“I’m now so very excited I can’t sleep,” the artist Ray Johnson wrote to a good friend after a go to to Chicago in 1949. “I’ve immediately received the thought in my head that I need to dance.”
Johnson, 22 and contemporary out of artwork faculty, had immersed himself in books on fashionable dance topics — Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham. “In Chicago we noticed the great dancer Sybil Shearer,” he wrote. “I used to be taken together with her — revered her a lot as a result of she appeared such a whole artist in each means.”
Johnson, the collage and mail artist whom The New York Instances as soon as known as “New York’s most well-known unknown artist,” didn’t go on to have a profession in dance. However his animated letter raises an attention-grabbing query: What does dance should do along with his artwork?
The latest discovery of a gaggle of early Johnson collages sheds some mild. In January 2022, the Artwork Institute of Chicago obtained a message saying that some Johnson materials had been discovered. The message got here from the Morrison-Shearer Basis in Northbrook, Ailing., which oversees the estates of that “great dancer” and choreographer, Shearer; and the photographer Helen Balfour Morrison.
The inspiration had stumbled upon one thing main — a gaggle of 30 early collages that Johnson, who died in 1995, had mailed to Shearer in 1955. “The Shearer collages are so exquisitely handmade,” stated Frances Beatty, managing director of the Ray Johnson Property. “I hadn’t seen something like that within the later mail artwork.”
After the Ray Johnson Property authenticated the collages, the Artwork Institute bought them. (As a Chicago Objects Research Initiative fellow there, I labored on researching and cataloging the collages.) They’ve since been revealed online.
Beforehand unknown to students of Johnson’s artwork, these works inform a brand new story, not nearly his friendship with Shearer but in addition in regards to the group of dancers and choreographers with whom he developed his creative voice.
The 30 collages are every irregularly formed and might match comfortably within the palm of your hand. To make them, Johnson took the cardboards used for pressed shirts, minimize them into puzzle-piece-like shapes and layered them with bits of paper, printed with photos or textual content. A number of are of interval film stars: Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando. Others are of historic figures and pictures: Shakespeare, a replica of El Greco’s “Boy Blowing an Ember.”
Johnson referred to those early collages as “moticos” (an anagram of osmotic), a time period he coined each for the collages and their fluid standing as objects circulating on the planet. Within the early Fifties, he produced moticos in massive portions and displayed them in unconventional settings: throughout the floorboards of an artwork studio or between the planks of a sidewalk freight pallet. On one event, he positioned them on the physique of his good friend, the artwork historian and critic Suzi Gablik, making her a human gallery of kinds. Gablik would later describe this advert hoc efficiency because the “first casual occurring.”
In the identical yr Johnson mailed the collages to Shearer, he wrote “What Is a Moticos?” a brief textual content about his new idea. A moticos, he explains, is related to movement — you would possibly discover it on a shifting practice or on the highest of your car — and likewise ubiquitous: “It might be in your each day newspaper.” For Johnson, a moticos is all the time ready to be discovered, and as soon as it’s, treasured and guarded so it may be found once more: “Make sure that it’s in a field or between the pages of a ebook in your grandchildren to search out and luxuriate in.”
The Shearer moticos had been discovered tucked away in her attic. When writing to Shearer, Johnson known as the group “Taoist Collages,” most likely as a result of they included written verses from the “Tao Te Ching,” a foundational work of Taoism. Damaged into fragments, this textual content features like connective tissue for the set, suggesting that particular person collages may be pieced collectively right into a single moticos poem.
Johnson most likely got here throughout the “Tao Te Ching” on the Orientalia bookstore in New York Metropolis, the place he labored within the Fifties. The bookstore helps to hint one other type of connective tissue — the net of friendships that tethered Johnson to the New York avant-garde dance group in these years. Like Johnson, Nicola Cernovich, Orientalia’s supervisor, and his loft-mate, Remy Charlip, attended Black Mountain School in North Carolina, a hub of interdisciplinary creative exercise. All three had been near the choreographer Merce Cunningham — who based his firm on the school — and his collaborators: the composer John Cage, the dancer Viola Farber and the artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Given Johnson’s proximity to this group, his assertion within the letter that he would examine dance — “most likely with Merce” — comes as no shock. However the newly found “Taoist Collages” write one other chapter of Johnson’s dance story, one involving Shearer.
Born in Toronto and raised in Nyack, N.Y., Shearer started her profession performing with the Humphrey-Weidman firm within the mid-Thirties. After touring briefly with Agnes de Mille, she debuted her solo choreography in 1941 at Carnegie Corridor. Like Cunningham, she was thinking about pure motion — the physique and gesture abstracted from narrative and pantomime, whereas nonetheless embodying what the dance historian Susan Manning known as a “gestural quirkiness.”
Shearer was a technical and artistic pressure. “She will do something together with her physique” the critic Margaret Lloyd wrote. “She will liquefy it to the purpose of dissolution, or coil it taut as a metal spring, solely to let go in lashes of power.”
In contrast to Cunningham, who made a profession in New York, Shearer left for Chicago quickly after her profitable Carnegie Corridor present and devoted herself to choreographing and educating within the Midwest. She met Helen Balfour Morrison, a portrait photographer who spent the remainder of her life supporting Shearer, contributing costume and lighting design, publicity and filmic documentation.
“Helen was her life companion — her Louis Horst, her John Cage,” Manning stated, referring to the collaborative and romantic companions of Graham and Cunningham. Shearer bought land on Morrison’s property in Northbrook, a northern suburb, and lived alongside Helen and her husband, Robert Morrison.
Johnson and Shearer grew to become buddies by way of the sculptor Richard Lippold, whom Johnson met at Black Mountain and with whom he was romantically concerned from 1948 to 1974. Lippold, too, was enmeshed within the dance world: his spouse, Louise Lippold, skilled and carried out with Cunningham; Richard wrote about dance and labored as an editor for the journal Dance Observer. The Lippolds, admirers of Shearer, grew to become her buddies after Cunningham launched them.
Johnson had a front-row seat to those friendships, however as Richard Lippold’s secret companion, his place was difficult. In 1949, Johnson joined him on a visit to Northbrook the place Morrison and Shearer had invited Lippold to lecture and exhibit work. “A younger painter good friend of mine will likely be with me,” Lippold wrote to Morrison, “and I’d admire if he could possibly be housed in addition to me, since he will likely be of appreciable assist en route.”
At Northbrook, the 2 males may need sensed a dynamic much like their very own. Helen and Shearer, residing alongside Helen’s husband, had been concerned in their very own unconventional home association — one which Scott Lundius, the manager director of the Morrison-Shearer Basis, known as a “artistic marriage.”
For Johnson, the Northbrook go to was creatively transformative, scary his impassioned letter and prompting a brand new flip in his thought of himself as an artist: the urge to bounce.
“All the pieces appears to have led as much as this pleasure and I really feel it’s what I ought to do,” he wrote in the identical letter. “In fact I shall be off on one other course tomorrow; however it’s the pleasure that’s vital.” The joy caught, and although Johnson didn’t develop into a dancer, he stored dancers and choreographers shut at hand.
For one, he cultivated a friendship with Shearer, attending her performances with Lippold and writing to her. “To let you already know all of us consider you and your great dancing,” he wrote in 1951, “I’m sending you this fan letter, additionally 4 drawings I made for you impressed by your imaginative live performance in Philadelphia plus my creativeness about drawing. I hope you want them. The drawings are extra like concepts or costumes or moods than dance actions and are supposed to be humorous.”
These drawings, now misplaced, had been precursors to the moticos Johnson would deal with to Shearer. The seeds of his curiosity in dance had been rising. What wouldn’t it appear like, he appears to ask, to make objects in dialogue with choreography?
Corresponding with Shearer allowed Johnson to contemplate this query at a take away. However to gas his newfound ardour, he pursued one other dance collaboration, too. In Could 1956, he labored with James Waring, a New York choreographer, collage artist and poet, to stage “Duettino” on the Henry Road Playhouse. The dance mixed choreography by Waring, interactive units by Johnson, and lighting by Cernovich.
A pared down dance exploring the patterns produced by silhouetted, overlapping limbs, “Duettino” was carried out by two dancers clad in all black. “A notice of distinction,” a critic wrote, “occurred with the occasional entrance of two hidden figures carrying a bulletin board cluttered with multicolored clippings.” Johnson’s moveable stage set consisted of tons of of layered moticos. If mailing them to Shearer was a technique of setting the moticos in movement, one other was to have dancers manipulate them onstage.
A sequence of pictures helps to finish this picture: Two dancers pose in black unitards earlier than Johnson’s moticos panels, their darkish silhouettes set off towards the colours behind them. In one other image, the dancers maintain the panels above them, their our bodies disappearing into darkness. They develop into hybrid beings: half physique, half collage — dancer as moticos.
Johnson wasted no time in telling Shearer about “Duettino.” Two days after it was carried out, he wrote to her on the again of an image of the set. “Picture on different aspect a fraction of my moticos stage set which was used final Sunday very efficiently I believed.” This letter-photograph appears to have functioned like a calling card asserting his theatrical chops. He ventured a proposition: “Sometime possibly I might do some stage setting for you because the love of the stage area has now hit me.”
Then he made one other request: “May you probably mail again to me the Taoist collages since I might now use them in new work?”
In Johnson’s choreography of textual content and picture, a gaggle of collages may be circulated by way of the mail, or integrated right into a stage set, solely to be reconstituted as collages but once more. The ethos of dance — each its basic mobility and its built-in group and community of artists — was a catalyst in making the moticos transfer. Johnson would go on to develop into a grasp of mail artwork, however he arrived there by means of a type of correspondance (a misspelling he would finally embrace) during which moticos accumulate which means by circulating amongst choreographers.
Shearer didn’t return the Taoist collages. Her choice to maintain them was, maybe unwittingly, additionally an act of preservation. Had she mailed the moticos again to Johnson, they’d have been taken aside and reassembled into new works.
But their discovery additionally echoes Johnson’s intentions. “Have you ever seen a moticos recently?” he wrote within the concluding strains of “What Is a Moticos?” “They’re all over the place. As I write this I want somebody had been right here to level one out to me as a result of I do know they exist.”