Ray Johnson, Untitled (Elsa with Ship), not dated, Mail art drawing
"Mail Art is not square, a rectangle, or a photo, or a book, or a slide. It is a river"
- Ray Johnson, 1984
Ray Johnson was the father of the New York Correspondance [sic] School (“NYCS”), a mail art network for which Johnson used the Postal system as part of an art practice that linked people in a wide circle of artistic exchange. In high school, Johnson began sending objects, collages, letters, and postcards with illustrated messages to friends. In 1955, he created mimeographed lists of moticos (in this case the moticos are phrase fragments) and then produced offset-printed pages of texts and drawings, all of which he distributed through the mail to a widening group of friends and prospective correspondents. Later using offset printing, he created the pages which formed his A Book About Death (1963-65) and subsequently distributed these pages a few at a time through the mail to NYCS "members."
By 1959, the practice of “Mail Art”, sending highly conceptual images and texts to friends and acquaintances, urging them to “ Please Send To...” and later to “Please Add To & Return...”, became a significant activity. The subject matter and the recipients were further linked by “correspondences” which Johnson created or observed using their names, identities, activities, and sounds involved in describing all the above or a numerological relationship between them.
In 1962, Ed Plunkett - one of his correspondents - suggested the name New York Correspondence School (NYCS), a humorous play on the "art" schools that were advertised on matchbook covers in the 1950s and 1960s and on the "correspondence" courses offering advanced degrees by mail. Johnson switched the middle “e” into an “a,” making it Correspondance to suggest movement and play. Starting in April 1968, Johnson distributed mailings that called for “meetings” of the NYCS, where people sometimes came together (sometimes not) and during which Ray would often perform a “nothing”, part of his performance art practice. Many of his announcements were of fictive or virtual “meetings” of phantom “clubs.” On April 5, 1973, Ray Johnson sent a notice to The New York Times announcing the "death" of the New York Correspondance School. It is signed "Buddha University" with a bunny head. After this date, Johnson’s mailing activities continued apace (despite their announced “death”) under many guises such as Buddha University and Asparagus Club. Johnson continued to distribute announcements of new "clubs" and their activities - The Dead Pan Club, the Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, Spam Radio Club, and others - into the late 1980s. Johnson inspired a vast international network of mail artists and correspondents who continue creating, "sending" "adding", and posting, to this day.