I Had Never Seen Anything Like It
By Russell Ferguson
twenty five years Larry Johnson lived, without a car, in a part of Los Angeles known variously as mid Wilshire or Koreatown. Traces of the city, and of this neighborhood in particular, can be found throughout his work. Johnson has always also lived in another Los Angeles, one in which street hustlers are picked up on the corner by men who shower them with gifts, figures like John Sex and the porn star Leo Ford have their names in lights, cartoon logos step off the wall to have their photograph taken, and politicians star in made for TV movies. But it is often hard to tell the difference between these two worlds. Reality keeps confusing them. It is where these two worlds overlap that Johnson has found the room to take stock of a whole range of issues that run like veins through his work, including death, celebrity, class, camp, lust, nostalgia, and obsolescence.
On his mother’s side, Johnson’s family was straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. In the 1930s they came out to California from dustbowl Oklahoma and found work in the canneries. His mother grew up in a trailer park and eventually became a beautician. His father was a Teamster truck driver who rose before dawn to deliver bread for a big bakery. In 1950s California these were jobs that for the first time offered access to a middle class lifestyle. The Johnsons lived in Lakewood, a 1950s development built around a gigantic shopping mall, whose official motto was “Tomorrow’s City Today.” Larry Johnson was born there in 1959. Bill and the defense contracts that began to flood Southern California as the Cold War set in. Here on this raw acreage on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers was where two powerfully conceived national interests, that of keeping the economic engine running and that of creating an enlarged middle or consumer class, could be seen to converge. (1)
Although Johnson’s father, like many in these new, virtually all white suburbs, was politically right wing, to the point that he voted for the segregationist George Wallace in the election of 1968, the family also identified with the Kennedys, who were emblematic of a prosperous America in which the working class could aspire to upward mobility. The family had a lawn for their kids to play on, and Johnson’s father cut it every week with his King 0′ Lawn mower. As the Spur Posse case would later demonstrate, high school athletes were idolized and privileged. Indeed, in Didion’s words, towns like Lakewood “were organized around the sedative idealization of team sports.” More
Larry Johnson, however, was the kind of kid who asked for and received Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon as his seventeenth birthday gift. He was already a regular at the opera and at the Mark Taper Forum, the Los Angeles theater named after the real estate developer who had founded Lakewood. When it was time for college, he enrolled at CalArts, where he got his BFA in 1982 and MFA in 1984. His early efforts there were cartoonish abstract paintings based on architectural elements. “Big, ugly Liquitex affairs,” is how Johnson describes them now. (2) After a couple of years he stopped painting and started making collages of domestic scenes into which he inserted himself alongside Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His primary mentor was the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, whose use of language in his work was a key influence. Huebler’s art comic, Crocodile Tears, which ran in the LA Weekly in the 1980s, has some of the knowing tone that characterizes much of Johnson’s work. An early supporter was Richard Prince, and Johnson and Prince have continued to share a fascination with celebrity, jokes, and the markers of class in America. The dedications Johnson solicited from Rip Taylor, John Sex, and Leo Ford, as well as the elaborate joke in Untitled (Dead + Buried) (1990) testify to a shared field of interests.
In 1986 Johnson was included in David Robbins’s iconic Talent, his matinee idol looks juxtaposed with equally glossy headshots of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Ashley Bickerton, among others. The work that had launched Johnson to early prominence was Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1982/84): six photographs, each with a deceased movie star’s name superimposed on cotton wool clouds floating on a blue background. Johnson wanted to make a work that would appeal to those at CalArts who were oriented toward structuralism, but also to those who, like himself, were not quite so theory driven and who were more attract Belstaff zx flux ed to pictorial work. He made a piece that was driven by language, but specifically by the language of our time, the language of celebrity. As Johnson puts it, “To master celebrity is to master language.” (3)
On one level the clouds represent Hollywood heaven; on another they suggest the opening credits of a movie. The stars in Johnson’s pantheon are Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood, James Dean, and Sal Mineo. The first three starred in The Misfits (1961), sometimes said to be a “cursed” movie. Gable died of a heart attack right after filming ended, and Monroe and Clift met early deaths after unhappy lives. The last three starred in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Although Rebel Without a Cause is the earlier film, it feels later the first film of the “new” Hollywood while The Misfits can be seen as one of the last of the “old” Hollywood pictures. In any event, Wood, Dean, and Mineo continue the theme of untimely movie star deaths. The series as a whole was prompted by the death of the last of the six, Natalie Wood, who drowned in 1981.
Of the group, Mineo is the only one who did not achieve the status of a huge star. He comes last. But last is a special place on this list. On occasions when only one of the series is shown, Johnson insists that it be Mineo. And it is Mineo who marks the connections between Hollywood celebrity, hustling, and violence that Johnson will return to repeatedly in later work. In 1976 the thirty seven year old Mineo was stabbed to death in an alley behiind an apartment building in West Hollywood. The details of his death have never been fully explained.
In 1985 Johnson brought the Kennedy family into this mix with Untitled (Grief Is Devastating), a two panel work in which the text was taken verbatim from a TV Guide description of a two part mini series on the life and death of Robert Kennedy. Although his work seems quite simple, its formal elements are more complex than they might first appear. Drawing a lesson from the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Johnson treats the wall as a kind of page on which to compose. The diptych combination of vertical and horizontal components feels slightly awkward, and deliberately so. Johnson objects to the semiotic model that posits vertical as portrait and assertive, and horizontal as landscape and passive. Here the two formats are simply stuck together, in a combination that might perhaps be called passive aggressive.
Johnson stresses that the work is not about Bobby Kennedy, at least not directly: “It is not the story of anything except a movie.” Johnson’s interest is less in events themselves than in events as they are filtered through the machinery of mass culture, cleaned up, glamorized, and sold back to us as entertainment. On this level the Kennedys are just another kind of star. Yet the work is also unquestionably about the Kennedys specifically. “I think about the Kennedys at least once a day,” Johnson told me, and his interest in that era Camelot, so called is evident throughout his work, especially in the way that politics became increasingly a part of pop culture. “I’m not the one who named my administration after a hit Broadway musical,”(4) but the fascination remains, with the Kennedys certainly, and with the era more broadly. The cover he designed for the catalogue of his 1996 exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver is a black and blue version of the cover of John Stormer’s neo McCarthyite, Kennedy era rant None Dare Call it Treason (1964).” And Johnson also follows the Kennedy story from the heroic period of the myth into its more ambiguous later stages. The past and present are linked together in Untitled (Peter Lawford) (1995), in which Lawford, Rat Pack member and brother in law to President Kennedy, is yoked together with Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Here’s one,” the text begins, but the supposed joke turns out to be all too close to the truth. Untitled (Greek Tycoon) (1986), consisting of two panels, one light and one dark, gives us the story of Aristotle Onassis. While the composition recalls the work of Josef Albers, one of many references in Johnson’s work to classic modernism, the text this time is taken from a popular compendium of celebrity deaths called How Did They Die. (6)
The fact that Johnson apparently owned this book is perhaps significant in itself, suggesting a fascination with death that is even more apparent in Untitled (Black Box) (1987). Here the text is taken from the black box recording of a plane that crashed into the Potomac River just outside Washington in 1982, killing seventy four, including the pilots. If the line, “Larry, we’re going down, Larry,” from the transcript suggests a connection to the artist, it may not be totally fortuitous. Johnson’s focus on death in this period was inescapably related to the AIDS epidemic. Instead, language is often treated as something purely visual, even decorative. In this way the predominately text based works push back against their apparent meanings.
Language is reduced to a stuttering minimum in Untitled (Heh, Heh) (1987), the entire text of which reads: “Heh. Heh, heh . Ah yes . HA, HA . HA, HA, HA.” The source here is an advertisement in the New York Times for the columnist Russell Baker, but the content suggests language at the point of breakdown, a colorful snigger replacing more coherent communication. It would be hard to read any significance any content at all into this string of grunts and laughs. It is only Johnson’s choice of this text, one might say, that makes it a text at all. The formal presentation of these words in a frame, exhibited as art, gives the text a formality and presence that forces a certain seriousness, a certain expectation of attention from the viewer, despite the complete triviality of the content. For Johnson, evidently, the distinction between major and minor, between a presidential candidate and an in the know laugh track is all but meaningless. This work was made when Ronald Reagan was president. When the president could be an actor whose greatest skill was in conveying a plausible geniality, what else was there to say, perhaps, but “heh heh?” Gore Vidal, whose own oeuvre has evenhandedly encompassed both Aaron Burr and Myra Breckenridge, remembers in the late 1950s casting his play The Best Man, set at a presidential convention. “An agent had suggested Ronald Reagan for the lead. We all had a good laugh. He is by no means a bad actor, but he would hardly be convincing, I said.”(7) Ah yes.
With the large diptych Untitled (John John and Bobby) (1988), Johnson again projects onto the Kennedys, but for the first time he wrote the story himself rather than using a preexisting text. Actually, this fragment from the hustler life doesn’t have to be about the Kennedys at all, although the choice of the names John John and Bobby make the connection unavoidable, and the opening sentence’s reference to John John’s “nipples as round and rare as Kennedy half dollars” drives the point home. Although the text seems like a couple of almost arbitrary moments pulled from a longer narrative, the two panels refer to specific ideas that had interested Johnson for a long time. In the left panel he addresses the idea that the unconscious is fully formed by the age of four. In the right panel a story of early Hollywood that the Keystone Kops filmed their stunts in the middle of real traffic passing by is transposed into the register of a low budget pornographic videotape. What unites these apparently disparate ideas is the question of spontaneity. How much control can we really have over impulses rooted in childhood events? How much of what we think of as unpremeditated action is really preprogrammed? The constantly varying colors of the lettering force the viewer into a kind of stumbling, slowed down reading.
Untitled (John John and Bobby) was part of a body of explicitly gay work that Johnson showed at 303 Gallery in New York in 1989, an exhibition that was influential for a number of other gay artists. Although Johnson had been out of the closet to his family since he was a teenager, this exhibition felt to him like a more public coming out. The media in the late 1980s dwelled on Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS and the panic over “Patient Zero.” For Johnson it felt like a political necessity to be publicly out.
But the work also had a particular locus: the hustler stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard with which Johnson had become familiar in the early 1980s. The text for Untitled (I Had Never Seen Anything Like It) (1988), in which the “highly successful actor” Quint Vantage pulls up in his Jaguar XKE to ask “How far you going?” is taken from Gregg Tyler’s book The Joy of Hustling (“The unabashed confessions of a boy who knew them all the rich, the beautiful, the talented and some of them paid for the experience”). (8) This world where hustlers routinely rub up against Hollywood stars was an alternative universe with just enough reality in it to offer believability, at least for those who wanted to believe, and the exact proportions of fantasy and reality always remain a little in doubt. “He said that he thought that I could be a star, like, you know, a young Bert [sic] Lancaster, you know. He mentioned a lot of names. He said Burt Lancaster. He said Clint Eastwood. He said Fess Parker.” So reads the testimony of Paul and Tommy Scott Ferguson, convicted of murdering Ramon Novarro at his house in Laurel Canyon in 1968. Seventeen year old Tommy “said that he had been unaware of Mr. Novarro’s career as a silent film actor until he was shown, at some point during the night of the murder, a photograph of his host as Ben Hur.”
The older brother, Paul, meanwhile, explained his occupation: “A hustler is someone who can talk not just to men, to women too. Who can cook. Can keep company. Wash a car. Lots of things make up a hustler. There are a lot of lonely people in this town, man.”(9) Again, fantasy and harsh reality are uncomfortably blended. How much do the clients, the stars, buy into this vision of the world, of their world?
In 1994 Johnson would return to hustler territory in Untitled (Standing Still Walking in Los Angeles). The work is an homage to Frank O’Hara, modeling its title on a phrase from his “Ode to Causality” (1957 58): “standing still and walking in New York.”(10) O’Hara’s poetic use of countless details from the everyday life of his period, personal references, and in jokes is an approach that resonates very widely in Johnson’s work. Untitled (Some Details with Dandruff Circled) (1995) is a good example of a work replete with such references. The transposition he makes here, however, is not just from New York to Los Angeles but specifically to the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard, where, to avoid trouble from the police, hustlers have to appear to be walking somewhere while actually remaining close to a particular spot, essentially standing still and walking at the same time. My Dad Is My Hero, several works announce, but the voice that says it turns out to be Nancy Sinatra’s. We can, however, hear Johnson speak for himself in the transcript of his court testimony reproduced in Untitled (Q (1988), tracing his path from the Motherlode bar across Santa Monica Boulevard to a liquor store. His crime: jaywalking. Johnson discourages overt identification with himself. “I would deny any autobiographical content” is how he puts it. But perhaps that “would” leaves just a little ambiguity. In the words that Charles Dickens gave to David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” (12)
But what pages? The text in Untitled (The Friends You Keep and the Books You Read) (1988) concludes, “I decided to take a look at this business.” In the context of the other works in the series, we might assume that the business is hustling. And it is, in a way, but the actual source is a testimonial to the Amway Corporation from one of its salespeople. The real testimonial, of course, is to the supposed power of language to effect a social upgrade, both “to get some of those luxuries that the budget never leaves room for” and to gain intellectual credibility. The piece is in part a jab at the many pseudo intellectual artists who in the late 1980s flaunted their reading lists as a kind of credential. Johnson remembers being asked patronizingly if he knew who Jean Baudrillard was. He did, but, unlike his interlocutors, he felt no need to parade the fact. Implying that those who do are on the level of deluded Amway salesmen bent on self improvement, he forces “high” the Belstaff zx flux ory onto the same page with the most debased of commercial texts. In Untitled (Five Buck Word) (1989) the five buck word in question is “emollients,” the perfect choice for those who want language to smooth their way to advancement. “In 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to ‘continue my writing.’ Writing had helped him, he said, to ‘reflect on experience and see what it means.'”(13)
In 1989 Progressive Insurance commissioned work from a number of artists, including Johnson. His contribution, Untitled (Don’t Drink and Drive, Wintergreen + Orange) (1989) has a text that concludes with “a gigantic fireball . incinerating any human in its path.” Appropriate for an insurance company, perhaps, but also for a nihilistic frenzy. The work’s title invokes a vapid, insurance friendly slogan. In this case, it is advice that Johnson himself follows. Reversing the usual pattern, however, he drinks but doesn’t drive, and hasn’t since 1986. In Los Angeles, of course, not driving is unusual to the point of eccentricity. Drinking, however, is a universal phenomenon, and it is by no means missing from Los Angeles life. ”I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, and Johnson included the aphorism in Untitled (Some Details with Dandruff Circled), sourced via Jackie Curtis. Johnson has an encyclopedic knowledge of the bars in Hollywood and Koreatown. He illustrated his Vancouver catalogue with photographs of some of them, and the endpapers featured his drawing of a particular favorite, The Blacklite. Johnson no doubt agrees with Luis Buiiuel’s statement that he “can’t count the number of delectable hours I’ve spent in bars, the perfect places for the meditation and contemplation indispensable to life.”(14) And Bufiuel concurs with Johnson, ending pages of ecstatic praise for bars, smoking, and drinking with a cynical bromide: “Finally, dear readers, allow me to end these ramblings on tobacco and alcohol, delicious fathers of abiding friendships and fertile reveries, with some advice: Don’t drink and don’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.” (15)
Heroin is bad for your health too, and in Johnson’s work it makes its appearance in a barrage of alliteration in Untitled (H) (1990), where we meet a “homo hipster” whose “hard core habit and hard fought holler for help hailed from the hallowed halls of higher learning,” His complaint, quoted verbatim from a real episode of the TV show “Hard Copy,” was that of an acquaintance of Johnson’s, whose excuse for his addiction Belstaff zx flux was the pressure of life in the Ivy League (or “the LV, League, Belstaff zx flux ” as Johnson ca