage), 1955. Research Center Purchase Fund. The Sybil Shearer Collection of Ray Johnson, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.

At Northbrook, the two men might have sensed a dynamic similar to their own. Helen and Shearer, living alongside Helen’s husband, were involved in their own unconventional domestic arrangement — one that Scott Lundius, the executive director of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, called a “creative marriage.”

For Johnson, the Northbrook visit was creatively transformative, provoking his impassioned letter and prompting a new turn in his idea of himself as an artist: the urge to dance.

“Everything seems to have led up to this excitement and I feel it is what I should do,” he wrote in the same letter. “Of course I shall be off on another direction tomorrow; but it is the excitement that is important.” The excitement stuck, and though Johnson didn’t become a dancer, he kept dancers and choreographers close at hand.

For one, he cultivated a friendship with Shearer, attending her performances with Lippold and writing to her. “To let you know we all think of you and your wonderful dancing,” he wrote in 1951, “I am sending you this fan letter, also four drawings I made for you inspired by your imaginative concert in Philadelphia plus my imagination about drawing. I hope you like them. The drawings are more like ideas or costumes or moods than dance movements and are meant to be humorous.”

Those drawings, now lost, were precursors to the moticos Johnson would address to Shearer. The seeds of his interest in dance were growing. What would it look like, he seems to ask, to make objects in dialogue with choreography?

Corresponding with Shearer allowed Johnson to consider this question at a remove. But to fuel his newfound passion, he pursued another dance collaboration, too. In May 1956, he worked with James Waring, a New York choreographer, collage artist and poet, to stage “Duettino” at the Henry Street Playhouse. The dance combined choreography by Waring, interactive sets by Johnson, and lighting by Cernovich.

A pared down dance exploring the patterns produced by silhouetted, overlapping limbs, “Duettino” was performed by two dancers clad in all black. “A note of contrast,” a critic wrote, “occurred with the occasional entrance of two hidden figures carrying a bulletin board cluttered with multicolored clippings.” Johnson’s portable stage set consisted of hundreds of layered moticos. If mailing them to Shearer was one way of setting the moticos in motion, another was to have dancers manipulate them onstage.

The fragmented text of the “Taoist” series functions like connective tissue for the set.Credit…Ray Johnson. Untitled (Taoist Collage), 1955. Research Center Purchase Fund. The Sybil Shearer Collection of Ray Johnson, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
Another work in the Taoist series.Credit…Ray Johnson. Untitled (Taoist Collage), 1955. Research Center Purchase Fund. The Sybil Shearer Collection of Ray Johnson, Ryerson and Burnham Art and Architecture Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.

A sequence of photographs helps to complete this image: Two dancers pose in black unitards before Johnson’s moticos panels, their dark silhouettes set off against the colors behind them. In another picture, the dancers hold the panels above them, their bodies disappearing into darkness. They become hybrid beings: part body, part collage — dancer as moticos.

Johnson wasted no time in telling Shearer about “Duettino.” Two days after it was performed, he wrote to her on the back of a picture of the set. “Photo on other side a fragment of my moticos stage set which was used last Sunday very successfully I thought.” This letter-photograph seems to have functioned like a calling card announcing his theatrical chops. He ventured a proposition: “Someday maybe I could do some stage setting for you since the love of the stage space has now hit me.”

Then he made another request: “Could you possibly mail back to me the Taoist collages since I could now use them in new work?”

In Johnson’s choreography of text and image, a group of collages might be circulated through the mail, or incorporated into a stage set, only to be reconstituted as collages yet again. The ethos of dance — both its fundamental mobility and its built-in community and network of artists — was a catalyst in making the moticos move. Johnson would go on to become a master of mail art, but he arrived there by way of a kind of correspondance (a misspelling he would eventually embrace) in which moticos accumulate meaning by circulating among choreographers.

Shearer didn’t return the Taoist collages. Her decision to keep them was, perhaps unwittingly, also an act of preservation. Had she mailed the moticos back to Johnson, they would have been taken apart and reassembled into new works.

Yet their discovery also echoes Johnson’s intentions. “Have you seen a moticos lately?” he wrote in the concluding lines of “What Is a Moticos?” “They are everywhere. As I write this I wish someone were here to point one out to me because I know they exist.”

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