By Beef Witch, 2017-03-03
Ray Johnson was a mystery wrapped in an enigma who lived his life like a Pop Art performance piece. His final masterpiece may well have been his own death, in January 1995. This enthralling documentary – edited and directed by John Walter, photographed and produced by Andrew Moore – is at once playful and haunting, an in-depth portrait of an iconoclastic artist who was fundamentally unknowable even to his closest friends.
Dubbed “the most famous unknown artist in America” in his time, Johnson is a prime example of the underground, eccentric genius who remains unknown to the public at large, while being legendary among his peers and others “in the know.” Many luminaries of the modern art world counted themselves fans and friends of Johnson, and “How to Draw a Bunny” features priceless interviews with such masters as Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close and Christo. Some marvel at the elusive complexity of Johnson’s art – a series of increasingly intricate letters to agent Mort Janklow is one example – while others conclude that he was most likely from another planet altogether. But none can separate the man from his work – his whole existence was his art, and his concepts of what an artwork could be were an (uncredited, of course) influence on the acknowledged father of Pop Art, one Andy Warhol. As Warhol Factory denizen Billy Name opines, “Ray wasn’t a person, he was a collage or a sculpture…he was Ray Johnson’s creation.”
In the late ’80s, Johnson fortuitously added video to his palette. Some of that footage is included here, though much of it consists of Johnson going to a cocktail party, putting the guests on, making all of them part of his ongoing biographical “piece.” Johnson always seemed to have a sense of humor about what he was doing, and in the film he never once comes across as pretentious (as so much of the New York scene at the time did).
This enigmatic whimsy extended to Johnson’s death, likely a suicide. His body was found floating under the Sag Harbor bridge, by buoy number 13. It was the 13th of January, and Johnson had stayed the night before in a motel, room number 247 (which adds up to 13). He was 67 at the time of his death (which also adds up to 13). In astounding video footage shot after his death, we see that Johnson had deliberately arranged his entire house to be discovered as his last great artwork, a meticulous warehouse of his ideas, his obsessions.
Then again, maybe “How to Draw a Bunny” itself is really Ray Johnson’s final testament, created with a mischievous wink from beyond the grave. After watching this extraordinary documentary, one has no doubt that such an act is well within Johnson’s creative powers.