“Make room for Ray Johnson whose place in history has been only vaguely defined. Johnson's beguiling, challenging art has an exquisite clarity and emotional intensity that makes it much more than simply a remarkable mirror of its time, although it is that, too.”
–Roberta Smith, The New York Times (1995)
In early 1949, Johnson moved to New York City and became an active participant in the downtown art scene. Alongside the American Abstract Artists group, Johnson painted geometric abstractions heavily influenced by the imagery of his former professor, Josef Albers. Johnson later destroyed most of this work, having turned to collage.
By 1954, Johnson was making irregularly shaped "moticos,” his name for small-scale collages upon which he pasted images from popular culture such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple, and department store models. Johnson’s 1950s moticos anticipated Warhol's 1960s Pop imagery. However, his attitude towards fame remained the antithesis of Warhol’s. He continually dodged it and was dubbed “the most famous unknown artist” by Grace Glueck in a 1965 New York Times article in which she discussed his deliberate elusiveness. Johnson carried boxes of moticos around New York, sharing them with strangers on sidewalks, in cafes, and even in Grand Central Station. He solicited and even occasionally recorded the public’s response to his intricate creations. After a number of performance-like installations of these works in 1954-55, Johnson claimed to have burned a plethora of them in Cy Twombly’s fireplace, a gesture that John Baldessari later replicated in his “Cremation.”
Johnson was one of the first conceptualists, an heir to Marcel Duchamp whom he may have met in 1961. Johnson shared his enthusiasm for the elder Frenchman’s work with many of his contemporaries. In Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Michael Taylor notes, “The public display of Johnson’s work helped to situate him as a crucial figure in the post-World War II dissemination of Duchamp’s art and ideas, alongside cultural luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns.” Johnson was one of the key artists to incorporate exhortations to the observer to participate actively in the work of art itself. His interest in codes, poetics, and semiotic systems looked back to Duchamp, while anticipating the enlarging contemporary conceptual practices, and the development of appropriation in particular, during the early second half of the 20th century.
Throughout the early stage of his career and spanning its duration, Johnson sought out the random and the ephemeral, incorporating chance operations into his artistic practice with “mail art.” He gradually built up an informal, hybrid network of friends, acquaintances, and strangers with whom he exchanged ideas and artworks by means of the postal system. By 1958, he began to write, “Please send to...” on his mailings, thereby creating even more sub-networks among the hundreds of correspondents in his greater mail art organization. By 1962, when it was named the “New York Correspondance [sic] School,” his virtual “school” of correspondents had become a network for a web of communication by mail that eventually spread across the nation and around the globe.
Johnson was an early instigator of performance art, actively participating in events by James Waring and Susan Kaufman, among others, and staging his own starting in 1957 that included "Funeral Music for Elvis Presley" and "Lecture on Modern Music.” Johnson's compositions were performed at The Living Theatre and during events such as the Fluxus “Yam Festival” of 1963. From 1961 on, Johnson periodically staged events he called "Nothings,” described to his friend William S. Wilson as “an attitude as opposed to a happening,” which would parallel the “Happenings” of Allan Kaprow and later Fluxus events. The first of these, "Nothing by Ray Johnson," was part of a weekly series of events in July 1961 at AG Gallery, a venue in New York operated by George Maciunas and Almus Salcius. Ed Plunkett later recalled entering an empty room: " . . . Visitors began to enter the premises. Most of them looked quite dismayed that nothing was going on . . . Well, finally Ray arrived . . . and he brought with him a large corrugated cardboard box of wooden spools. Soon after arriving Ray emptied this box of spools down the staircase … with these … one had to step cautiously to avoid slipping … I was delighted with this gesture.” Johnson’s second Nothing took place at Maidman Playhouse, New York, in 1962. Furthermore, the carefully orchestrated circumstances of his suicide on Friday the 13th, 1995 have prompted the suggestion that the process of his drowning was his “final performance.”
On April 1, 1968, the first of the meeting of the New York Correspondance School was held at the Society of Friends Meeting House on Rutherford Place in New York City. Johnson called two more meetings in the following weeks, including the Seating-Meeting at New York’s Finch College, about which John Gruen reported: “It was . . . attended by many artists and ‘members’ . . . all of whom sat around wondering when the meeting would start. It never did . . . people wrote things on bits of paper, on a blackboard, or simply talked. It was all strangely meaningless — and strangely meaningful.” Until his death, Johnson continued to mail out an extraordinary quantity of material, including elements of chopped-up collages; drawings with instructions (“please add to and return...”); found objects; snakeskins; plastic forks; and annotated newspaper clippings, to name only a few. To Johnson, “art” rejected physical limitations, the restraints of time, or a single identifiable goal. In this capacity, Johnson privileged inclusivity, deeming anyone and everyone with whom he interacted suitable for creative exchange.
Richard Feigen was an early champion of his work, holding one-man exhibitions in New York and Chicago from 1966-72, including I Shot an Arrow into the Air It Fell to Earth in the Ear of an Artist Living in Flushing, New York Tit Show (1970) and Dollar Bills (1970). From 1968-1974, Johnson produced an ambitious body of work, received critical attention on the pages of Artforum, and was featured in several major exhibitions. In 1970, The Whitney Museum of American Art organized Ray Johnson: New York Correspondance School, which served as a major form of cultural validation for Johnson’s practice. Additionally, Johnson had several solo shows at Willard Gallery (New York) as well as Famous People’s Mother’s Potato Mashers (1973) at Galleria Schwarz (Milan) and Ray Johnson’s History of the Betty Parsons Gallery (1973) at the Betty Parsons Gallery (New York), and participated in the group exhibition Post Card Show (1971-72) at the Angela Flowers Gallery (London).
On June 3, 1968, the day Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, Johnson was held at knifepoint in lower Manhattan. Two days later, the world was shocked by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. A few months earlier the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. threw the USA into upset. These traumatic events prompted Johnson's abrupt departure to Glen Cove, Long Island, to a house he described as a "small white farmhouse with a Joseph Cornell attic." He shortly after relocated to nearby Locust Valley, where he lived until his death. As his contemporaries became famous, Johnson gradually but purposefully closed off his private life and dwelling, but still maintained connections via trips into New York City, his mail art, the telephone, and various activities in the Locust Valley community. Johnson, referring to himself as a “mysterious and secret organization,” eventually achieved legendary status as a “pure,” completely un-commercial artist. His underground reputation bubbled beneath the surface into the 1980s, despite his physical absence from the Manhattan art world. Johnson’s presence continued to be felt by those who admired him including Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, and a close circle of friends, admirers, and collectors. Only a handful of people were ever allowed into his house and around 1978, he ceased to exhibit or sell his work commercially. In contrast to his physical seclusion, Johnson's pre-digital network of correspondents increased exponentially. Johnson feverishly developed richer and more complex collages, which Whitney Museum curator, Donna de Salvo, described as “extending the compositional network beyond the parameters of an individual work and into the wider world."
On April 5, 1973, Johnson declared the “death” of the “New York Correspondance School” in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times but continued to practice mail art under this and other rubrics. In 1976, Johnson began his Silhouette project, which involved creating over 200 profiles of friends’, artists’, or famous peoples’ faces, which he would often use as the basis for collages. Subjects included “a who’s who of the New York arts and letters scene”: Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso, James Rosenquist, Richard Feigen, Frances Beatty, William S. Burroughs, Nam June Paik, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Johnson continued to exhibit in many group exhibitions and held over forty performances and Corresponde(a)nce School events. In 1984, Works by Ray Johnson at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY — the most comprehensive exhibition of Johnson’s work up until that time was curated by Phyllis Stigliano and Janice Parente. Johnson visited the exhibition but remained in the parking lot during the opening. A few months later, also in 1984, Johnson's father, Eino Johnson died on July 15th. Prompting Johnson to go back to Detroit for a while to help his mother Lorraine. In 1988 Lorraine Johnson died and Johnson staged his last documented performance in conjunction with the Al Hansen exhibition at Gracie Mansion Gallery, New York, with Larry Poons and Vito Acconci. In 1991, More Works by Ray Johnson 1951-1991 opened at Goldie Paley Gallery in Philadelphia curated again by Stigliano and Parente.
From 1992–1994, Johnson used 137 disposable cameras to create a large body of work that was not widely shown until 2022 at the Morgan Library & Museum in the exhibition Please Send to Real Life: Ray Johnson Photographs curated by Joel Smith. Staging his collages in settings near his home in Locust Valley, Long Island — parking lots, sidewalks, beaches, cemeteries — Johnson made photographs that pull the world of everyday “real life” into his art. In, as he put it, his “new career as a photographer,” Johnson began making collages in a new, larger format that made them more effective players in his camera tableaux. The vast archive he left behind at his death included over three thousand of the late photographs.
On January 13, 1995, Johnson was seen dressed in black diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and backstroking out to sea. Many aspects of his death involved the number "13": the date, his age, 67 (6+7=13), as well as the room number of a motel he had checked into earlier that day, 247 (2+4+7=13). There was much speculation amongst critics, scholars, admirers, and law-enforcement officials about a “last performance” aspect of Johnson’s drowning. After his death, hundreds of collages were found carefully arranged in his Long Island home. A retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999), which traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts as well as solo and group shows in the US and abroad, including Paris, London, Oslo, Budapest, and Barcelona, began the process of re-introducing Johnson’s work to a broader audience. Johnson is considered one of the major artistic innovators of the second half of the 20th century within the critical community but his work remains underexposed and underappreciated by the general public.
Following Johnson’s suicide, filmmakers Andrew Moore and John Walter, with the support and oversight of Frances Beatty, Vice-President of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and Director of the Ray Johnson Estate, spent six years probing the mysteries of Johnson's life and art. Their collaboration yielded the award-winning documentary, How To Draw a Bunny, released in 2003. How To Draw a Bunny examines Johnson's life, art, his ambivalent attitude towards fame, and finally his mysterious death. The film includes interviews with artists Chuck Close, James Rosenquist, Billy Name, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and the founder of The Living Theatre, Judith Malina, among many others. A decade after his death, the network of mail artists continues to grow, numbering in the thousands of general correspondents. Although Johnson's death left many questions, his life's work is evidence of a powerful and original sensibility unique in the history of Modern Art.
Adler Beatty represents the Ray Johnson Estate exclusively.