"the most famous unknown artist in the world"
When future historians comb through the wreckage of our century to
reconstruct a picture of the origins of "do-it-yourself" culture,
they'll reach back before grunge, zines and punk, to the late Ray
Johnson, whose artistic use of coin-operated Xerox machines in the
early sixties are a milestone.
When all of us but Elvis
are dead and gone, some sleuth inquiring "who WAS the first Pop
artist, anyway?" will undoutedly unearth Johnson's celebrity
collages of James Dean, Shirley Temple and the King himself.
It will also be discovered that the legendary Johnson did the
first happenings (he called them "nothings") when he carefully
arranged those collages on the street. Or sat under a sun lamp
until somebody told he might get burned Or nailed a folded Larry
Poons painting to a board. Or dropped mustard-covered dimes into a
pay phone. Need I go on?
Even cyberspace is considered by some to be a Ray Johnson
"nothing." In the early sixties, long before there was an
Internet, Johnson's greatest performance work- the New York
Correspondence School, an international network of poets and
artists who used the low-tech medium of the postal system- freely
exchanged artwork, objects and anything else deemed worthy by it's
participants, many of whom became the cultural movers and shakers
of the next several decades. The epicenter of this decentralized
whirlwind? Ray Johnson- "the most famous unknown artist in the
Because Ray Johnson was the original "bridge" between so many of
the people and sensibilities that dot the landscape of the
international art scene and it's fringes, it is ironic that he
took his own life at age 67 on January13th, 1995 by jumping from a
bridge into the chilly waters of Sag Harbor. But deadpan irony was
central to Johnson's work and his lightning-quick wit left no
detail unexplored. Tomorrow's historians will also be faced with
solving the riddle of his final work- a death every bit as
fascinating as his life.
Raymond Edward Johnson was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan. His
first experiences using the mail as an art medium stretch back to
1943 with his friend Arthur Secunda. From 1946-48 he studied
alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly at the experimental
Black Mountain College in North Carolina with faculty members
Joseph Albers, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham,
Buckminister Fuller, and Willem and Elaine DeKooning, among
He moved to Manhattan and showed annually with the American
Abstract Artists which included Ad Reinhart among its members. By
1955, the trailblazing Johnson was painting over and cutting up
images of Elvis Presley. A year later a portraity of Ike would
appear in the Robert Rauscenberg collage and Roy Lichtenstein
would include fuzzy pictures of Mickey Mouse by. But it would be
seven long years later Johnson-crony Andy Warhol would immortalize
Elvis for the first time. By then Johnson had moved on.
The trailblazing Johnson was a fixture on the Manhattan scene,
heralded as an innovator by the heroes-to-be of Pop and Fluxus. A
pre-Factory Warhol crony, he joined Billy Name and a handful of
others to provide the creative atmosphere that Andy bounced off
Meanwhile, Johnson called his own collages "moticos" and stored
them in cardboard boxes to be shown in Grand Central Station or on
the street. When he compiled them for the occasion of a 1955
photograph by Elisabeth Novick, Suzi Gablick wrote in the book Pop
Art Redefined, "The random arrangement... on a dilapidated cellar
door in Lower Manhattan may even have been the first informal
"Ray didn't talk about it, he just did it." says long-time friend
Toby Spiselman, "That's why you don't find art magazines lying
around quoting the art philosophy of Ray Johnson".
Indeed, Ray's iconoclastic blend of Taoist humility and
spontaneous improvization ran contrary to the demands of the
marketplace. 'There was no perusal of the meaning of these
pieces," Ray told me in 1991,"They just wanted them as objects.
'Aren't these nice! Put them in a museum with nice lighting.' Not
the ideas... I wanted to paste things on railroad cars. Nothing to
be seen by anyone except coyotes." But when the Pop Art gravytrain
appeared instead, "I consciously burned everything in Cy Twombly's
fireplace. Those were early nothings... Destroying them was the
logical thing to do as a statement."
Johnson chose instead to give his art away via his Correspondence
School, using a rich pallette of bunny head portraits and
verbal-visual puns and rhymes carefully designed to confound and
amuse the recipient. His love of collaboration and a habit of
recycling old works into multi-layered new ones resulted in a
flurry of "mail art" circling the globe with instructions to "add
to and return to Ray Johnson."
In the early seventies the Whitney Museum asked Ray to invite
members of his Correspondance School for what was possibly the
first mail art show, and certainly the first one in a major
institution. Ray once told me "For accuracy's sake Marcia Tucker
should be credited with the policy of the New York Correspondence
School. She took over as an institution. I was merely the person
inviting 116 people to be in that show. It said 'Please send to
the Whitney Museum (etc.)...' There was no explanation that they'd
be exhibited, that they'd be catalogued. They just sent it." Ray
was referring to a now standard mail art practice that all work
received is exhibited and that all participants are sent
documentation of the show in return.
Some thirty years and 50 countries later, mail art continues to
expand from Johnson's original impetus and in addition to shows
and one-to-one correspondence, it has spawned everything from
"correspondence dinners" and mail art "congresses" to the
omnipresent "zine" network to the do-it-yourself audio cassette
exchanges that helped spread punk rock. In fact, if mail art can
be considered a movement, none other has lasted longer or reached
For decades, in the legendary privacy of his own home in Locust
Valley, Ray worked from morning until night, often with the
television on in the background, always making up new incarnations
of his CorresponDANCE School, (the latest one I had heard of being
the "Taoist Pop Art School"). People who were close to Ray Johnson
in the last years of his life know that he used inexpensive
throw-away snapshot cameras as a tool to make pictures of "set
ups" in natural settings of his silhouettes, portraits and other 2
and 3 dimensional objects.
In addition to his mail activity, Johnson continued to do events
and make collages until the very end. His death itself may have
been his final "event". He told several people in the last days of
his life that he was working on his "greatest work". This man who
had playfully announced his own death many times, died for real
January 13, 1995.
He presumably drowned after a jump from the bridge in Sag Harbor,
New York about a two hour drive from his home in Locust Valley. He
was last seen by two teenage girls, backstroking away into Sag
Harbor Cove two hours after checking into the Barron's Cove Inn in
Sag Harbor, near the end of Long Island, NY.. The weather was
unusually mild for that time of year. Ray was fond of the water.
He often took walks along the shore at Oyster Bay near his home.
Though he turned 67 years old on the 16th of October, he was going
strong, remarkably fit for a man of that age. He told me on the
phone late last year, "I'm going to do my exercises," that he was
"working on a washboard stomach" by doing "rowing exercises on the
beach with rocks." And that he would "walk with rocks" as weights
and that he was "feeling very fit."
He was pulled from the water at 12:35pm Saturday afternoon,
January 14. He was fully clothed - in a typical outfit for him -
levi's, a wool sweater, work boots and a wind breaker.
He probably would be amused by the "Paul Is Dead" atmosphere that
has littered the press since his curious "rayocide." So-called art
mavens quibble about auction prices while correspondents compare
notes, sifting through old letters for evidence to explain away
the enigmatic endgame of a complex man who was always one step
ahead of the pack. The clues will continue to appear because he
loved mystery, but always left a trail. In the end, all roads will
lead back to the deadpan stare of Ray Johnson.
information about Ray Johnson, contact
Mark Bloch at
New York, NY, 10009 USA
H.R.Fricker . Swiss
Henning Mittendorf . Germany
Mark Bloch . USA
H.R.Fricker . Swiss
Osvaldo Jalil . Argentina
Henning Mittendorf . Germany