HOW TO DRAW A BUNNYNR
On Friday, January 13, 1995, a man committed suicide by jumping off the bridge in Sag Harbor, New York. A routine police investigation discovered that he was Ray Johnson, a resident of Locust Valley and, incidentally, perhaps the most "famous" unknown artist of his time. John Walter's absorbing documentary How to Draw a Bunny seeks to unravel the mystery of a man who everyone who knew him agreed was unknowable. (A Sag Harbor police chief comments that he'd never before heard of anyone who knew so many people who knew so little about him.) Through old film footage, examples of his absurdist work (much of it collage, dominated by that iconic, childlike bunny head) and amusing interviews with art-world heavyweights like Christo, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, Walter assembles a fascinating portrait of the influential, if largely unsung, artist as constant performer. Incredibly compulsive and possessed of a considerable ego, Johnson spent much of his time occupied with his own invention, the intentionally misspelled New York Correspondance School. This consisted of painstakingly constructed missives and postcards, which he would then chain-mail to a bewilderingly large network of acquaintances, thereby making the U.S. Post Office the chief distributor of his art.
Johnson was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, and attended the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, studying with Joseph Albers and Willem DeKooning. He moved to Manhattan and by 1955, was using painted-over, cut-up images of James Dean and Elvis Presley in his work. This pop imagery would soon appear in the work of Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, a Johnson buddy, who would himself famously depict Elvis. Johnson also staged happenings, which he called "nothings," in which he'd do things like endlessly flay a cardboard box with his belt. Shy and reclusive, but also something of a gay gadfly about-town, it seemed to many that he lived his life like a game. Commercial success eluded him and he was probably mostly to blame, for the insanely baroque complexities through which he would lead prospective dealers and collectors, trying to affix a monetary value to his work. This writer remembers often hearing about Johnson from various artist friends, who would always intone his name with awe and then almost immediately mention the mythic Warhol connection. Walter gets closest to exposing the essence of this human enigma when he interviews one friend who describes being shocked when a gleeful Johnson once took him to the notoriously hard-core gay leather bar, The Mine Shaft. And, at the film's end, when the camera probes the interior of Johnson's modest-looking Locust Valley home, it's a post-modern unearthing akin to King Tut's tomb. Obsessively organized and arranged artworks and materials occupy every square inch in lieu of furniture, the whole dominated by a single, deadpan self-portrait.