(Photo of Ray Johnson in the 1960's by his close friend Toby
Spiselman from a book by William S. Wilson, another close friend
and collector. )
(1927 -1995) was an important post-Surrealism, pre-Pop collage artist.
Johnson was also the founder of the New
York Correspondance School, and therefore the originator of
"correspondance art," the inter-disciplinary art form
that uses the postal service in some way (also known as mail art).
He saw his collages as one piece of a complex spectrum of activities
that included drawings, his use of the mails, telephone conversations,
performance art, poetry and real life, all punctuated with a touch
of zen and/or Tao. As a contemporary (and correspondent) of most
of the artists participating in Fluxus, Happenings, Neo-Dada, Judson
Dance Church and other intermedia activities of the 1950s, 60s,
70s and 80s, he was instrumental in transforming the international
avant-garde into a coherent network. In doing so, he became the
center of a cult of personality that developed inadvertently among
younger artists in over fifty countries.
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, Cy Twombly and others at the experimental Black
Mountain College in North Carolina with faculty members Joseph Albers,
Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminister Fuller,
and Elaine and Willem DeKooning, among others.
He moved to Manhattan in the late 1940s and showed annually with
the American Abstract Artists which included his friend Ad Reinhart
among its members. By 1955, the trailblazing Johnson was painting
over and cutting up images of Elvis Presley. It would be seven long
years later Johnson's friend 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.
By his own admission, the pre-Factory Warhol crony, Billy Name,
borrowed from Johnson and a handful of others who attended Black
Mountain College to provide the creative atmosphere that Andy bounced
Johnson called his own collages "moticos" and stored them
in cardboard boxes to be shown in Grand Central Station or on the
street. Art critic 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
"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."
Johnson'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 Mark
Bloch 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 Mark Bloch, "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"). In the last years of his life, Ray Johnson 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 objects.
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.
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 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. A "Paul Is Dead"
atmosphere has permeated the press since his curious death which
Bloch has called the one and only "rayocide." Art mavens
quibble about auction prices while correspondents compare notes,
sifting through old letters for clues to why he may have taken his
Created by The Panman (email@example.com)
© copyright 1995 Mark Bloch (with thanks to Ray Johnson and
all others I may have omitted)