Who was Ray Johnson? This is the central question of How to Draw a Bunny, the 2002 documentary by John Walter and Andrew Moore, presented in an upcoming screening at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA). Curiously, not even his most intimate friends seem to know.
Johnson was a collagist, correspondence artist, and performance artist. On January 13, 1995, he dove off a bridge into Long Island’s Sag Harbor and backstroked out to sea. His body washed up the following day.
The artist’s suicide—which many of those who knew him see as a final “performance”—frames Walter and Moore’s film. The whys are explored through interviews with artists like Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. These artistic luminaries appear just as mystified as Johnson’s mailman and the police officer who investigated his death. (The former is matter-of-fact; the latter pensive, almost lyrical.)
After watching How to Draw a Bunny, one comes away with many stories and images dancing in the head, yet precious few clues about what truly made Johnson tick. The filmmakers’ approach is less investigative than it is curious and meandering; interested in character, texture, and odd detail. While the rest of the film was shot in color, interview footage is in black and white and whimsically edited. The interruption of a phone call during an interview is cut into one scene; in another, continuity becomes laughable as a cat and a cigarette constantly appear and disappear. In still another, two interviews are juxtaposed so that the subjects appear to finish one another’s sentences. In profiling the enigmatic collagist, the film’s approach to information-gathering becomes collage-like in itself.
Archival footage of the artist provides a glimpse of what it might have been like to try to hold a conversation with Johnson: You’re never sure if he’s totally lost it or if he’s putting you on. He is bald, with a high forehead and intense eyes, and perhaps it is the poor film quality, but he seems to have no eyelashes. He talks earnestly about Al Green. He mercilessly whips a cardboard box with his belt.
Returning to the circumstances of the artist’s death, the film seems only to create in the viewer a heightened sense of mystery, refusing us the answers we crave while offering the opportunity to make peace with the unknowable.
How to Draw a Bunny screens at SLOMA, located at 1010 Broad St. downtown, on Monday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. A donation of $7 ($5 for museum members) is suggested.