Installation views of artists books in Ray Johnson c/o, November 26, 2021 - March 21, 2022, Galleries 124-127, The Art Institute of Chicago
"I have simply had to accept that out of a life necessity I have written a lot of letters, and given away a lot of material and information, and it has been a compulsion. And as I have done this, it has become historical. It's my resumé, it's my biography, it's my history, it's my life."
- Ray Johnson, 1984
A scholar of literature and poetry, Ray Johnson naturally began creating collaged artists' books around 1955, just when he was forming his moticos practice. These books would often be sent to friends or given as gifts but never exhibited or sent as mail art. While few survive - there are several examples in private collections that exemplify this early stage of Johnson's career. Later in 1962, Johnson created A Book About Death, described by William S. Wilson as "indefinite and undecidable", which consisted of an unbound book of loose pages sent out to friends and colleagues slowly until 1965. In this way, Johnson was able to have full control as the author, designer, publisher, and promoter. In 1965, at the culmination of his work on A Book About Death Johnson's first formally published book, The Paper Snake, was put out by Something Else Press (run by Dick Higgins). In The Paper Snake Higgins set out to make a book containing Johnson's "writings, rubbings, plays" that had been delivered to Higgins' door between 1959-64. Ultimately it seems that Johnson was torn between printing his moticos and mailings into the shape of books that might suggest more permanence and letting his creations live freely, distributed through the mail or placed into collages that could be in flux.