“New York’s Most Famous Unknown Artist” Ray Johnson’s exhibition Please Add to & Return is now at the Museu d´Art Contemporani de Barcelona from the 06/11/2009 – 10/01/2010, following the London exhibition at Raven Row.
Johnson who was born in Detroit in 1927 to Finnish immigrants was encouraged to take an interest in art from a young age. In 1945, he enrolled in Black Mountain College, where he came into contact with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Josef Albers.
Richard Lippold was one of Johnson’s professors at Black Mountain College; he introduced Johnson to the New York art world and the group of abstract North American artists with whom he showed his work for the first time in 1949.
That event would mark the rest of his career. New York, and the creative, aesthetic and political effect it had on the artist, would prove crucial to structuring Ray Johnson’s work for more than three decades.
Soon after that exhibition Johnson – who had perhaps been influenced by commercial design like Andy Warhol – began to work in collage. These early collages are highly influenced by the formal education he received at Black Mountain College, and a concern with daily life runs through them.
To make them Johnson used pieces of cardboard employed by dry cleaners to fold dress shirts. He called these works ‘moticos’, a word he created to describe something fleeting and daily.
By the mid 1950s, Johnson had started using the mail to draw attentions to his colleges, sending them along with small messages to curators, collectors and friends. One example of this work is the series called ‘The Luckies’ (1959-61), which is Johnson’s response to a poem about Charles ‘Lucky Lindy’ Lindbergh that his friend Gerald Ayres had sent him.
By the 1960s he’d began to engage in mass mailings and his work began to circulate on a much wider scale. As a result Johnson became known as the “Founding Father of Mail Art.” The artist Ed Plunkett jokingly named this mail art movement the ‘New York Correspondence School’, a term which Johnson immediately adopted.
In the 1960’s Johnson also began to do performances, beginning with ‘Nothing’, whose origin which was intended to oppose to art happenings. ‘Nothing’ was on many occasions, the artist’s response to offers to show in galleries.
History of Video Art by Ray Johnson
Most of his performances at this time were associated with the ‘New York Correspondence School’ and their titles were based on imaginary fan clubs, for example, one in honour of Paloma Picasso.
From 1965-1973 Johnson focused on producing collages for his solo exhibitions. The formal structure of Johnson’s collages from those years is similar to the ones he produced in the 1950s with the content mostly revolving around artistic references.
Johnson’s created complex surfaces in his collages and was a perfectionist going back to these collages again and again and recycling materials from earlier collages. Throughout this period Johnson continued with his mail art. These mail works were often customised for the recipient, alluding to private jokes that gave rise to the exchange.
In the late 1970s, Johnson stopped creating collages for exhibition, rejecting all offers to exhibit that came his way. The collages he produced in those years had more layers, and Johnson worked meticulously on pre-existing collages. The content of the collages became more complex.
Meanwhile, mail art had become a global phenomenon. Johnson started to use the photocopy as a prolongation of the cyclostyle lithographs he had started making in the late 1950s, using A4 paper to distribute his works.
The content of these works combines Johnson’s imagination, personal references and elements taken from general culture. Many of these late mail art works were connected to the art world and Johnson’s unsure relation to it.
They entailed a reflection of their concerns, for example one letter writes “Dear Whitney Museum: I hate you. Love, Ray Johnson.” In 1971, the Whitney held an exhibition of Johnson’s work that he dedicated entirely to mail art.
Throughout Johnsons work he created a new wealth of messages, a very personal and ambitious form of concrete. Even before the Pop art movement his work showed his perception of society of distribution and consumption, as well as insightful references of the question of gender in culture at that time.
Johnson died on January 13, 1995. His body was found floating in a small cove in Sag Harbour, NY. All aspects of his death revolved around the number “13”. His age 67 = 6 + 7 = 13, the room number at his hotel was 247 which add up to 13, the date was January 13, and so forth. He jumped off a bridge on a cold winter night and his body was found the next day. Some close friends believe his death was his final performance.