Andy Warhol was so iconic, and so involved in creating himself as an icon, that I've often wondered to what extent he ever revealed the flawed, human part of himself. Warhol's much lesser-known friend, Ray Johnson, shared with the progenitor of Pop Art a ceaseless passion for self-invention. He's the subject of "How to Draw a Bunny," John Walter's documentary about his death and life.
"Andy was still a person. Ray wasn't a person," the artist Billy Name says of the two. "He was a collage, or a sculpture. He was Ray Johnson's creation."
Perhaps Johnson, a collagist and performance artist, was so little known because, for all his friends and colleagues in the art world -- Christo, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein -- nobody really knew him. Walter begins and ends the film with Johnson's mysterious 1995 suicide by drowning. The artist called up his gallery and said, "I'm working on the biggest thing I've ever done in my life." He put his affairs in order, and jumped off a bridge into Sag Harbor, near his Long Island home.
Walter doesn't solve the mystery, but he deftly offers up clues. Against the soft but persistent beat of a Max Roach drum solo, he paints a picture of Johnson. He contrasts black-and-white footage of interviews with the artist's friends with color images of Johnson's often hot-toned paintings and collages, and color video clips of the artist in performance. The device heightens Johnson's life and work to something bright and fictive, beside the more muted and analytical commentary about him.
Everything Johnson did had a spin, a tweak, or a riddle to it. He came of age just as the Fluxus movement was gearing up: Artists such as Name, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Beuys were staging Happenings -- performance art events. It was all an effort to decommodify art, to make it accessible to the masses, indeed to offer any man or woman a chance to be an artist. Johnson churned out collages at such a rate he started mailing them to friends just to reduce the clutter in his studio. For him, the distinction between mail and art vanished, and every correspondence took on potential meaning.
He held his own Happenings, but called them Nothings. At one, he took his belt off and beat a cardboard box with it. Late in his life, he had a videographer follow him around, making art of the most mundane tasks and interactions. He explains to people at a party: "I'm telling you something true, but I'm also playing the role of an artist. I do this with a deadpan expression; I'm very serious. But underneath it all, it's a joke."
"How to Draw a Bunny" (the title comes from a line drawing Johnson used to portray his friends) describes an artist with a voracious talent, an important American artist of his generation. The film celebrates his work. Johnson's friends, even as they scratch their heads trying to figure him out, laud his contribution, and perhaps in particular his unyielding devotion. That his art was probably also a device to escape a pain they never knew he had doesn't make it any less powerful.
Witnesses to his suicide heard a splash, and looking over the bridge's rail, saw a man doing a backstroke. To the last, Johnson mixed the blithe with the bleak. The end of "How to Draw a Bunny" answers no questions -- nobody can say who this man really was, or why he did what he did. But it ties up the subtle and awkward package of the artist's life with chilling precision. Walter makes it bitingly clear that for Johnson, life was all about art. There's a romantic nobility to that, but truly, it's no way to live.
How to Draw a Bunny
Directed by: John Walter
At: the Museum of Fine Arts, through April 22
Running time: 90 minutes