How to Draw a Bunny |
directed by John W. Walter
In January 1995, two teenage girls saw a man backstroking away from shore in the chilly waters of Sag Harbor, N.Y. The body of that man, groundbreaking artist Ray Johnson, was pulled from the waters the next day.
But the mystery surrounding his death -- and the way in which he lived his life, sharing pieces of himself, but never the whole with any one person -- has left his friends in the art world and his family struggling with a question they'll never answer.
And it's not even, "Why did Johnson kill himself?" It's really, "Who was he?"
How to Draw a Bunny, a documentary about Johnson's life, his art and his death, acknowledges from the beginning that the pop pioneer is essentially unknowable. And that's a pretty tall hurdle for a biography to clear. "Everyone had a story about Ray Johnson," says the police chief who investigated his suicide, "but no one knew the whole Ray Johnson."
And yet, what director John Walter has achieved with his creative use of old film clips, filmed performance pieces and interviews with Johnson himself, interviews with friends and relatives interspersed with Johnson's art, is entertainment and an education in and of itself. For someone already familiar with Johnson, there's likely nothing new here.
But for newcomers like me to his work and his world view -- and he's often in a world completely of his own imagination -- it was completely fascinating. And what I found fascinating wasn't so much what his friends had to say, it was the consistency in their stories. Walter often tells anecdotes with one version of the story bleeding into another, the corresponding collage images from his vast artistic output inevitably backing up the tales.
Johnson, for all his mystery, never separated art from life. He considered his entire life -- and his suicide, several friends say -- as the ultimate performance piece. "Ray wasn't a person, he was a collage," says Billy Name, a photographer and artist who was part of Andy Warhol's circle (his photograph of Warhol is the basis for Warhol's 2002 postal stamp).
Watching each person remember his or her part of that collage, and watching the police and friends go through Johnson's home after his death, brings How to Draw to sometimes startling life.
There aren't many answers, but that's something Johnson's friends had learned never to expect. "Around Ray you feel like you were Alice down the rabbit hole," says one. "You'd have a great conversation, but (afterward), you'd have nothing."
Lucky for us, then, that Walter has put an eminently watchable form to that "nothing."
For more information on Johnson, visit http://www.echonyc.com/~panman/Ray.html or http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/emma/Gallery/galleryjohnson.html.