Schmoozing with the nearly famous
By Alec Clayton
Early in the day, after driving all night, I parked my VW bus in front of the Montrose Apartments in Johnson City and started unloading my worldly possessions—clothes, books and paintings.
I was met by a gangly guy who said, “Hi. I’m Richard. You must be Alex.”
I must have said something like, “It’s Alec, not Alex. How did you know who I am?” He explained that my friend Harry had also gone to grad school in the Art Department at East Tennessee State, and he had called Richard and told him I was coming. He pitched in and helped me unload all my stuff, chattering all the time about I-don’t-remember-what.
Johnson City, by-the-way, was once known as “Little Chicago,” and Al Capone’s winter retreat was in the Montrose Apartments. Richard’s apartment was directly above mine, where he lived with a wife who hardly ever said a word to me, and a young son. The only thing I know about his son is that Richard said he constantly complained about dog shit in the park across the street.
We shared a painting studio and walked back and forth from home to campus together almost every day. He had a long stride. I had to practically run to keep up with him.
Richard painted Pop Art portraits of friends, always in profile and always in silhouette with a single, flat color for faces and a contrasting color for background. He “drew” our faces by posing us in front of a slide projector and casting our shadow images onto canvas and tracing them.
While he was painting our portraits, I was making large shaped-canvas paintings inspired by Frank Stella.
Richard introduced me to Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School (or “Correspondance” as it is often spelled). I didn’t know at the time, but Johnson was a well-known artist, referred to by various critics as “the Grand Dean of Dada and Postal Art,” as “the most famous unknown artist in New York.” The NYCS was a group of artists, poets, and others who sent mail art to each other following an undefined set of rules devised by Johnson. Richard, who always signed his letters and cards “Richard C or Richard,” and tagged a g onto the end of names that ended with o n—Johnsong, Wilsong, Claytong—was heavily involved with NYCS and got me involved.
When I moved to New York City, I met Ray Johnson and fellow Correspondance School activists George Ashley and May Wilson. George was some sort of theatrical promoter. He booked shows and arranged transportation and housing for touring artists. He invited me to dinner and theater on a Sunday night. I had not yet met him in person and didn’t know what he looked like, but I knew his address.
On the Saturday afternoon before our dinner and theater date, I was going to see a performance by the Dancers of Bali at the Lincoln Center. Standing in line at the box office, I heard the man in front of me say to the ticket taker, “Tickets for George Ashley?”
I introduced myself, and we chatted in the lobby about, among other things, what a coincidence it was that we met that way. When I showed up at his place for dinner the next evening, there were a few other guests, including a woman who was introduced as a theater critic for the Times or Post or Daily News—one of those; I can’t remember which, and I can’t remember her name. We took a cab to The Kitchen, a famous off-off-Broadway theater on the Bowery (it has since moved to West 19th Street in Chelsea) where we watched a strange but delightful play, the title of which I also can’t remember. After the play, we hung out in the theater and danced until deep into the early morning. George introduced me to all the women, telling each of them, “This is Alec. He’s straight.” I guess he wanted to hook me up, and I guess heterosexual men were a rarity in that company. I wanted to tell him, “I’m not really straight, I’m bi,” but I didn’t, and I didn’t get hooked up with anyone that night.
Another Correspondance School luminary I met was May Wilson. She was seventies at the time and known as the grandma of the underground. I visited her once in her room at the Chelsea Hotel, which was immortalized by the Leonard Cohen song, and the place where Kris Kristofferson asked Janis Joplin to sing his song, “Bobby McGee.” I was impressed with May’s kindness and intelligence and her courage in moving alone to New York and starting a new career at her age.
I met Ray Johnson on two occasions. He had a solo exhibit at an uptown gallery. I attended the opening and felt very out of place in my old thrift shop coat amidst an elegant crowd. I liked Ray’s collages but could barely see them for the crowd, and I thought the people were pretentious and phony. I said to Ray, “Don’t you just hate it?” meaning the pretense, and he said, “No, I love it.” I would too if I had an opening like that.
The other time I met him was when he and George visited me in my rented room in a brownstone on West 23rd Street. I had only one chair in the tiny room, so we stood for a two-hour visit, and a few days later Ray sent out an article about a New York Correspondence School “Meeting” in my apartment, listing the three of us who were there plus my landlady and listing twenty to thirty people who were not there.
I had left behind in the painting studio at ETSU some little studies for paintings. Years later, when I was living back in my hometown in Mississippi, Richard C cut up one of those studies and sent them to Ray Johnson. Ray added a bit of one of his own collages and sent it back to Richard, who arranged the pieces in the shape of a tong and labeled it a Clay Tong and mailed it to me. That is one of my cherished possessions.
In their book Pop Art Redefined, John Russell and Suzi Gablik quoted Ray as saying, “But I’ll get you. If it takes a day, a week, or a year. I’ll cut you up. . . and if I can’t do it myself, I’ll find someone who can.” I think that little collage was Ray and Richard’s way of getting me, cutting me up.
On January 13, 1995, Ray Johnson dove off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and swam out to sea. His body washed up on the beach the following day.
Richard C now lives in Carbondale, Illinois. He still sends me cards and letters, to which I seldom respond. He always lists his return address as Carbondale Illusion.