Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, edited by Elizabeth Zuba

Review by John Gibbs

Green Apple Books, San Francisco


Part collage, part letter-exchanging-art-project, part personal writings and amusements, part historical documentation, Not Nothing (which compiles forty years of Ray Johnson's thoughts and many personal messages) is quite simply put the most bizarre thing I've come across this past year. To read Not Nothing is to grapple with the philosophical issue of reading—just how do you read it? The reproduced letters and texts are farcical, experimental, instructive and at times indecipherable; yet all are imbued with personality. I mean “personality” in the sense of love and connection with another human individual, yes, but also “personality” in the simplest sense, as in a typo—a consequence of the now-extinct typewriter which Johnson takes such pleasure in. Perhaps this book’s greatest accomplishment is that it not only clues a reader into the myriad thought processes of an artist like Ray Johnson, but—by way of correspondences—sheds light upon the mindset and artistic leanings of an entire generation of artists and thinkers.

Correspondence art (or mail art) is a niche of the fine arts I possessed little knowledge of prior to my stumbling into this book. I was particularly taken by the range in sentiment of the letters reproduced here. A tone is struck in each that is decidedly different from the one that preceded it, moving from the everyday ("I went to visit Michael McKenna today for the first time and brought as a present a piece of glass I had found on the street.") to the existentially foreboding ("Dear Dick Higgins, I'm sitting here waiting for something to happen.") in a second. There are many ways to read/experience this book. One could quite enjoyably thumb through the tome and stop wherever an image or particular superimposed word catches one's eye. One could read chronologically. One could read the text out loud with a friend, reproducing the very conversations Johnson had with others. All of this is to say, there is no wrong way to read it. Dive in with the knowledge that this book is not nothing but something spectacularly curious.


Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994 is published by Siglio and distributed to the trade by D.A.P./

$45   PB   320 pages with color and bw illustrations throughout   ISBN: 978-1-938221-04-0   Pub date: July 2014