The enigmatic life and death of little-known but important U.S. pop visual artist Ray Johnson is paid artful homage in "How to Draw a Bunny," helmer John Walter's tyro feature docu. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, pic suffers from subject's unknowability.

The enigmatic life and death of little-known but important U.S. pop visual artist Ray Johnson is paid artful homage in “How to Draw a Bunny,” helmer John Walter’s tyro feature docu. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, pic suffers from subject’s unknowability — even his closest friends question whether they ever truly understood Johnson, whose whole life seemed an avant-garde performance. Resulting lack of insight curbs viewer involvement after a while, making nonfictioner seem longer than it is. Still, Johnson’s work, glittering professional associations and the wide range of interviewees make item a natural for further fest play, with broadcast sales likely. Theatrical distrib is possible on a very limited basis.

Called “indifferent to all the mechanizations of life” by one colleague and “a crazy aesthetic clown” by another, Johnson mystified even fellow travelers in the Abstract Expressionist, Pop and Performance Art movements: He evinced little interest in the standard gallery/museum-show routes to fame, while his dealings with private collectors were highly eccentric. (Accepting a $1,500 counterbid to his $2,000 sale offer, Johnson surprised his buyer by delivering a carefully cut three-quarters of the original work.)

Indeed, everything he did seemed to be part and parcel to a witty creative mindset. Mailing intricate, inscrutable cut-and-paste postcards to friends — perhaps the start of the “mail art” school — was as germane to him as assembling large multimedia collages or mounting a stunt in which he dropped foot-long hot dogs from a helicopter onto Riker’s Island.

Structured as a sort of biographical mystery, “Bunny” — Johnson’s visual signature was a simply inked rabbit — finds greatest resonance in investigating the artist’s 1995 drowning death in Sag Harbor at age 67. What at first seemed like a bewildering accident soon is interrupted as a climactic “performance”: While Johnson left no suicide note, the care with which he left a house full of minutely well-organized artworks — many never publicly seen before — suggests he intended a “last splash” exit that would expose his hitherto obscure oeuvre to the world at large. (It did duly make him the art world’s belated flavor-of-the-month.) Johnson himself is present in audio commentary and some later-life vid footage; latter at one point catches him breezily informing inquisitive backyard partygoers that both his persona and art are inseparable parts of a Dadaist jape. Interviewees include such luminaries in various media as Christo, Roy Lichenstein, Billy Name, Chuck Close and Norman Solomon, as well as agents and critics. Judith Malina reads excerpts from his letters on the soundtrack.

A rich array of archival materials revisit NYC’s heady postwar bohemia. Only minus is the frustration inevitable in dealing with such a willfully sphinxlike character: Despite some long-term friendships and gay relationships, Johnson seems to have kept everyone at a prankish emotional remove that pic is helpless to overcome.

Debuting helmer Walter assembles an aptly colorful package, with stylistic integration of elements from Johnson’s delightful visual art. A major plus is the skittering percussion score by bebop jazz great Max Roach, whose onscreen playing comprises another recurrent motif.

How to Draw a Bunny

Docu

Production

A Mr. Mudd presentation of a Moticos Motion Pictures and Elevator Pictures production. Produced by Andrew Moore. Executive producers, Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Stephen Apicella, Rocky Collins. Co-producer, Kevin Foxe. Directed by John Walter.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Andrew Moore; additional camera, Frank DeMarco; editor, Walter; music, Max Roach; additional music, Thurston Moore; sound, Tim Sternberg, Kevin Walter. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2002. Running time: 98 MIN.
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