The Mysterious Life and Death of Ray Johnson and the Rise of the New York Correspondance School of Art
On January 13, 1995, Ray Johnson, the founding father of Mail Art, died under mysterious circumstances rivaling the enigmatic way in which he conducted his life. He was 67 years old, and leaves behind a legacy of incalculable proportions. The New York Correspondance School of Art that he birthed remains a reality in mailboxes around the world. For his many friends, Johnson has not left, but has only traded addresses. His is still the brightest star in the firmament of the Eternal Network.
Ray Johnson was born on October 16, 1927, in Detroit, Michigan, into a community of Finnish immigrants. He revealed a propensity toward art from a young age, and was eventually given a scholarship to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which he attended from 1945 to 1948. Black Mountain has assumed mythic proportions in the history of American art as a training ground for the major art trends that exploded in the fifties and sixties. It was here that Johnson studied with such modern masters as Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Robert Motherwell, and Ossip Zadkine, among others.
In 1948 he moved to New York where he was a painter of geometric abstractions, and was friendly with such artists as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, with whom he was associated at Black Mountain. In the mid-fifties, he was dealing with images from popular culture (such as Elvis Presley, James Dean and packaging of Lucky Strike cigarettes) that pre-figured the Pop Art movement. By the late fifties he had established himself as a major collage artist, but shunned gallery representation until the mid-sixties. He concerned himself instead with the mailing of “moticos,” a self-described term he gave to his drawings, which he combined with newspaper and magazine photographs.
They were often accompanied by a trademark “bunny head.” These bodiless bunnies changed appearance over the years, and became a form of self-portraiture. They have been used by a generation of Mail Artists to evoke his presence.
By 1955 he had established a mailing list of at least two-hundred people to whom these moticos were sent. This was the beginning of the New York Correspondence School (later to become the Correspondance School to reflect the performance aspect of the mailings), so named by E. M. Plunkett in 1962. Johnson’s mailings asserted a peculiar legitimacy from the very beginning. Andy Warhol was an avid fan and collector, offering cash rewards for any Johnson letters he was able to obtain.
Unlike the career driven artists in his milieu, Johnson seemed satisfied with his underground reputation, scorning mainstream acceptance. While Cage continued in the creation of quirky yet recognizable classical idioms such as oratorios, quartets and the like; and Merce Cunningham continued in the tradition of Modern Dance; where Rauschenburg and Johns surely stretched the boundaries of easel painting, yet remained implanted within a studio context; Johnson turned to something completely different – correspondence art. It has been said that what Joseph Cornell was to the box, Johnson was to the letter. It was a medium that he made completely his own.
It is for this reason that Mail Art has had trouble escaping the ghetto it has been placed in by the mainstream artworld. Critics speculate that while Johnson was a major innovator, all others involved in a similar course were doomed to repeat his considerable efforts. He was so talented that he was able to make it look easy. When he encouraged his correspondents to “add and send to…,” Johnson let loose a flood of creativity that encircled the globe, but the activity has never been completely able to break free of the sheer force of his personality.
Johnson was also a performance artist, who typically rebelled against the prevailing “happenings” of the era. In typical Johnson fashion, he was an agent of ‘nothings,” conceptualizing an event from which he immediately removed himself and left the audience to its’ own devices. At other times, however, he brought together members of his mailing list into New York Correspondance School of Art Meetings, formed against different thematically backdrops. These events predate the Mail Art Congresses of 1986 and the Networker Congresses of 1992 by several decades.
His 1970 exhibition of the New York Correspondance School of Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art set the tone for a multitude of similar exhibitions in years to follow. The show established the principle that all work submitted to a Mail Art exhibition would be shown without assessment of quality. For Johnson, art was not a matter of consumable objects, but about participation and collaboration.
Despite the search for Mail Art’s ancestors; despite the urge to incorporate singular works of Duchamp into the legacy; despite the dabblings of the Italian Futurists, who used the postal system for propaganda purposes; despite the postal collaborations of Fluxus, and the actions of Gutai; Ray Johnson remains the measure by which contemporary Mail Artists must weigh their accomplishments. He was the spark that ignited a firestorm of international postal creativity.
Fluxus was certainly cognizant of Ray Johnson. Dick Higgins, who was an active participant in the movement, published a book on Johnson, The Paper Snake (Something Else Press, 1965). Fluxus produced Flux Postal Kits, rubber stamps and artist postage stamps, no doubt extended the range of Mail Art, but no one could claim authorship of Mail Art other than Ray Johnson. Johnson never asserted himself in this manner. His was a matter of leadership by example only.
Ray Johnson the person always remained enigmatic. He was an artist’s artist. Where others compromised, Ray always held tight to a strict personal code. When he made a rare appearance outside the United States, and agreed to an exhibition of correspondence collages in Vancouver, Canada, sponsored by the Western Front in 1969, he ended up refusing to exhibit due to inadequate conditions. After cutting his finger in the process of installing the work, he spread his blood on the wall insisting that the exhibition be called, “Blood of a Concrete Poet.”
Richard Feigen, an art dealer, who represented Ray for many years, is quoted in a February 12, 1995, article on Ray in the New York Times, as saying that “Ray was the author of his own obscurity…I think Ray will become famous after his death, because he won’t be around to impede the dissemination of his work.” He was said to have entered galleries on the last day of a show to take away all of his work before the unwitting dealer could explain the positive ramifications of letting them remain.
While Mail Art was making the change to Networking Art, Ray never participated in any of the many Congress Meetings that were taking place. He never made the leap to E-Mail (although he was known to Fax). Ray was a letterwriter and a telephone gossip. The same day that Andy Warhol was shot, Johnson was mugged and soon after decided to leave New York City for Locust Vallery, on the North Shore of Long Island. Except for occasional forays into the City, he remained very much a hermit.
In April 1979, I made a rare visit to Ray’s home in Locust Valley – the Pink Swan House. He told me I was the first visitor he had that year. There were no chairs and very little furniture of any kind. On his bed – a mattress, really – there were boxes, and others were spread throughout most of the house. They appeared to be potential materials for his mailings and collage work. I didn’t get the impression he collected all the work mailed to him. I know that on more than one occasion, my own mailings to him were recycled with something added to them.
On a personal level, Ray could be as gracious and giving as his mailings. Seemingly knowing everyone in the artworld of New York, he delighted in making connections. Through him I was introduced to the poet Madeline Gins, someone I greatly admired, and who was a friend of Ray’s. When I made a trip to Key West, Florida, in the Winter of 1980, Ray made sure I looked up the Surrealist painter Bill Copley, a close friend of Marcel Duchamp. These, and other kindnesses, are the cornerstone of my memories about Ray.
I am by no means the only one who Ray took under his wing. He has done the same with many others in the Mail Art Network. Giving of himself unselfishly was a hallmark of Ray Johnson, either through the mail or in person. This natural generosity marks the true legacy of Ray Johnson. This spirit has been, and will continue to be, a guiding force in networking activities.
Johnson’s death, like much of his life, remains a mystery. Ray checked into the Baron’s Cove Inn in Sag Harbor, New York, at 5:24 p.m. on Friday, January 13, 1995. At about 7:15, two youngsters playing underneath a 30 foot high bridge connecting North Haven and Sag Harbor Cove saw him either jump or fall fully dressed into the water. He began, what a Village Voice headline later called, a “Backstoke into Oblivion.” Although the children reported the incident to an unidentified adult, the situation wasn’t brought to the attention of the local police until Johnson’s body was found the following day. His car was latter located at a nearby 7-Eleven with a bottleful of Valium from an old prescription. $1700 was recovered from his wallet, and the New York Times reported that $400,000 was found in various bank accounts. Police are calling the death an apparent suicide, with death by drowning.
For some there were clues. One of Johnson’s recent mailings read, “Bunny Dead. The New York Correspondence School Bunny was Murdered Today. 12.30.94.”