Rex Ray’s joyous collages are coming to homes across the country in a new exhibition that celebrates the artist’s exuberant spirit. Known for his innovative use of found materials and bright colors, Ray created collages that pulse with energy and delight. This article takes an in-depth look at Ray’s artistic career, his collage techniques, and what viewers can expect from this exciting new show.

An Introduction to Rex Ray

Rex Ray (1956-2015) was an American artist and collage maker based in San Francisco. He is best known for his vibrant mixed media collages made from found papers, magazine clippings, photographs, and other ephemera.

Ray’s style combined Pop Art sensibilities with Bay Area Funk Art influences. His work often depicted popular culture icons and surreal landscapes inhabited by fantastical beings. Throughout his prolific career, Ray created collages notable for their visual rhythm, textural richness, and buoyant sense of fun.

Early Artistic Development

Rex Ray was born in 1956 in San Francisco, California. As a child, he demonstrated artistic talent which was encouraged by his parents. Ray took weekend art classes at the de Young Museum starting around age 7.

In his teens, Ray apprenticed under painter Robert McChesney, learning the techniques of egg tempera painting. He also studied traditional draftsmanship and painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. This classical training informed the expert technical skills evident in Ray’s mature collage work.

Finding His Voice as a Collage Artist

After graduating from art school, Ray initially worked in a traditional painting style. By the late 1970s, he began incorporating collage elements into his paintings. Over time, collage took over as Ray’s dominant medium.

Ray drew inspiration from Bay Area Funk artists like Robert Arneson who employed everyday materials in their art. His early collages featured wry pop culture references and surreal juxtapositions rendered in vivid colors.

By the 1990s, Ray had refined his signature collage style. His compositions combined fragments of paper, fabric, and photographs into energetic abstract patterns. Bright colors, strong lines, and a sense of rhythm vitalized his work. Ray often incorporated words, logos, and cartoon characters into his collages, referencing consumer culture and collective memories.

Characteristics of Rex Ray’s Artistic Style

Several key characteristics define the artistic style that Rex Ray perfected over his prolific career. His collages utilized found materials in innovative ways to achieve textural dynamism and visual impact.

Vibrant Use of Color

Viewers are immediately struck by Ray’s bold and exuberant use of color. His collages employ vivid primaries like red, yellow, and blue as well as bright neon shades. By juxtaposing complementary and clashing hues, Ray creates collages that vibrate with chromatic energy.

Even Ray’s black and white photocollages convey a sense of color through dramatic tonal contrasts. Ray described his vibrant palette as “joyous” and “celebratory,” aiming to create uplifting works suffused with color.

Dynamic Compositions

Rex Ray arranged the elements in his collages to produce dynamic compositions. Angled shapes, strong diagonals, and repeating visual motifs generate visual momentum and rhythm.

Ray avoided symmetry and central focal points in favor of decentralized designs that keep the viewer’s eye ping-ponging actively around the composition. The fragmented papers, fabrics, and photos form visual rhythms that enliven his collages.

Tactile Textures

Ray built up the surfaces of his collages through overlapping layers of papers and fabrics. By employing materials with diverse textures like sandpaper, foil, mesh, and sequins, he created enticing textural contrasts.

Through tearing, wrinkling, and distressing papers, Ray added a tactile quality. Sections of thick impasto paint or solid black further animate the collaged surface. These textural qualities make Ray’s collages enticing to touch as well as view.

Everyday Materials

Rex Ray gathered materials for his collages from common sources – magazine pages, photocopies, product labels, newspapers, and scrap fabrics. His use of such readily available papers and objets gave his art a feeling of joyful spontaneity.

By juxtaposing product logos, text snippets, and pop culture imagery, Ray celebrated vernacular visual culture. His innovative combinations of everyday materials formed fresh perspectives.

Artistic Influences

Ray absorbed inspiration from diverse sources ranging from Rauschenberg’s combines to sign painting. He admired the Beat Generation assemblage artists like Bruce Conner and Wallace Berman. Pop art’s incorporation of advertising imagery and consumables also informed Ray’s aesthetic.

Ray often paid homage to favorite artists within his collages. He might collage a paint chip “Rothko” rectangle or style figures after Keith Haring. Such playful references underscored Ray’s broad artistic influences.

Prominent Themes in Rex Ray’s Collages

While Rex Ray’s primary focus was creating visually compelling compositions, a number of themes consistently emerge in his body of collage work. Ray returned frequently to certain subjects, icons, and ideas over his prolific career.

Pop Culture Icons

Images from movies, television, comics, and advertising frequently inhabit Ray’s collages. He integrated cartoon characters, superheroes, product logos, celebrities, and sci-fi figures into his compositions.

These pop culture elements often appear fractured, distorted, or Situated in surreal landscapes. While tinged with social critique, Ray’s rendition of such icons remains more celebratory than critical. For him, they formed a common lexicon of visual symbols.

Surreal Juxtapositions

Ray created surprising and imaginative combinations within his collages by juxtaposing disparate elements. He might situate beachgoers under giant mushrooms or pair cowboys with space aliens. These uncanny juxtapositions give his collages a dreamlike quality.

Such surreal groupings also encourage viewers to notice new connections. Ray renders the familiar fresh and strange through his unexpected merges.

Landscapes and Nature

While abstract in quality, Ray’s collages often suggest fantastical landscapes. Some works explicitly depict forests, deserts, beaches, or islands inhabited by wildlife and tribal figures. More interpret shapes and patterns evocatively as horizons, clouds, waves, or foliage.

These dream landscapes form psychological spaces for free association. Nature elements give Ray’s collages a transportive quality. Fragmented flora/fauna add organic textures and patterns.

Spirituality and Ancient Cultures

Later in life, Ray became interested in mythology, tribal art, and artifacts. His collages increasingly incorporated references to Native American kachina dolls, Hindu deities, and ancient Celtic designs.

Ray saw universal human yearnings expressed in the mythology and sacred objects of ancient cultures across the world. By integrating spiritual motifs, his art gained symbolic resonances.

Text and Language

From his early Pop-inspired works forward, Rex Ray made text a central element in his collages. He integrated letters, words, and phrases from myriad sources – street signs, logos, books, posters, magazines.

Often this textual content is fragmentary and decontextualized. Through his linguistic collages, Ray explored the rhythmic visual qualities and associative meanings of language.

Rex Ray’s Development of Collage Techniques

Throughout his career, Rex Ray continually evolved new techniques for creating vibrant and texturally dynamic collages. His innovative processes allowed him to work on a grand scale while retaining spontaneity.

Photocopy Transfers

Ray frequently utilized photocopiers to replicate, resize, and distort found images. By transferring these photocopies onto wood panels using solvents, he could then work into them with paint. This method allowed Ray to incorporate photographs, text, and other printed matter directly into his collages.

Paper Castings

To generate unique sculptural textures, Ray would press paper pulp into 3D molds, forming reliefs he would then collage. He also made paper casts directly from texture rubbings. The addition of these dimensional paper elements added further visual interest.

Digital Processes

Later on, Ray integrated digital technology into his artistic process. He used Photoshop to manipulate and recombine photographic images which he would then incorporate into collages. Ray also scanned collage elements and digitally replicated them to generate complex patterns.

Scale and Multiplicity

Rex Ray worked at vastly different scales – from tiny matchbook collages to mural-sized works filling entire walls. He also made multiple versions of some compositions, playing with color variations. This multiplicity allowed Ray to explore a concept exhaustively.


Ray often collaborated with fellow artists, especially his partner Theo Burkhardt. For example, Burkhardt would paint acrylic backgrounds over which Ray would collage. Such collaborations brought new dimensions to his work.

Layering and Varnishing

To create complex textural build up, Ray added layers of papers, paint, and objets to a wooden base. He then sealed his collages behind a glossy varnish. This layering allowed him to work spontaneously without worrying about permanence.

Rex Ray’s Impact on the Art World

Over his 40-year career, Rex Ray made significant contributions to the evolution of collage as an artistic medium. His prolific body of work and energetic artistic spirit touched many.

Pushing Collage in New Directions

Ray was a pioneer in synthesizing collage with painting, photography, scanning, and digital manipulation. His innovative combinations of techniques paved new directions for collage.

Ray freed collage from its association with nostalgia by utilizing contemporary materials. In his hands, collage became a means to creates works as vital and forward-looking as painting.

Revitalizing Collage in San Francisco Bay Area Funk Art Scene

As an acknowledged master, Ray helped spur a revival of collage among Bay Area Funk artists. His example gave young artists courage to embrace collage techniques. Ray directly mentored and collaborated with rising talents.

Inspiring Artists Through Teaching

In addition to his studio work, Ray taught at the San Francisco Art Institute for over 20 years. The next generation of artists directly absorbed his philosophies about the possibilities of collage. His teaching helped cement Ray’s artistic legacy.

Celebrity Collectors and Commissions

Ray’s joyful and visually engaging collages earned him wide acclaim. Celebrities like Elton John, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Groening collected his work. Ray completed major commissions for companies like Facebook and Salesforce.

Ongoing Museum Attention

Since his death, Ray’s artistic significance continues to grow. Major retrospectives of his work have been mounted at museums including the de Young Museum and the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Scholarship on Ray also proliferates.

Rex Ray’s “Joyous Collage” Style

The term “joyous collage” has frequently been used when describing Rex Ray’s body of work. This description pinpoints the exuberance, playfulness, and optimism defining his artistic vision. Ray created collages that celebrate the pleasures of color, texture, and creative experimentation.

Celebratory Color Palettes

In contrast to many collagists who employ more muted or melancholy colors, Ray’s collages burst with vibrant hues and prismatic palettes. The viewer feels enveloped in his heat maps of hot pinks, neon greens, and sunflower yellows.

Uplifting Mood

Rather than commenting on difficulty or injustice, Ray’s collages lift the spirit through their energetic compositions and touches of visual wit. Viewers come away reinvigorated by interacting with his works.

Embracing Play and Spontaneity

Ray approached collage as a form of serious play. He followed experimental tangents and juxtaposed imagery in intuitively enjoyable ways. This sense of creative abandon and possibility animates Ray’s collages.

Finding Magic in the Mundane

Rex Ray could transform unprepossessing materials like product labels, junk mail, or notebook paper into visionary compositions. His art encourages viewers to likewise see poetry in the everyday.

Dynamic Rhythms

The eye dances across Ray’s collages tracing their active lines and repeating motifs. Their dynamic compositions have a visual beat, like visual music. This kinetic vitality generates verve.

By modeling how to transform found materials into joyful works of art, Rex Ray made the collage medium newly compelling to subsequent generations. His positive example continues inspiring artists and audiences.

What to Expect from “Rex Ray: Joyous Collage” Exhibition

The de Young Museum in San Francisco is currently hosting a major retrospective of Rex Ray’s collages entitled “Rex Ray: Joyous Collage.” This section offers a preview of what attendees can expect from this exciting showcase spanning Ray’s 40-year career.

Overview of the Show

This expansive exhibit gathers together over 100 collages by Rex Ray curated from major public and private collections. It represents the first comprehensive museum survey of Ray’s work in over 20 years.

The show was organized jointly by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Palm Springs Art Museum. After its premiere at the de Young, the exhibit will travel to Palm Springs in 2024.

Range of Work on Display

The collages on display range from Ray’s abstract experiments in the 1970s to the mystical landscapes he created shortly before his death in 2015. The trajectory of his artistic evolution can be traced.

Key early Pop inflected works like “Selma and Patty’s Couch” are included along with later signature collages like “Mardi Gras Indian.”

Rarities like Ray’s matchbook collages and his large mural projects are also spotlighted. The diversity and breadth of Ray’s creativity is showcased.

Thematic Presentation

In addition to proceeding chronologically, the exhibit groups collages according to prominent themes in Ray’s body of work. Sections focus on his Pop iconography, use of spiritual symbols, interest in Surrealism, and incorporation of nature imagery and text.

This organization allows viewers to appreciate how Ray mined certain recurring ideas through endless inventive variations. Connections between works separated in time become clear.

Catalogue and Public Programs

An extensive exhibition catalog edited by curator Natasha Boas includes newly commissioned essays exploring Rex Ray’s life, art, and legacy. Public programs like artist panel discussions and gallery tours will further illuminate Ray’s achievements.

Tips for Visitors

To fully experience this collage retrospective, visitors should spend ample time scanning Ray’s densely layered and detailed compositions. Getting close to note his textures and techniques is recommended.

Let your eye freewheel make connections between disparate elements chance combined. Finding echoes and rhymes across works adds rewards. Soak in the exuberance of Ray’s color and live a bit more joyously.

Impact of Rex Ray’s Artistic Legacy

When Rex Ray passed away in 2015, he left behind an immense creative legacy spanning over 40 years of innovative collage making. Ray’s monumental body of work asserting collage as a vital contemporary art form continues to impact new generations of artists and audiences.

Expanding Possibilities for Collage

Ray significantly expanded the formal vocabulary of collage through his inventive compositional strategies and mastery of disparate techniques. By pushing collage into vibrant new terrain, he revealed rich future possibilities.

Inspiring Collagists

Both emerging and mature collage artists routinely cite Rex Ray as a seminal influence and source of inspiration. His fearless experiments and joyful spirit gave fellow collagists courage to move in uncharted directions.

Revitalizing Funk Art Scene

In his native San Francisco Bay Area, Rex Ray sparked renewed local interest in collage and assemblage. He led the way for other Funk artists to confront contemporary themes using newly liberated approaches.

Bringing Collage Back to Fine Art Museums

Because of Rick Ray’s advocacy and example, museum curators recognized collage as a vital fine art medium again worthy of major exhibitions. Ray helped end collage’s marginalization from the institutional art world.

Expanding Collector Base for Collage

Ray’s high-profile museum shows and celebrity collectors reawakened mainstream interest in collage as a collectible fine art medium. Greater institutional and marketplace acceptance has benefited collagists who followed.

Rex Ray demonstrated collage’s capacity to capture the vitality and concerns of contemporary life, ensuring the medium will continue adapting to reflect future societies. His joyous vision survives to kindle creative spirits.

Frequently Asked Questions About Rex Ray’s Collages

Rex Ray’s pioneering collage work remains fascinating to artists and audiences alike. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about this important American collagist.

What materials did Rex Ray use to make his collages?

Ray gathered materials from everywhere – magazines, books, photos, newspapers, and product packaging. He also made his own papers and had vast paper stashes. Fabrics, foil, sequins and found objects were all fair game too.

Did Ray mainly use original materials or photocopies?

He incorporated both. Ray used photocopiers to manipulate scale and imagery. He then transferred photocopies into collages through emulsion transfers onto wood. So some look handmade, some machine-made.

How did Rex Ray adhere collage elements to the substrate?

For paper bits, Ray often used thin acrylic medium as an adhesive. Collaged sections were sealed under layers of acrylic gloss polymer medium which he used like varnish.

Did Ray incorporate digital processes into his later collages?

Yes. He scanned and Photoshopped some elements. And he output duplicates of collage sections using large-scale digital printers, which allowed more complexity.

Did Rex Ray mainly compose abstract or representational collages?

His work spans a full spectrum. Some pieces feature recognizable pop icons and landscapes. Others are fully abstract. Oftentimes he blended the two approaches together.

What size were Rex Ray’s collages?

They range from tiny matchbook-sized miniatures to mural projects covering entire walls. He most frequently worked at a scale of around 3 by 4 feet, but enjoyed pushing scale extremes.

Where can I view Rex Ray collages in person?

The de Young Museum in San Francisco has a large collection and periodically exhibits pieces. The Palm Springs Museum in Southern California also owns significant works. His pieces often appear in major collage exhibitions nationally.

Why is Rex Ray considered so influential?

Ray helped establish collage as a valid contemporary art form by exhibiting in respected galleries and museums. His incredible diversity of styles and inventive techniques inspired generations of collagists.