16 August 2007

They both did it on a Tuesday

From Dream’s End—the Duncan/Blake Annex...

Tell me if this sounds familiar...

Theresa Duncan (above)
Actress Tuesday Weld (below)

An artist swims out to his death and leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues and artifacts as if inviting us to “solve” the mystery of his death. Would that be Jeremy Blake? Nope. In this case I’m referring to artist Raymond Johnson. And the parallels are rather interesting.

Johnson was an artist who did not enjoy much commercial acclaim, primarily because he didn’t much respect the commercial art establishment. But he was a pioneer in many ways, including the use of “Mail Art” in which he would simply mail a collage or photocopied artwork of his to someone of his choosing. Sometimes that person might be instructed to mail it to someone else.

But on Friday the 13th of January, 1995, Johnson was seen jumping off a bridge into Sag Harbour. Or maybe he wasn’t. But in any event, his body was found in Sag Harbor the next day.
But it is what he left behind that is of interest.

"Johnson’s suicide became the first opportunity to examine his work of the previous fifty years. Stored in an eerie construction of boxes inside his house, the work was as precisely stacked as a large three-dimensional collage. "
The collection was so impressive and compelling that a documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, uses it as the central focus in telling Johnson’s story:
"As both investigated and represented by filmmakers John Walter and Andrew Moore, How to Draw a Bunny is itself a collage of photographs, art works, interviews and letters, home movies and video, that flow at the viewer like a jazz ensemble. With exceptionally toned care and constructions, the filmmakers penetrate into a “rabbit hole of an art world wonderland” and reveals not only an artist’s fragmented life, but also the universe of his peers, friends, critics, and colleagues. With interviews from Roy Lichtenstein and Christo, Chuck Close and James Rosenquist, and the artist himself, the film offers a real understanding of the origins of present-day art and the confusions of the postmodern world, as well as the experience of an artist who wore many different faces and treated the art scene as a game without a prize."
This reminded me of Theresa’s blog. At least that has been my own experience of it. But that’s not where I wanted to stop with this. For one thing, Johnson has somehow gotten himself tied into the legend of "Luther Blissett".

Blissett turned out actually to be an entire community of writers and artists who simply chose to sign his name to their work - not unlike the shared punk-rock pseudonym, "Dale Nixon". While there was an actual Luther Blissett, a soccer player, the “Blissett” artists were a loose-knit group who appropriated his name for reasons not completely clear . The individual artist named “Luther Blissett” did not, in fact, exist.

Here is a rather long article linking Johnson to Blissett. Given the subject matter, it’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that the specific details are false. But it is the desire to make that connection that is of interest here. Notice also the finding of all kinds of numerological significance in the details of Johnson’s suicide.
"The mysterious circumstances of Johnson’s death generated speculation among his friends and the police. Friends who knew that he was careful with hidden relationships, symbols, and numerology, didn’t fail to notice that Ray, aged 67 (6+7=13), arrived at a hotel on Friday, the 13th of January, checked into room 247 (2+4+7=13), and prepared his suicide for 7:15 am. Most likely, it was an art event. His only work where chance and diversity had no role to play. Some artist friends recalled that a few days earlier, Johnson had called and told them excitedly that he was working on his greatest performance.

The police investigated the case on a more prosaic level, though they did notice some unusual, perhaps even thrilling, details in the mysterious case. They found irritating clues in Johnson’s house, (a postcard mailed on the 13th in Los Angeles - signed by Johnson, an airplane ticket for the 13th, and a handwritten note with the address of a hotel in Mexico), from which they concluded that suicide was not probable, instead, they suspected homicide. Another piece of evidence supported their conclusion: though it was well-known that Johnson led a frugal existence and had never appreciated creature comforts, $400,000 was found in his bank account… for Luther Blissett.

“It’s fortunate to become a myth in this life,” said Tibor Hajas, “death cannot harm it in this case.” And truly, when Ray Johnson was involved, his death only intensified the augmentation of his myth. The mysterious circumstances of his death and the discoveries of the artist’s secret personal life then obscured even further his already vague image.

One of the discoveries was that he was in contact with a certain Luther Blissett, an anonymous person in the art world, who didn’t belong to the famous people appreciated by Ray. This in itself is not suspicious, Johnson had communicated and exchanged letters with common people, an interesting name always tweaked his curiosity. "
Naturally, if we wanted this to correspond to Duncan’s tale, we’d need some dark and vaguely occultic rumors about the true cause of Johnson’s death. No problem:

Another chapter of the story is a best-selling book published in November of 1995, by the Rome-based Castevecchi Edizioni. The name of the book is Mind Invaders. How to Fuck (With) the Media? and it sold out in just two months, and immediately went into reprint. The publication was a part of the Luther Blissett-project, and among those who launched it, we find Ray Johnson. The police detective on the case connected the $400,000 with the financing of the book, and as the subject of the book denied the utility of the media and operated with subversion, he concluded that Johnson’s death could have been in the interest of the CIA. The police assumptions began with a hypothesis among private detectives and friends, the wildest of theories suggesting some sort of CIA-Masonic conspiracy aimed at killing Johnson. However, the book was published despite Ray’s death, and the identity of Luther Blissett remains unclear. This, and the explicit directive of the book, warning the manipulated reader that they were expected to re-manipulate others and create new LB-Figures in order to generate sensational disorder and chaos, summoning thousands of phantoms."
We are in very familiar ground here, eh? Evidently, so was Duncan. You see, Johnson was not ONLY from Detroit, but he was good friends with Cary Loren, the owner of “Bookbeat“, a bookstore in which Duncan worked in 1989. Did Duncan know Johnson? According to an email I received from Loren (though politely declining an interview):

Ray Johnson was also a close friend and its very possible he and Theresa (or Tracy as I first knew her) met at the Book Beat. Ray made several visits here in the late 80s and early 90s before his mother died.

The film about Ray’s life had its origins in the store, as I knew John Walters the director of “How to Draw a Bunny” as a young lad, and turned him onto Ray.

I don’t think Theresa “modeled” herself after anyone. She was a strong willed, independent woman. I would do some digging into her allegations about Anna Gaskill, her father and Scientology. There is probably plenty there to uncover.
He’s quite clear to say Duncan did not “model” herself after Loren, following in my perhaps poorly chosen wording for the question that prompted this reply. Still, he suggests they easily could have known each other and certainly she knew OF him, though oddly, there is no mention of the man anywhere on Duncan’s blog. And yet surely, his cryptic, slyly humorous art, with its novelty in terms of distribution (i.e. mailing) would have appealed to her.

(Edit: Commenter “pinky” brings up this nice piece of information:

Another connection: Jeremy Blake and the estate of Ray Johnson are both represented by Feigen Contemporary Art (now Kinz, Tillou and Feigen). Hmmm.”)

Sometimes, I think we will understand the Duncan mystery better by concentrating on those topics she chose NOT to mention. In fact, I think this is precisely one of those times.

Let me close this with how I learned about this story. You see, I learned about Ray Johnson on the website of BookBeat itself, in an article written just this past February. As I mentioned in my last post, I have been attempting to find information about Duncan’s life in Detroit. A conversation with an arts reporter at the Detroit Free Press revealed that they’d never heard of her. Searches on other local media turned up nothing on her. So far, the only person I can find who actually knew Duncan is Cary Loren…and he’s not talking.

Edit: I forgot to mention that the new Duncan site by “Theremy” (term made up by Charlie Finch, co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula and ArtNet columnist) seems to be going straight into dropping clues without all the pretense of thinking there’s nothing to see but a tragic double suicide. And he’s left one that is significant, as it is quite similar to a clue I got from someone who has no business providing me clues.

Here’s the one item: a small fanzine with hand-colored cover available free on the shelf below the magazines at Equator Books, approximate date December 2006, seemingly titled “Tuesday Weld Lunar Coaxing Theresa.”

Tuesday Weld & Steve McQueen

Cover image was actress Tuesday Weld in a majorette uniform and cap, with the many-headed serpent of the SLA drawn over whatever symbol was originally on front of the cap. Contents were pages from a telephone book, very pale, with photocopies drawings of fish, birds and I think also girls’ legs on top of the text.

Rather slight, though the cover was striking. One copy, rather battered, also seen on a table at Abbot’s Habit around the same time. Name of publication recalled because I jotted it down on a business card received the same day.

The other one has to stay off the record, unfortunately, but reinforces the Tuesday theme, reminding us that both Duncan and Blake chose to die on a Tuesday and saying that “Theresa liked Tuesday Weld.”

Theresa's dog was also named Tuesday...

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