The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
An Accidental Archivist...
I was reading one of Holland Cotter’s reviews of an art exhibition in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, when I came across a description of a show that was about to close and wished I’d been able to see. At a space run by the Esopus Foundation, Bob Warner, a New York artist and optician, was opening, one box at a time, the cartons of material that another artist, Ray Johnson (1927-1995), had somewhat mysteriously delivered to him—presumably for safekeeping.
Johnson was an idiosyncratic artist, known and cultishly beloved for the collages and mail art pieces that he produced. Back in 1988, Warner (intrigued with one of Johnson’s mail art pieces that he encountered) decided to get in touch and a friendship began, although the reclusive Johnson and his new friend didn’t see each other face-to-face too often over the years. Early on and somewhat unexpectedly, however, Johnson delivered thirteen cardboard boxes to Warner, each one filled with letters, drawings, photocopies, and the kinds of small, quirky objects Johnson used as the raw material for his hermetic, celebrated collages.
Fifteen years after Johnson’s apparent suicide (he jumped off a bridge in the Hamptons), Warner decide to unpack the content of the boxes, one at a time, as part of this exhibition. Gallery visitors were invited to witness the unearthing of the materials—which included magazines, t-shirts, and beach trash, some of which Johnson signed or annotated by hand—that constitute this unusual mini-archive.
Enabling the public to study quirky materials archived by artists provides both access and insight into their lives and creativity. Among the remarkable holdings of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is, for example, a mind-boggling collection of 612 cardboard boxes in which Warhol dumped the best of the ephemeral “stuff” that passed through his hands from the early 1970s until his death in 1987.
What all that stuff left behind means, ultimately, is open to interpretation. But isn’t that what art’s all about? That’s what Ray Johnson, himself, suggested in this snippet from an oral history interview, conducted by Sevin Feschi, that’s in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art:
SEVIM FESCHI: But, in referring to your work, I think there is a great sense of organization and it's very clear the way that everything is disposed.
RAY JOHNSON: But what makes it meaningful?
SEVIM FESCHI: It's what makes it meaningful?
RAY JOHNSON: No, but I say what makes it meaningful?
SEVIM FESCHI: I don't know. I'm asking you.
RAY JOHNSON: I'm sort of throwing the question back at you.