October 28, 2002 
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John Walters
An unconventional mystery
How To Draw A Bunny is whimsical

Jeet Thayil

John Walter’s How To Draw A Bunny is the kind of movie that creates as much mystery as it resolves. What it does well is answer the obvious question. How do you make a movie about "the most famous unknown artist in the world", as The New York Times once called Ray Johnson?

Easy: you make a whimsical, avant-garde, Dada-documentary collage. You title it How To Draw A Bunny. You get jazz drummer Max Roach to compose the score. And you interview a who’s who of Johnson’s contemporaries such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and Chuck Close.

The star of How To Draw A Bunny is the unlikeliest character in a roster of them. He is the Sag Harbour detective who was assigned to investigate Johnson’s mysterious 1995 death. The detective tells Walter’s camera that Johnson was found with more than a thousand dollars in his pocket; that his corpse was found with his arms crossed on his chest; that he was last seen by two schoolgirls who said he was seen doing a "strong" backstroke away from land; that his suicide had been meticulously planned.

Johnson jumped off a bridge into the cold waters of Sag Harbour at the age of 67. He staged his death as one more happening in a life full of them. Except that Johnson called his happenings "nothings". He was endlessly fascinated by the number 13. He chose to die on January 13, 1995, and the figures in his age add up to 13.

Born in 1927 in Detroit, Johnson was the first to experiment with such things as mail art, a medium that became commonplace many years after his initial forays. He created the New York Correspondence School, a network of poets and artists connected mostly through the postal system.

He would send artwork to his friends through the mail. Those friends --- Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, John Cage, Andy Warhol and Willem de Koonig among others --- became major figures of the art movement. Johnson, somehow, did not.

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His collages included images of Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse. Warhol and Lichtenstein would become famous for using the images Johnson was the first to pick up on. Johnson was considered by many to be the first Pop Artist. He was heralded as an innovator and influence but that iconic status never seemed to translate into success as measured in the conventional ways.

Of course, conventional success was not something Johnson ever courted. He delighted in destroying his work. He owed allegiance to no school, no mentor. He would haggle over the price of a work of art that he would then impulsively give away.

Johnson’s trademark bunny head is used as a visual motif in the 90-minute film. Directed and edited by Walter and produced and photographed by Andrew Moore, How To Draw A Bunny coincides with renewed interest in Johnson’s amazing work. A Ray Johnson exhibit opened in New York the same week as the movie started its run. Tragically, it was the first serious retrospective of Johnson's work ever held.

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