Friday, May 29, 2009

Mae West: Subversions

Some exceedingly peculiar artists were fascinated by MAE WEST — — including Ray Johnson.
• • During the 1950s, Ray Johnson began using images of Mae in his artwork in a way that anticipated the 1960s works of Pop artists (such as Warhol).
• • Born in Detroit, Michigan, Ray Edward Johnson (1927 — 1995) was a seminal figure of the Pop Art movement. Primarily a collagist, Johnson was also an early performance and conceptual artist. Once called “New York’s most famous unknown artist," he is considered the “Founding Father of Mail Art" and pioneered the incorporation and use of language in the visual arts.
• • Until his death in 1995, Johnson continued his work in collage, sent out volumes of mail art, and staged numerous performances. He became increasingly reclusive, however. As his contemporaries became famous, Johnson cultivated his role as an outsider, parodying celebrity through performances, fake openings, and photocopy-machine art. From 1982 on, he repeatedly refused offers from numerous galleries to exhibit his art, and for the last five years of his life, he refused all public exhibitions of his works. On 13 January 1995, Ray Johnson’s body was found floating in a small cove in Sag Harbor, NY. He was 67 years old.
• • An ambitious posthumous show at the Richard L. Feigen Gallery — — which opened on 29 April 2009 (and which runs through the end of July 2009) — — illustrates the shared interests and iconography of Ray Johnson, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol. This exhibition displays an exciting selection of previously unexhibited collages by Ray Johnson that showcase his distinct and incessant layering of re-appropriated imagery from Surrealism, high culture, and Pop Art. The three artists all exploited celebrity — — both their own and others’ — — and constructed powerful personae that were an integral part of their work. While Dali and Warhol sought the limelight in order to promote their art, Johnson was more interested in dodging in and out of it and became famous for being ‘unknown.’
• • Recently, Karen Rosenberg, Art Critic for The New York Times, visited the exhibition, which was organized by an independent curator, Frédérique Joseph-Lowery. She had many things to say about Ray's muses such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, the Mona Lisa, and Jackie Kennedy.
• • Karen Rosenberg writes: It’s a scholarly undertaking with a mischievous edge, replete with dissertation-worthy dissections of Johnson’s wordplay and iconography but able to wink at his subversions of gender and other nods to gay subculture. There’s also a frisson of glamour. Songs by the Velvet Underground, Debbie Harry and other Factory scenesters play in the gallery, along with audio excerpts from movies starring Mae West and Marilyn Monroe.
• • Karen Rosenberg observes: Mae West’s famous line becomes “Come Op and See Me Sometime,” a reference to Op Art. Likewise, Meret Oppenheim’s surname is rewritten as “Openheim” and her most famous work — — the fur-lined teacup
— conjured with a patch of plush leopard-print fabric. . . . .
• • If you happen to be in Manhattan (or en route to The Big Apple), the playful, mischievous, and provocative exhibit “Ray Johnson ... Dalí/ Warhol/ and Others” continues through 31 July 2009 at Richard L. Feigen & Company, 34 East 69th Street, New York, NY 10021; T. (212) 628-0700.

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