Ray Johnson was an enigma – both as a creative force and as a human being. Constantly referred to – by himself and others - as the most famous unknown artist in the world, this collagist redefined the medium by mixing found items (newspaper clippings, magazine photos) with self-designed elements to playfully and profoundly express his moods and ideas. Yet for someone whose work is considered dense, descriptive and devilish, he is a man without much biographical speculation. Like his works, his life is often seen as a complicated, contradictory set of anecdotes that don't really add up to anything coherent at first glance. But in their remarkable documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, filmmakers John Walter (director) and Andrew Moore (producer/cinematographer) make a committed effort to get to the bottom of this elusive subject. As much a compendium of celebrated contemporaries of Johnson's (Lichtenstein, Christo, etc.) as an attempt to unravel his insular personality and form of expression, this fact-based film mines some fairly dark and disturbing territory. Johnson saw his life, almost every facet of it, as a means of performance, from his daily correspondence to his business proposals and negotiations. This ideal even extended to the persona he created, under which there were layers of satirical wit, vindictive anger and hardened insecurities. Though it never really breaks through the outer shell of this problematical man, it does do a damn fine job of introducing his art, and his attitude to a world who barely knew he existed.
On a cold morning in January 1995 (Friday the 13th to be exact), noted artist Ray Johnson jumped from a bridge over Sag Harbor, New York. He had made the long drive up to the area, leaving his home spotless and meticulously organized. The next day, his drowned body was discovered and the police investigated. A simple case of suicide was the final determination. Or was it? Johnson, a known jokester and confrontational performance artist had always viewed his life as a single prolonged act, a non-stop presentation to both the public and confidants of a certain cynical archetype. Born and raised in Detroit, he moved to New York after a stint in art school, to begin as a painter, using a striped pattern technique to maintain order while suggesting chaos. He then explored a self-described "Nothing" school of art, which consisted of "happenings", where he would create "art" by throwing hotdogs from helicopters or placing mustard covered dimes in pay phones. It was during this time that he perfected what would become his signature life's work: collage. He created them fanatically and would discard, destroy or chop up favored pieces to send off to friends and family (he referred to these works by a mystical name – "moticos"). This exchange of "self" in the mail was known as The New York Correspondence School and it soon stretched to people and places across the world. Eventually, he began working with Andy Warhol and solidified his place in the pantheon of gifted artisans. And since his life was always a performance, many still wonder if his death was the last great "act" of his show.
As creepy as it is informative How to Draw a Bunny has a palpable ambience of doom and gloom that seems to shade all aspects of Ray Johnson's story. Either as a direct commentary on the life he lived or the art he created, this eerie feeling of visiting another, almost supernatural realm, permeates this intriguing and obscure film. Not so much a biography or a clinical documentary as a celebration of Johnson's ideas and his circle of friends, Bunny wants to deconstruct Johnson's New York Correspondence School conceit – a postal-based network of artists, worldwide, exchanging art and ideas – while illustrating his own, intricate hodgepodged works. Johnson created some amazing canvases over the course of his career (actually, they were mostly images glued to cardboard shirt inserts) and we get detailed views of hundreds of these masterpieces. But when it comes to the area of personal insight, the chance to learn the basic elements of his humanity (family, lovers, losses, etc.) we are faced with far too many blank surfaces. For a man who made such an impact with his colleagues in the creative community to be such an indecipherable entity as a human being may have been a purposeful part of Johnson's identity. But it can make for a confusing and incomplete biographical sketch.
How to Draw a Bunny is very good at hinting, though. While filmmaker John Walter admits that he had no desire to delve into the psychological realm of his subject, his film is indeed scattered with evocative clues. While being introduced to Johnson's family (a very minor moment in the movie), a cousin confesses that Ray was "disciplined" by his parents, a word that tends to stick out from all the other pleasantries she is passing along. Equally mysterious are a series of comments made by Richard Lippold, former teacher (at the experimental Brown Mountain College in North Carolina) and intimate of Johnson's. Throughout the course of his interview, he infers an intense homosexual relationship without ever coming 'out' and saying that he and Johnson were gay lovers. And since the issue is never pressed, we never get the opportunity to fill in those particular pieces of Johnson's persona. Most documentaries allow an audience to play jigsaw storytelling, creating a representation of the subject in their mind as fragments of important information are delivered. But How to Draw a Bunny, sticking to its desire to create a cinematic collage strives for the essence, not the specifics. As a result, one walks away knowing little or nothing about Johnson as a man, but comes to almost completely understand the aesthetic that drove his work.
Still, as a work of expressionism, as an attempt to create a filmic portfolio of a man and his medium, How to Draw a Bunny is superb. Documentaries about art are always best served when they concentrate on the product and discard the pontification. Certainly it is exciting to see so many celebrated faces speak out on behalf of their friend and fellow bohemian. And many of them have amazingly insightful and witty things to say about the man. Two particular stories take center stage in How to Draw a Bunny. Famed "super agent" Morton Janklow recalls how Johnson contacted him about a portrait commission (at the time, the artist was famous for making silhouette likenesses) and once the sitting was complete, a bill for over two dozen "versions" of the image, at a cost of nearly $42,000, was promptly delivered. Over the next few months, Johnson and Janklow dickered over the price until, finally, Johnson converted all the canvases to the likeness of Paloma Picasso. Christo, the famed conceptual artist, also recalls a business deal with Johnson. Johnson was desperately requesting one of the famed artist's wrapped packages and Christo eventually obliged. The twist placed on the end result is one of the more devilishly clever moments in this occasionally downbeat film.
But it is the intricate views of the art works themselves, masterworks of composition, juxtaposition and genuine vision. Following certain strident motifs (the constant use of specific imagery, like the bunny drawing or the Lucky Strike cigarette logo, to the layering and distressing of elements) and keeping his canvases in a constant state of flux, Johnson was free to express both message and texture in his works. Collages would stand out several inches from their backing and obvious statements about life and love were embedded in their dense presentations. Thanks to the use of a detail-oriented computer guided motion control camera, Walter is able to extract amazing detail and inspired microcosm moments from Johnson's works, and they tell a more insightful story about who this man really was than any number of on-camera interviews. Johnson himself even speaks up, thanks to a series of videotapes created by a young filmmaker, Nick Maravell. Though most of the material is fantastic from a purely personal standpoint (getting to see Johnson in motion is equally as evocative as the hundreds of amazing still photos of the artist utilized), we don't get many clues from the footage. Johnson, knowing he is being filmed, is guarded and a little goofy. He makes comic asides that are as cryptic as they are cynical and never once lets down his guard.
Taken in combination then, How to Draw a Bunny is less astute and far more subjectively educational than it should be. It opens up Johnson's amazing body of work to a viewing public who probably didn't know he existed prior to reading this review. Thanks to the stories being told, the images passing across the screen and the overall sense of a life in constant flux, this documentary is an exhilarating and enigmatic experience. It draws you into the private universe of its subject matter and allows you several rest stops to reflect and rewind. Of all the artists represented here, even the more obscure and/or obtuse ones, Ray Johnson was always attempting to reach out with one hand while drawing away with another. From his simplistic diagrams for drawing (hence where this film gets its title) to the outpouring of material to all manner of individuals the world over, Johnson was his own curator and his own conservator. Now thanks to the wonderful work of John Walter and Andrew Moore, there is another lasting testament to Ray Johnson's talent. How to Draw a Bunny is a funny, fascinating and ultimately frightening journey into one man's desire to make art. And the results are as eerily inspiring as when the scissors first clipped paper pictures. Ray Johnson's life was a collage. How to Draw a Bunny is, perhaps, his final canvas.
Mixing several divergent mediums together (digital footage, 8mm home movies, ancient camcorder material and high end film) the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is perfect. Combining excellent contrasts for the necessary control of detail and a pristine mix of monochrome (for the numerous black and white sequences) and color, this movie looks marvelous. Like a work of art animated across your TV screen, How to Draw a Bunny is an amazing looking DVD.
Most important to a "talking head" style film is the aural offerings and How to Draw a Bunny provides a crystal clear, understandable soundtrack. The use of incredibly ambient music really amplifies the mood, and song selections are evocative and inventive. All of this is then rendered into an amazing Dolby Digital Stereo mix that balances every element brilliantly. Like listening to a ghost whispering off in the distance while a serene song plays in the background, How to Draw a Bunny provides stellar sonic circumstances.
Loaded with contextual bonus material, How to Draw a Bunny is a cornucopia of inspired additions. High on the list of definitive extras is the commentary, featuring Walter and Moore. Both men are amiable, knowledgeable and brimming with anecdotes and explanations. Hearing how hard it was to get the still photos of Ray (and the incredibly goofy pressure placed on the pair by the material's owner) shows the lengths these filmmakers went in capturing their subject. There is also a great deal of history and information about the people speaking, and yet Walter and Moore never forget who the focus of this piece really is. Equally enlightening are the several deleted interview sequences from the film. Offered with commentary by the filmmakers, this cutting room floor footage tends to expand our understanding of this complicated man. We are also treated to a five-minute clip of a posthumous show featuring many of Johnson's most famous works as well as a massive page through gallery of Ray's collages. Along with some standard weblinks and advertisements for Palm Pictures, this is a thorough and special DVD package.
It's too bad Ray Johnson wasn't more appreciated in his time. Though many would consider him a successful avant-garde presence in the New York art community, very few of the "great unwashed" know who he is. And that's a shame. While graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are celebrated members of an elite mainstream-acknowledged class, Johnson's legacy languishes in near obscurity. That is why it is so nice to see a film like How to Draw a Bunny. Similar to the stellar Legend of Leigh Bowery, this amazing movie shines a much needed light on the brilliant work of this misunderstood man. Part of Johnson's problem lies with his closed off persona, a mixture of moody introspection and social rebellion. Never valuing his work more than what he figured it was worth, and always willing to use the haggle as part of the "performance" aspect of any piece, the incredibly ingenious collages crafted by this outsider artisan are simply stunning. If given half a chance, Ray Johnson could have contributed more to the world of creativity than the simple instruction on how to sketch a rabbit. Thankfully, How to Draw a Bunny provides a living catalog of this great man's incredibly methodical madness. It may not answer the mystery of his death, but it does clue us in as to why his loss was so important.
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