Ray Johnson is an enigma. And How to Draw a Bunny, a documentary recounting the events of his life and career up to his death, provides no clarification. Like a graph that uses hundreds of discrete incidents to illustrate a general trend, the film assembles a nearly endless stream of anecdotes and observations to outline its subject, without ever managing to pierce the veil of obfuscation that surrounds Johnson’s life. There is no profound understanding of Ray Johnson to be found outside of his enduringly odd artwork, at least according to this film.
Johnson is one of the great unheralded artists of the 20th century, an “artist’s artist” who managed to sit at the periphery of the New York art world for almost half a century without ever crossing over into the realm of celebrity. Perhaps, as the film implies, he lacked the courage to risk the exertion (which carried with it the possibility of failure and rejection) that would have been necessary for him to build the personality cult that peers and friends such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo enjoy. Perhaps, as others believe, he was merely too solitary, too involved in his own activities and too enamored with his isolation to be bothered with the rather tedious political machinations required to build a career.
The film, now out on DVD from Palm, begins at the scene of his death, a lonely rural bridge in Sag Harbor on Friday, 13 January 1995. Throughout, your attention is drawn to numerous small but telling details—and the significance of the spooky date of death becomes a major element in Johnson’s mythology. The police officer who led the investigation reports that Johnson was found floating in the frigid water, apparently a suicide. An address book was subsequently found in his abandoned car, filled with names and numbers for hundreds of his friends and acquaintances, a virtual “who’s who” of the modern art world. As the film tracks them down, trying to learn something about this strange man’s life and uncommon death, we begin to comprehend the scope of Johnson’s existential camouflage: all of his friends and colleagues eventually profess puzzlement over the inner workings of his mind.
It’s hard to fault How to Draw a Bunny in terms of the loving eye for detail with which it pores over the pieces of Johnson’s life. Even if the film leaves you baffled in regards to his motivations, you will walk away with a keen appreciation for his career, and the seemingly effortless mix of painting, collage, illustration, and conceptual art which comprised his medium. (The DVD also features a number of extra features which allow for greater focus on Johnson’s work, including an extensive image gallery of signature pieces.) The film elaborates the similarities between his life and his art, even suggesting that Johnson’s life was his art. Whether considering the repetitious ink-drawn bunny caricatures which give the film its name, or the massively complex painted collages that offer unnerving vantage into his perceptions, we feel a dogged incompletion, as if his career was a massive joke awaiting one final punch line. And the only one who understood that joke, if we can believe the film, is Johnson himself.
The question to be asked is whether the filmmakers have accurately portrayed the man’s life in its entirety, or merely those pieces that perpetuate his romantic mystery. There are few references to any close relationships, and although there are a few nagging implications as to his sexuality, the question of whether he was gay, straight or neither is never directly approached. Accordingly, the film doesn’t mention whether or not he had lovers, and Johnson’s close friends offer no explanations as to this most inscrutable feature of an inscrutable man. It was possible to be Johnson’s friend and companion, but apparently he allowed no confidantes.
As the film shows, when Johnson’s house was opened following his death, it was filled to the rafters with boxes and boxes of stored artwork. Everything had been organized and placed into storage, presumably in anticipation of his death. Most tellingly, every piece of unstored art had been placed face down or flat against the wall, save for a single large photo of himself propped up to face an upstairs doorway. There, surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of ascetic labor, was one final anomaly for the coroner’s report. It’s one thing to maintain that we start to die as soon as we’re born, but another thing to turn a lifetime’s work into a suicide note.