Ray Johnson's jewel-like, kaleidoscopic portrait pays homage to the artist Xenia Cage, whose ten year marriage to American composer John Cage granted her access to the leading figures of the American avant-garde. Johnson creates an intricate collage that fractures disparate elements into correspondence. His ever-mutating visual vocabulary of private asides and satirical puns is associative, but ultimately mysterious. Silhouetted against black dotted background reminiscent of a starry sky, Untitled: Modicos for Xenia Cage reveals the multiple facets of its enchanting sitter as well as Johnson's own, essentially poetic understanding of the world.
In 1976, the artist began crafting silhouettes of friends, acquaintances, and art world figures by tracing their faces in pencil on paper, which was then cut from black construction paper. Structured within its graphic outline--an indexical format borrowed from his mentor, Marcel Duchamp--Johnson creates an interlocking maze of mass-media imagery, hieroglyphic marks, cartoonish doodles and cursive script that recalls Giuseppe Arcimboldo's jubilant portraits made from vegetables, plants, fruits, and tree roots. According to Johnson, "I deal with people's heads not out of black shapes on white but rather in terms of Arcimboldian encrustations of fragments of collage that I apply to the surfaces of their silhouettes" (R. Johnson, Ray Johnson: Correspondances, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York p. 26). Names like "Yoko," and "Suzi," scrawled in India ink refer to his friends Yoko Ono and Suzi Gablik, while "Jackson Pollock" refers to the iconic painter and his lofty abstract tradition.
In Untitled: Modicos for Xenia Cage Johnson sublimates the barrier between art and life, an ideology championed by John Cage, whom he met at Black Mountain College in 1948 when working on Cage's performance, "The Ruse of Medusa." Johnson's art, however, was more similar in technique and medium to Xenia's collages and book art. Described as a "Surrealist sculptress, daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, she [helped] Cage find his instruments of 'unsuspected beauty' in junk yards and hardware stores. He [considered] her the deftest of all living flowerpot and gong whackers" (Time, Feb. 22, 1943). In the 1960s, Xenia was at the center of the developing Neo-Dada and Fluxus movements; in addition to her own art, she was a primary assembler of Marcel Duchamp's second series of Botes-en-valise, a close confidante of the reclusive Joseph Cornell and an early participant in Johnson's own New York Correspondence School.
Ray Johnson, whose devotion to little interrelated things and momentary images, would have undoubtedly reveled in Xenia Cage's multifaceted life. At once grounded in the imagery and people of the time, Untitled: Modicos for Xenia Cage exudes a microcosmic sense of wonder in the vein of Joseph Cornell, illustrating that in life and art, things lead unexpectedly one to another, as part of a never-ending network of unfolding connections.