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.