Collage artist Ray Johnson is called “The most famous artist you’ve never heard of” during the course of John W. Walter’s How to Draw a Bunny (2002), a documentary—dubbed a “pop art mystery”—that won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Perhaps the reason you’ve never heard of Johnson is that the man was a deliberate enigma. He completely avoided the spotlight and shrouded himself in mystery. The question posed by the film is whether or not anyone actually did know him—and it’s this mystery that makes the film especially interesting.
In case you’re wondering why Black Mountain College + Arts Center has chosen to screen How to Draw a Bunny, it turns out—as is so often the case during this era of art—that Johnson attended Black Mountain College for a time. And like for so many who did, it was an experience that never left him. That intellectual freedom left a mark. With so much of Johnson’s art featured in the film, I not only felt the sense of much of the work I’ve seen come from Black Mountain College artists (not in specifics, but in tone and the general freedom of expression), but also it seemed that he was answering the challenge put forth in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950)—“Astonish me”—as well as subscribing to the film’s dictum about the value of excess for its own sake.
The film attempts to come up with a vision of just who Ray Johnson was—starting with his mysterious death in 1995 (accident? suicide? suicide as performance art?)—by piecing him together via accounts given by his friends and associates about him. In essence, it’s a real-life Citizen Kane—but without a real “Rosebud.” And like Kane, there’s no real answer—only a series of impressions. He becomes a man made up of anecdotes. As a result, the film itself becomes not so much a portrait of Ray Johnson as a collage. Maybe that’s exactly as it should be.