Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jazz Score: Friday the Thirteenth

Artist Ray Johnson died on Friday the thirteenth, drowned in the waters of Sag Harbor. Numerologists will take note: he was checked into room 247 of a local hotel, numbers which director John Walter’s documentary How to Draw a Bunny points out, add up to thirteen. In addition to displaying a shrewd sense of humor, Walter’s film also makes keen use of solo drum improvisations by the great Max Roach, making it a welcome, if somewhat idiosyncratic addition to MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

Well regarded by colleagues like Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close, and Christo & Jean-Claude, all heard in interview segments, the renown of his contemporaries eluded Johnson. He probably was not helped by his eccentric approach to business dealings, which the film interprets as an extension of his performance art pieces, dubbed “nothings” by Johnson in the pre-Seinfeldian era. Introducing the film Wednesday, Walter explained the initial uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s death—murder, accident or “performance art gone wrong?”

Watching Bunny, so named for the rabbit figures which often adorned Johnson’s graphic work, one is easily convinced the artist was a mad genius. While the film unquestionably accepts Johnson’s artist merits, some of the work shown makes one wonder if he were truly a fine artist or a con artist, pulling an elaborate gag on the art world. Some of his portraits and collages are indeed fascinating, but other smaller works using Lucky Strike packages kind of make one wonder. Indeed, much of his work comes across as an extended joke for his own amusement, like a nothing in which he whipped a cardboard box with his belt while hopping on one foot before a stunned hipster audience.

Regardless of one’s take on Johnson’s art, Bunny is a surprisingly entertaining film. Roach’s solos swing hard, accentuating Walter’s strong visuals. The decision to incorporate footage of Roach’s hands in performance, described by Walter as an “analog” to the creative work Johnson shaped with his own hands, gives a mysterious, almost spiritual dimension to film.

Ultimately, Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide—essentially a performance art piece gone tragically right. Given the artist’s subversive methods used to get his work into the MoMA collection so it could be included in an exhibition curated by Close, the film seems like a particularly apt choice for their Jazz Score series. Documentaries have also been relatively under-represented thus far, so Bunny is a nice change of pace. It is a fascinating story briskly propelled by Roach’s brushes. It screens today at 2:30.