The ‘Best-Known’ ‘Unknown’ Artists of the Twentieth Century

Rip It Up And Start Again is the last exhibition conceived for Kunstverein München by its departing director Stefan Kalmár. The exhibition (co-produced with Artists Space NYC, which Stefan Kalmár is heading since July 2009) concentrates exemplary on five artistic positions, bringing together works by five artists that have died within the last 10 years.

Rip It Up And Start Again focuses on these five artists who were admired in New York City of the 1970s and 1980s, in particular by artist colleagues, but who nonetheless have encountered little official recognition within the art historical discourse.

Ray Johnson, James Dean, Lucky Strike, 1957, Collage on cardboard panel, 18 by 13.4″, Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co

William S. Burroughs, Charles Henri Ford, Ray Johnson, Arthur Russell and Philippe Thomas (readymades belong to everyone®) — were legendary outsiders, or, as Andy Warhol remarked about Ray Johnson: “Ray is the best-known unknown artist in NYC.” Despite their ongoing artistic activities in New York City, which brought them into close contact with ?successful? artists, all five of them remain virtually unrecognized to a wider public till today.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

This exhibition reflects upon both: the mechanisms of marginalization operating within the art market, as well as upon the complex social parameters of hierarchization that distinguishes between “successful” and “unsuccessful” artists.

The presentation attempts to encompass the entire spectrum of the multifaceted artistic careers: from Burroughs? little-known “Collages”; to Philippe Thomas? fictive agency readymades belong to everyone®; to Ray Johnson?s “Mail Art”; to Arthur Russell?s experimental minimalist compositions and attention to repetition; and finally Charles Henri Ford?s art and literature magazine “View” and video productions. One focus of this exhibition will also be the non-institutionalized contexts of production, and the closely intertwined networks between music, art, literature, magazine publication, and popular culture.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Moreover, Rip It Up And Start Again explores the ways in which these strategies can be regarded as anticipating contemporary cultural practices and discourses. From this perspective, the exhibition highlights connections to contemporary theories dealing with alternative publishing, minimal music, and issues of authorship and transgressive identity politics.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

In the spirit of artistic strategies that could be characterized by the motto Rip It Up And Start Again, all of the exhibited artists worked with collage techniques in the broadest sense. Configuring and distorting existing image worlds as bearers of ideology and identity.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Rip It Up And Start Again and the questions it poses has to be seen in relation to two other exhibitions organized by Kunstverein München; Oh Girl, It?s a Boy! (2007) and The Secret Public. The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-1988 (2006). While Oh Girl, It?s a Boy! (co-curated by Henrik Olesen) was concerned with resituating (a) politics of “queer identity” against the horizon of contemporary changes in politics of representation, The Secret Public. The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-1988 (co-curated with British critic Michael Bracewell) focused on the marginalized practices during the British Post-punk-era, and tried to discuss their influence on contemporary art practice.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

This exhibition trilogy concludes now with Rip It Up And Start Again.

To this end Stefan Kalmár has worked together with a team of artists, scholars, and contemporaries — in many cases with individuals who enjoy personal insights or a personal take into the artists? works. James Merle Thomas (art historian, Stanford University) presents the works of Arthur Russell; the collages of William S. Burroughs will be presented by John Giorno; gallery owner and curator Christopher Müller presents the works of Charles Henri Ford, while the French art collective Claire Fontaine show the works of Philippe Thomas (readymades belong to everyone).

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

William S. Burroughs (*February 5, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri; † August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas). The American writer, essayist, social philosopher and artist is regarded as a central figure of New York?s “Beat Generation”. Together with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, he edited individual episodes of the novel Naked Lunch and developed his “cut-up” technique, which involves chopping pages of the manuscript up in small pieces and rearranging them aleatorically. The result was a narrative and associative structure that would be refined by Burroughs in his later novels. In the 1980s and 1990s, he became an icon of pop culture and postmodern literature. Nevertheless, his collages are relatively unknown. These works should be understood as visual expression of his “cut-up” technique, which he used in novels such as “Interzone” and “Imaginary City”. Through this technique, he constructed linked scenarios for his protagonists. “The photo collage is a way to travel that must be used with skill and precision if we are to arrive […]

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

The collage as a flexible hieroglyph language of juxtaposition: A collage makes a statement.”

— William S. Burroughs, 1962

Charles Henri Ford (February 10, 1913, Brookhaven, Mississippi-September 27, 2002, New York City). As US-American poet, artist, and filmmaker he is known among other things for producing the art magazine View (1940-1948), where he presented a number of European artists who had emigrated to New York City during World War II. The magazine quickly became an experimental platform for New York?s advanced art scene. Surrealist illustrations and collages by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte were presented alongside essays by Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. Also published in the magazine were the first English translations of works by Albert Camus and Jean Genet. Charles Henri Ford developed his “Poem Posters” of the 1960s in the context of surrealist “écriture automatique” and in ways that involve collage and various printing techniques. Ford?s “Poem Posters” represent a link between Rauschenberg?s material collages and Warhol?s printing techniques, and anticipate Barbara Kruger?s “speaking pictures”.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Ray Johnson (October 16, 1927, Detroit-January 13, 1995, New York City). US-American artist Ray Johnson attended Black Mountain College between 1945 and 1948. He was a central figure in the development of Pop and Performance art together with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham. Johnson is regarded as the founder of the “Mail Art”-movement. This tendency was seen as model for a utopian society in which communication takes place without barriers, i.e., where social distinctions have ceased to exist. Since his suicide in 1995, he has been idolized “as one of the best artists ever” by no less a figure than Jasper Johns. His extraordinary collages — which can be understood as a critical commentary on consumer society and New York?s art scene — are as little known today as the fact that Johnson gave Andy Warhol his first camera.

Arthur Russell, photo by Chuck Russell, courtesy Audika Records.

Philippe Thomas (*1951, Nizza-1995, Paris). Beginning in the 1980s, Thomas continued the anti-subjective tendencies in the arts that had begun in the 1960s, analyzing fictional authorships and artistic identities both critically and concretely. Under cover of a fictional public relations agency named readymades belong to everyone®, he realized various art projects in New York. The main aim of these projects was to undermine the marketing and strategic functions of institutional promotion. Central themes of his creative work are the renunciation of authorship, the contexts of meaning, and the determination of art production by economic processes. Using spatial interventions, readings of plays, and the creation of various alter egos which he used to publish novels and art books, Thomas attempted to question art world developments in the 1980s as well as the role of the artist as superstar. His work has inspired young neo-conceptual artists like Claire Fontaine.

Courtesy of The Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Arthur Russell (*1951, Oskaloosa, Iowa-April 4, 1992, New York). As classically trained cellist, Arthur Russell rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as both, an experimental musician and a producer of eccentric disco music. Associated with other New York City artists and musicians working in and around nontraditional venues for music and performance, Russell performed with minimalist composers, including Philip Glass and Steve Reich, served as musical director at the “Kitchen – Center for video, music, dance, performance, film and literature” in the late 1970s. He took part in videos by artists such as Phil Niblock, and performed at events alongside Gordon Matta-Clark, Yvonne Rainer, and Allen Ginsberg. He also worked with pop musicians such as David Byrne and DJ Nicky Siano, was part of the legendary “Studio 54” and the New York disco/house scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s, and produced several underground disco hits. His experimental compositions combine propulsive rhythms of disco and early house music with conceptual approaches to repetition and superimposition typically associated with the postwar avant-garde. During his whole life, Russell was well known — mostly by his peers; since 2002 his work has been increasingly introduced to a wider audience via a series of reissued albums and recordings.

The Co-curators:
Claire Fontaine (Co-curator Philippe Thomas). The Paris-based artist?s collective Claire Fontaine was founded in 2004. The name Claire Fontaine was taken from a brand of French stationary. The group?s members defined themselves as “ready- made-artist” and developed a variation of neo-conceptual art revolving around the subject of political impotence. Claire Fontaine’s interest in Philippe Thomas revolves from his critique of the artist?s authorship that led to the creation of the imaginary agency readymades belong to everyone® and artistic publications authored by various alter egos. The implication of the collector into the artist?s work and the presence of advertisement as an unavoidable aesthetical form are the points that Claire Fontaine considers as being truly contemporary within Philippe Thomas’ artistic practice.

John Giorno (Co-curator William S. Burroughs). Writer and performance artist John Giorno, born in New York in 1939, is seen as one of the key figures (alongside with William S. Burroughs) of the New York “Beat Generation”. In 1965, Giorno established the label “Giorno Poetry Systems,” an artistic network in which a variety of New York artists participated, including Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and Robert Rauschenberg. The network experimented mainly with video, music, and recordings of conversations. The piece “DIAL-A-POEM” grew out of these experiments, for which various poems were recorded on a daily basis on answering machines. In 1975, this piece was exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1975, Burroughs and Giorno produced the vinyl record “William S. Burroughs/John Giorno, GPS 006-007,” on which both artists present fragments of their own texts as a collage-style medley.

Christopher Müller (Co-curator Charles Henri Ford). Together with Daniel Buchholz, gallery owner and art historian Christopher Müller is running Daniel Buchholz Gallery, Cologne/Berlin since 1996. In 2000 he curated a retrospective exhibition on Bas Jan Adler, which was presented at Kunstverein München in the same year. During the last years he was engaged in the the work of the artist Charles Henri Ford. Together with Daniel Buchholz and Mitchell Algus he organized an exhibition called Charles Henri Ford – The Garden of Disorder, providing an overview of the artist’s work. Amongst others, this exhibition was shown at Wolfgang Tillman’s exhibition space Between Bridges in London in 2007.

James Merle Thomas (Co-curator Arthur Russell). James Merle Thomas lives and works in San Francisco as an independent curator, critic, and researcher. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation in contemporary aesthetics and politics at Stanford University. His ongoing curatorial project, I?m Sorry, But This is How I Learn takes its name from a lyric by Arthur Russell, and is an exploration of the conceptual linkages between repetition and education. To date, the project has been presented in various exhibition projects, lectures, and essays, including a symposium on post-Minimalist aesthetics at Stanford University in April 2008, and in the essay Let?s Go Swimming (published in Look Behind Us, A Blue Sky, Hatje Cantz, 2007). James Thomas was assistant curator for several group exhibitions, including the 7th Gwangju Biennale (South Korea 2008) and the 2nd Seville Biennale (Spain 2006/07).

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