Phase9 Movies 2000-12

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Year: 2002
USA: Palm Pictures
Cast: Gerald Ayres, Frances Beatty, Christo And Jeanne-Claude, Buster Cleveland, Chuck Close, Richard Feigen, Janet Giffra, Coco Gordon, Eric Granros, Chief Joseph Iliacci, Morton Janklow, Roy Lichtenstein, Dorothy Lichtenstein, Richard Lippold, Judith Malina, Nick Maravell, Billy Name, Clive Philpot, Ed Plunkett, James Rosenquist, Malka Saffro, Peter Schyuff, Dennis Selby
Normon Solomon
Director: John W Walter
Country: USA
USA: 90 mins
USA Release Date: 12 March 2004 (Limited Release - Los Angeles)


HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY, a 90-minute feature film on the artist Ray Johnson, won the Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and recently the Prix de Public at the famed Recontre Film Festival in Paris. HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY was named as one of the 10 Best documentaries in the 2003 Village Voice annual critic's poll and was nominated for a 2003 IFP Spirit Award for Best Documentary.


On January 13, 1995, the body of artist Ray Johnson washed ashore in Sag Harbor, Long Island. The news of the apparent suicide of this mysterious, reclusive art legend ricocheted through the art world. A seminal Pop Art figure, Johnson has been called "the founding father of mail art", a "collagist extraordinaire" and "New York's most famous unknown artist." For the last thirty years of his life, Johnson had confounded critics and friends alike by withdrawing from the Pop art scene which he had himself helped to create. Those who knew Johnson longest remembered him from Black Mountain College in the late 1940's studying painting with Joseph Albers and working alongside de Kooning, Rauschenberg, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. A few recall how in New York in the late fifties Johnson became frustrated with painting; in search of a new mode of expression, he chopped apart his canvases and pasted down the pieces, fashioning collages with images of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple, and Marilyn Monroe years before Warhol and others began to mine that rich vein of popular culture. Johnson loved to say he didn't make Pop Art, he made Chop Art.

Everyone who knew Ray was captivated by him. Ray was the prankster prince of Pop, its Zen spirit, the heir to Duchamp. Billy Name, member of Warhol's Factory circle, has said: "Rauschenberg was a person making art, so was Andy [Warhol]. Ray wasn't a person-Ray was art..." Johnson became a cult figure during his lifetime; he was a comedian and performance artist, a spooky-looking dada jester with his bald head, black motorcycle jacket and snake rings; a crazy aesthetic clown dropping foot-long hot dogs out of a helicopter onto Ward's Island as part of an avant-garde festival. Ray was a genius; he was provocative and he was hilarious. Art collectors remember a man capable of turning the discussion of the price of a collage into a never-ending performance piece. Gallery owners tell of frustrating attempts to show Ray's work-he would agree to do a show, but only on condition that there was nothing in it. Rather than display his work in a gallery or museum, Ray would show up on the doorstep like a Fuller Brush Man with a cardboard box stuffed with a personalized selection of collages.

In 1968, Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanis prompting Ray's abrupt withdrawal from New York to a "small white farmhouse with a Joseph Cornell attic" in Locust Valley, Long Island where he sequestered himself and his art away from the public. Almost no one was allowed in. He made it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible for galleries to exhibit his art, but feverishly continued to produce it.

While his contemporaries became the subjects of newspaper and magazine articles, Johnson went underground, cultivating his role as an outsider but maintaining his presence in the art world through his "New York Correspondance (sic) School," a free-floating, ever-changing network of hundreds of friends and acquaintances (as well as persons he had never met, but who came to his attention through the media or at the suggestion of other people) with whom he communicated by distributing ideas and artworks through the postal system. Johnson had created this new form, Mail Art, in the late fifties and was the nerve center of this pre-digital netscape which spread around the nation and, eventually, the world. He sent out an impossible amount of material through the mail-pieces of chopped-up collages, drawings with instructions to "add on and return to..." or "send to," found objects, sakes skins, unwrapped forks, annotated obscure newspaper clippings. By the eighties Johnson was a legend in the artistic community though the general public had virtually no exposure to him. Johnson often referred to himself as a "mysterious and secret organization."

Johnson's suicide on Friday 13 January 1995 seems to have been carefully planned and executed. His final gesture was accomplished with the same attention to detail that his collages had; its fulfillment was designed with the same personal significances and references to a private symbology that his art work had always had. Water and the mutability of the ocean had always been a powerful icon in Johnson's work. While his death left many questions unanswered, his life's work attests to a powerful and original sensibility that left its own unique mark in the history of modern art.

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