Ray Johnson is born on October 16, in Detroit, Michigan, and lives on Quincy Avenue in a working-class neighborhood. Attends classes at Detroit Institute of Arts while in junior high.
Attends Cass Technical High School, where he studies drawing, art composition, graphic design, art history, and lettering; wins a certificate of merit in the Michigan Regional Scholastic Art Exhibition at Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. Schoolmate Arthur Secunda moves to New York City in 1943, and Johnson begins to send him heavily illustrated letters with cartoon-like drawings, captions, and requests for celebrity ephemera. Johnson later calls this the beginning of his mail art activities.
Before graduating, Johnson is awarded scholarships to the Art Students League in New York and to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Attends BMC’s Summer Institute. Studies color and design with Josef Albers, painting and drawing with Ilya Bolotowsky, painting with Lyonel Feininger, graphic design with Alvin Lustig, painting with Robert Motherwell, and advertising art with Paul Rand. Except for the spring 1946 semester, Johnson remains at Black Mountain College for over three years, through the end of the Summer Institute of 1948.
Attends Ox-bow, an affiliate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in Saugatuck, Michigan, during summer 1944, between his junior and senior years
Spring 1946 lives at 324 West 56th Street, attends classes at the Art Students League and works at New York Public Library. Is rejected for induction in the Army. By the summer, Johnson returns to Black Mountain and Josef Albers arranges for Johnson to design the cover of the November 1947 issue of Interiors magazine.
Moves to New York City with Lippold. Meets Cy Twombly and Ad Reinhardt. Lives at 149 West 119th Street. Summer 1950 visits Black Mountain College. Begins exhibiting paintings with the American Abstract Artists group (which continues into 1952) and later becomes Treasurer.
Moves with Lippold to 326 Monroe Street to a tenement called the “Boza Mansion,” which they will share with John Cage and avant-garde composer Morton Feldman.
Fellowship at Cummington School of the Arts, Massachusetts; Johnson’s friends, photographer Norman Solomon and art critic Suzi Gablik, are there at the same time. Moves to 2 Dover Street in lower Manhattan where he remains until July 1960. Nearby is Coentie’s Slip (which became an artist’s community in the late 50s, early 60s) where friends Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Ad Reinhardt (for whom Johnson serves as an assistant) will have studios. Around this time is working part-time at the Orientalia Bookstore on East 12th Street in shipping with the help of Nick Cernovich. Deepens his knowledge of Zen philosophy and develops strong interest in the role of chance in art and life.
Designs a cover for a New Directions edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations using a Benday screened photograph of the symbolist poet; Johnson will use the image frequently in subsequent collages and mailings. Johnson’s backdrops for fashion photographs appear in the February and August issues of Harper’s Bazaar. Three of Johnson’s offset-lithography promotional flyers are reproduced in April’s Gutai magazine, published in Osaka, Japan.
Included in Collage in America at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, et al; and in an exhibition at Mills College, New York, with Ellsworth Kelly and others, curated by Ad Reinhardt. Listed in the Dictionary of Abstract Painting by Michel Seuphor (Tudor Publishing).
Johnson’s practice of mail art—sending found objects and images, texts, flyers, collages through the mail—becomes a significant activity.
Recognized as part of the nascent Pop generation: in January’s ARTnews article about Jasper Johns, a critic states that “Johns’ first solo show (. . .) places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” Begins to incorporate small three-dimensional blocks made from layers of cardboard into collages. Visits Rauschenberg in his studio and sees Factum I and Factum II. Is thought to have burned some of the early moticos and his earlier abstract paintings in Cy Twombly’s fireplace around this time.
Johnson begins a mural for The Living Theatre (founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck), which is later accidentally painted over.
Designs flyers and announcements for the group, and for Jargon Society, among others. Johnson’s backdrops appear in "Fashions of the Times", a supplement to The New York Times. The earliest known “Please Send To” mailing is postmarked on June 9, 1958.
Around this time, Johnson meets Billy Linich (later known as Billy Name) at Serendipity in New York, and in 1963 Johnson introduces Linich to Warhol. Billy Name was to be an important figure at Warhol’s Factory—he was responsible for its “silver installation.” Johnson begins sending film writer Gerry Ayres a series of “Lucky Strike” collages through the mail.
Shows movie star collages (Presley, Dean, Monroe) in the exhibition Out of the Ordinary at Contemporary Arts Association, Houston. Participates in exhibition Below Zero at Reuben Gallery, New York.
Begins sending letters with instructions to “Please Add To and Send To . . . ” Ed Plunkett baptizes the New York Correspondence School, by now an international network of individuals who exchange missives and mail art through the postal system. Johnson renames it the New York Correspondance (sic) School (NYCS) and alternates the spelling (Correspondence and Correspondance). Johnson will send out thousands of flyers and announcements during the next three decades referring to his virtual “school.”
Begins correspondence with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Paris. Nothing event at Maidman Playhouse, New York, and advertised in the Village Voice.
Johnson issues the first 13 pages of A Book About Death (1963-5). In group exhibition Pop Art U.S.A. at the California College of the Arts and the Oakland Art Museum.
During one of his frequent visits to Warhol’s Factory, Johnson brings his friend Dorothy Podber who unexpectedly takes out a gun and shoots a stack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreen paintings, which will later be sold as the Shot Marilyns. Places two cryptic classified ads in The Village Voice. When Johnson is hospitalized with hepatitis in August, Warhol places an ad in The Village Voice announcing a non-existent exhibition in Johnson’s room at Bellevue Hospital.
David Bourdon publishes “An Interview with nosnhoJ yaR” in the September issue of Artforum. Johnson’s earliest known bunnyhead drawing appears at the end of a letter to William S. Wilson.
Becomes acquainted with Nam June Paik soon after Paik’s arrival in New York.
Has a solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery, New York. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller purchases Ladder Whirled, ca. 1950-51, from the show. Grace Glueck in The New York Times calls Johnson “New York’s most famous unknown artist.”
The Paper Snake, a compilation of Johnson’s mailings to Fluxus poet Dick Higgins, is published by Something Else Press.
Received the National Institute of Arts & Letters award for painting.
William S. Wilson's "Ray Johnson: New York Correspondence School" appears in Art and Artists,the first published article to discuss the New York Correspondence School.
Begins correspondence with Joseph Cornell. Shows works, including Bridget Riley and Duchamp Combs series at Feigen Gallery in New York and Chicago and Willard Gallery in New York. In 1967 “New York Correspondence School” article appears in Artforum (Johnson, Bourdon, Leider).
First recorded meeting of the New York Correspondance School at the Society of Friends Meeting House, Rutherford Place, New York.
Severely shaken after being held at knifepoint in Manhattan on the same day that Warhol is shot by Valerie Solanas (and by the assassination of Robert Kennedy two days later), Johnson moves to Glen Cove, Long Island to a house that he described as a “small farmhouse with a Joseph Cornell attic,” where he works with great productivity but gradually withdraws from the Manhattan art world.
Has the solo exhibition A Lot of Shirley Temple Post Cards Show at Feigen Gallery, New York, collages which include photographs of film stars. Group exhibitions include Richard J. Daley at Feigen Gallery, Chicago and Violence in Recent American Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (in which Johnson presents the collage Do Not Kill, 1966); other artists include Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. At Cornell’s request, Johnson introduces him to Ultra Violet (a Warhol Factory luminary).
Moves to 44 West 7th Street, known as the “Pink House,” in Locust Valley, Long Island, near the Lippolds.
Visits Vancouver, Canada to install Ray Johnson—Nineteen Collages, part of Concrete Poetry: An Exhibition in Four Parts at the University of British Columbia. The Last Correspondance Show, Art Gallery of California State University, Sacramento. As part of the exhibition, The Last Correspondence Show hosts an event that includes a raffle (Raffaele) for “a duck that turned out to be a rabbit.”
Included in the group exhibition Combine Works at the School of Visual Arts, New York, showing collages made by Johnson in collaboration with others: Drip (with May Wilson), Mitton (with Ero Lippold), My Name is Mona (with John Willenbecher), Fake Face Collage (with Richard Craven), and an untitled work (with Joseph Raffaele).
Included in John Russell’s and Suzi Gablik’s groundbreaking survey Pop Art Redefined at London’s Hayward Gallery, and the book which accompanied it (Thames & Hudson). Gablik stresses the importance of chance techniques and found images and cites Johnson as a pioneer in both arenas (pages 16-17).
Johnson drops sixty foot-long hot dogs from a helicopter over Ward’s Island as part of the 7th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival, Ward’s Island and Mill Rock Island. This performance is underwritten by his dealer, Richard Feigen.
A Buddha University Meeting, Onnasch Gallery, New York; NYCS Exhibition and Valentine’s Day Performance, Western Illinois University, Macomb; Paloma Picasso Fan Club Meeting, Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York; Asparagus Club: A Consept Event (also called Oh Dat Consept Art), Rene Block Gallery, New York; Spaghetti performance, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.
Ray Johnson’s History of Yoko Ono and John performance, New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury; Spam Radio Club meeting, Center for Book Arts, New York; How to Draw a Daisy NYCS Meeting, Central Hall Gallery, Port Washington, Long Island, NY. Has solo exhibitions at Gertrude Kasle Gallery, Detroit and Massimo Valsecchi Gallery, Milan and is included in the group exhibition Brecht—Johnson—Duchamp, Kunstmarkt, Cologne.
Awarded National Endowment for the Arts grant to document the New York Correspondence School. Begins Silhouette project, creating over 200 silhouettes of friends’, artists’ or famous peoples’ faces and using some of them as the basis for collages. Subjects include Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso, James Rosenquist, Frances Beatty, Richard Feigen, Christo, Louise Nevelson, Lynda Benglis, Larry Rivers, David Bowie, William S. Burroughs, Edward Albee, Nam June Paik, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, and Roy Lichtenstein—“a who’s who of the New York arts and letters scene.”
Correspondance: An Exhibition of the Letters of Ray Johnson is mounted at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh: 81 lenders contribute mailings from Johnson covering 35 years of mail art and letters. First Shelley Duvall Fan Club meeting, Brooks Jackson/Iolas Gallery, New York.
Awarded National Endowment for the Arts and Creative Artists Public Service Program (CAPS—New York State) grants (1977). Portrait collages exhibited at Benson Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and Framart, Naples. 1978 is the last time Johnson allows a commercial gallery to hold a solo exhibition of new work.
Over 11 “performances” and “meetings” in 1977 alone, including The Unopened Letter, Second Shelley Duvall Fan Club, Dead Bird, Flying Eyeballs, A Throwaway Gesture performance, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and Another Throwaway Gesture performance, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. In 1980 the Mail Etc., Art exhibition and catalog, University of Colorado, Boulder, contains interview with Ray Johnson.
Chuck Close makes six 20-by-24 inch Polaroids of Johnson at MIT (1979). Johnson meets Salvador Dali at Studio 54, where Dali has a “table.” Johnson calls Dali’s bodyguard, his “life guard.” Warhol is also a frequent habitué of the famous New York discotheque and celebrity-watering hole.
Continues some mailings, but rather than redistributing articles and objects sent to him begins placing many in cardboard boxes which he often gives away.
About this time, Johnson begins drawing finger and hand silhouettes and incorporating them into collages. Artpool’s Ray Johnson Space opens in Budapest, Hungary. From 1982 on, Johnson repeatedly refuses offers made by Frances Beatty at Richard L. Feigen & Co., both in New York and Chicago, and other art dealers, to give him an exhibition. He works in increasing isolation, chiefly communicating with friends and ‘correspondants’ through the mail and the telephone.
NYCS David Letterman Fan Club meeting and performance, Post College, Greenvale, NY.
Meeting for Bill Boggs and Bambino, Sagaponack Post Office, Sagaponack, NY. N.Y.C.S.
Works by Ray Johnson, Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY—the most comprehensive exhibition of Johnson’s work up until that time. Johnson visits the exhibition but remains in the parking lot during the opening. Rooftop Event, Glen Cove, NY.
Johnson’s father, Eino Johnson, dies on July 15, 1984.
Johnson stages very few performances/gestures: A Performance Event with Ray Johnson, part of the 32nd Annual Long Island Artists’ Show, Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY; The New York Correspondance Academy: A Throwaway Gesture for Brian Buczak. Solo exhibition: Prints after ‘Étants Donnés’ at The Print Club, Philadelphia.
Johnson's last documented performance is in 1988 in conjunction with the Al Hansen exhibition at Gracie Mansion Gallery, New York, with Larry Poons and Vito Acconci.
Johnson’s mother, Lorraine L. Polkki Johnson dies in mid-June of 1988.
Contributes pins with a drawing and the text “Venice Lockjaw” printed on them in Ubi Fluxus ibi motus, 1990– 1962, Venice Biennale, ExGranai della Reppublica alla Zitelle Guidecca, Venice. More Works by Ray Johnson, 1951–1991 at Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia—the last solo museum show before his death.
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, Johnson is seen backstroking out to sea near the bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in an apparent suicide at age 67. He leaves no will or note. Many consider this act to be Johnson’s last performance piece. Ray Johnson: A Memorial Exhibition at Richard L. Feigen & Co. organized by Frances Beatty generates interest in Johnson and his work, which is reproduced on the covers of Artforum, Art in America, and all over the popular media. Richard L. Feigen & Co. takes over the representation of the Ray Johnson Estate until 2017 when Director Frances Beatty attains exclusive representation rights with her firm, Adler Beatty.