This collage by Ray Johnson is entitled Mark, and a photograph of an artist acquaintance of Johnson’s, Mark Lancaster, does indeed appear prominently near the center of the piece. As with all of Johnson’s work, however, the larger meaning of the collage is not at all straightforward. For viewers, the challenge and the pleasure lie in sorting out the numerous riddles and allusions the artist offers up. This work, and, in fact, all of the artist’s work, is shot through with a sly wit that Johnson carefully cultivated. To understand the work is to accept and appreciate his brand of humor. Mark, primarily monochromatic with some color accents, is replete with images, words, and puns both visual and verbal. References to art world personalities abound. Dorothy Herzka, along with references to Fluxus artist George Brecht. There are also numerous references to literary figures and movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era. The total effect of the collage is that of a dense, complex web of interlocking associations and references, seemingly made for Johnson to understand and others to sort out.
If the exact meanings of the collage must be arrived at slowly, the visual pleasures are there to be appreciated immediately. The
entire surface is scattered with words and phrases lettered in Johnson’s precise hand; a handwriting that seems to actually evoke his sense of humor in visual form. Ink drawings portray numerous symbols of Johnson’s own devising (they recur throughout his
work). Parts of the collage surface are built up with what critics call “tesserae,” cut and painted pieces of illustration board, similar to tiles, that Johnson used to build three-dimensional areas upon the collage surface. Although the exterior borders of the collage are at right angles, the interior contours have a “shaped” character, in the same way that we would describe a shaped canvas, one that doesn’t follow a typical rectangular configuration. This gives the work a heightened sense of being an object of this world, rather than a painterly illusion; a quality that collages already tend to possess as an essential defining aspect.
Johnson was an enigmatic figure. Both well-known to many in the New York art world and at the same time an outsider who communicated with his many art world acquaintances predominantly via his mail art- an art form that he himself invented. Johnson’s art demanded that viewers become active participates in order for the meaning and experience of the work fully to express itself. Richard L. Feigen, an art dealer who manages the artist’s estate, and a long-time acquaintance of Johnson’s, described his collages as “beautiful little constructions of paper glued together to various thicknesses, covered with words and images, worried and rubbed to a lovely pastel finish in such tones as roses and greys. All a very elusive poetry that made you wonder what it meant but left you in no doubt that this is what art is all about.” (R. Feigen, Ray Johnson 1927-1995: A Memorial Exhibition, New York, 1995).