by Mark Bloch © 1995
When future historians comb through the wreckage of our century
to reconstruct a picture of the origins of "do-it-yourself"
culture, they'll reach back before grunge, zines and punk, to the
late Ray Johnson, whose artistic use of coin-operated
Xerox machines in the early sixties are a milestone. When all of
us but Elvis are dead and gone, some sleuth inquiring "who
WAS the first Pop artist, anyway?" will undoutedly unearth
Johnson's celebrity collages of James Dean, Shirley Temple and the
will also be discovered that the legendary Johnson did the first
happenings (he called them "nothings") when he carefully
arranged those collages on the street. Or sat under a sun lamp until
somebody told he might get burned Or nailed a folded Larry Poons
painting to a board. Or dropped mustard-covered dimes into a pay
phone. Need I go on?
Even cyberspace is considered by some to be a Ray Johnson "nothing."
In the early sixties, long before there was an Internet, Johnson's
greatest performance work- the New York Correspondence School, an
international network of poets and artists who used the low-tech
medium of the postal system- freely exchanged artwork, objects and
anything else deemed worthy by it's participants, many of whom became
the cultural movers and shakers of the next several decades. The
epicenter of this decentralized whirlwind? Ray Johnson- "the
most famous unknown artist in the world."
Because Ray Johnson was the original "bridge" between
so many of the people and sensibilities that dot the landscape of
the international art scene and it's fringes, it is ironic that
he took his own life at age 67 on January13th, 1995 by jumping from
a bridge into the chilly waters of Sag Harbor. But deadpan irony
was central to Johnson's work and his lightning-quick wit left no
detail unexplored. Tomorrow's historians will also be faced with
solving the riddle of his final work- a death every bit as fascinating
as his life.
Raymond Edward Johnson was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan. His
first experiences using the mail as an art medium stretch back to
1943 with his friend Arthur Secunda. From 1946-48 he studied alongside
Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly at the experimental Black Mountain
College in North Carolina with faculty members Joseph Albers, Robert
Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminister Fuller, and
Willem and Elaine DeKooning, among others.
He moved to Manhattan and showed annually with the American Abstract
Artists which included Ad Reinhart among its members. By 1955, the
trailblazing Johnson was painting over and cutting up images of
Elvis Presley. A year later a portraity of Ike would appear in the
Robert Rauscenberg collage and Roy Lichtenstein would include fuzzy
pictures of Mickey Mouse by. But it would be seven long years later
Johnson-crony Andy Warhol would immortalize Elvis for the first
time. By then Johnson had moved on.
The trailblazing Johnson was a fixture on the Manhattan scene,
heralded as an innovator by the heroes-to-be of Pop and Fluxus.
A pre-Factory Warhol crony, he joined Billy Name and a handful of
others to provide the creative atmosphere that Andy bounced off
Meanwhile, Johnson called his own collages "moticos"
and stored them in cardboard boxes to be shown in Grand Central
Station or on the street. When he compiled them for the occasion
of a 1955 photograph by Elisabeth Novick, Suzi Gablick wrote in
the book Pop Art Redefined, "The random arrangement... on a
dilapidated cellar door in Lower Manhattan may even have been the
first informal happening"
"Ray didn't talk about it, he just did it." says long-time
friend Toby Spiselman, "That's why you don't find art magazines
lying around quoting the art philosophy of Ray Johnson".
Indeed, Ray's iconoclastic blend of Taoist humility and spontaneous
improvization ran contrary to the demands of the marketplace. 'There
was no perusal of the meaning of these pieces," Ray told me
in 1991,"They just wanted them as objects. 'Aren't these nice!
Put them in a museum with nice lighting.' Not the ideas... I wanted
to paste things on railroad cars. Nothing to be seen by anyone except
coyotes." But when the Pop Art gravytrain appeared instead,
"I consciously burned everything in Cy Twombly's fireplace.
Those were early nothings... Destroying
them was the logical thing to do as a statement."
Johnson chose instead to give his art away via his Correspondence
School, using a rich pallette of bunny head portraits and verbal-visual
puns and rhymes carefully designed to confound and amuse the recipient.
His love of collaboration and a habit of recycling old works into
multi-layered new ones resulted in a flurry of "mail art"
circling the globe with instructions to "add to and return
to Ray Johnson."
In the early seventies the Whitney Museum asked Ray to invite members
of his Correspondance School for what was possibly the first mail
art show, and certainly the first one in a major institution. Ray
once told me "For accuracy's sake Marcia Tucker should be credited
with the policy of the New York Correspondence School. She took
over as an institution. I was merely the person inviting 116 people
to be in that show. It said 'Please send to the Whitney Museum (etc.)...'
There was no explanation that they'd be exhibited, that they'd be
catalogued. They just sent it." Ray was referring to a now
standard mail art practice that all work received is exhibited and
that all participants are sent documentation of the show in return.
Some thirty years and 50 countries later, mail art continues to
expand from Johnson's original impetus and in addition to shows
and one-to-one correspondence, it has spawned everything from "correspondence
dinners" and mail art "congresses" to the omnipresent
"zine" network to the do-it-yourself audio cassette exchanges
that helped spread punk rock. In fact, if mail art can be considered
a movement, none other has lasted longer or reached further.
For decades, in the legendary privacy of his own home in Locust
Valley, Ray worked from morning until night, often with the television
on in the background, always making up new incarnations of his CorresponDANCE
School, (the latest one I had heard of being the "Taoist Pop
Art School"). People who were close to Ray Johnson in the last
years of his life know that he used inexpensive throw-away snapshot
cameras as a tool to make pictures of "set ups" in natural
settings of his silhouettes, portraits and other 2 and 3 dimensional
In addition to his mail activity, Johnson continued to do events
and make collages until the very end. His death itself may have
been his final "event". He told several people in the
last days of his life that he was working on his "greatest
work". This man who had playfully announced his own death many
times, died for real January 13, 1995.
He presumably drowned after a jump from the bridge in Sag Harbor,
New York about a two hour drive from his home in Locust Valley.
He was last seen by two teenage girls, backstroking away into Sag
Harbor Cove two hours after checking into the Barron's Cove Inn
in Sag Harbor, near the end of Long Island, NY.. The weather was
unusually mild for that time of year. Ray was fond of the water.
He often took walks along the shore at Oyster Bay near his home.
Though he turned 67 years old on the 16th of October, he was going
strong, remarkably fit for a man of that age. He told me on the
phone late last year, "I'm going to do my exercises,"
that he was "working on a washboard stomach" by doing
"rowing exercises on the beach with rocks." And that he
would "walk with rocks" as weights and that he was "feeling
He was pulled from the water at 12:35pm Saturday afternoon, January
14. He was fully clothed- in a typical outfit for him- levi's, a
wool sweater, work boots and a wind breaker.
He probably would be amused by the "Paul Is Dead" atmosphere
that has littered the press since his curious "rayocide."
So-called art mavens quibble about auction prices while correspondents
compare notes, sifting through old letters for evidence to explain
away the enigmatic endgame of a complex man who was always one step
ahead of the pack. The clues will continue to appear because he
loved mystery, but always left a trail. In the end, all roads will
lead back to the deadpan stare of Ray Johnson.
Created by The Panman (email@example.com)
© copyright 1995 Mark Bloch (with thanks to Ray Johnson and all
others I may have omitted)
This page is a prototype for http://www.echonyc.com/~panman/
and new information will appear shortly updating this one and adding
new subject matter about Ray Johnson and all sorts of other stuff.