He threw foot-long hot dogs from a helicopter; he cut up and recycled so many materials and ideas that he proclaimed himself the creator of Chop Art (a pun on “Pop Art”, of which he was an early exponent); he started sending out missives with the request “please add to and return”, instigating what became a vast international network of correspondence; he called his performances Nothings to express “an attitude as opposed to a happening,” (happenings were very much in vogue at this time); he even turned his death into just that, a “nothing performance”: after announcing his best performance ever to his friends, he jumped from a bridge, swimming out into the icy water to drown. At once famous and unknown, a public yet elusive character, Ray Johnson (Detroit, 1927 – New York, 1995) was a contradictory artist: he began a brilliant, promising career at Black Mountain College, where he frequented the likes of Albert Einstein, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning and Susan Weil, among many others, but ended up forgotten by everyone after going into self-imposed exile on Long Island and refusing to allow any public showings of his work. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona
(MACBA) presents the first retrospective exhibition in Spain devoted to a Johnson, “The most famous unknown artist”, as New York Times journalist Grace Glueck called him. The show, which brings together more than 300 collages, object-drawings and Mail Art works, is the result of cooperation with the Raven Row gallery in London, which has previously hosted a reduced version. Its title, Please Add to & Return, alludes to the request Johnson attached to his correspondence. The exhibition is installed on the same floor at MACBA as the show devoted to John Cage, whose reflections on chance and indeterminacy influenced Johnson.
“My correspondence art only exists for one person – me”, Ray Johnson once said. As part of marketing ploy, the artist had begun sending out offset lithographs to advertise his designs by mail in 1955. Three years later, in 1958, he sent out his first piece requesting the correspondent to “add to and return”, and two years after that, in 1960, helped by his friends, who paid part of the postage costs and his missives to the post office by the dozen, the mass circulation of his Mail Art works began. This correspondence served to inspire a group of artists who began to create images specifically for distribution by post, generating a vast international network. That was how the so-called Mail Art movement, which accumulated hundreds of followers, began. Inadvertently, in this way, Johnson also became a precursor of today’s electronic networks, particularly in his proposal of a social alternative to commercial and institutional communication channels.
It was the Fluxus artist Ed Plunkett who suggested the name. What began as a joke ended up giving a new movement its title. Plunkett merged the name given to a group of Abstract Expressionist artists, the New York School, with the idea of a correspondence course by adding a new word. The resulting “New York Correspondence School” turned art school into correspondence course. Johnson, who was fond of jokes and puns, immediately accepted Plunkett’s suggestion. In 1973, he pronounced the school dead, but this did not mean that he gave up doing Mail Art. On the contrary; in 1977, he rented a Minolta photocopier and began to use “letter-size” sheets (the American equivalent of A4) to broadcast his ideas through his exquisite design. The closer he felt to the recipient, the more he might embellish these mailings: many sheets were sent out with instructions to add to, return or send on to someone else.
Chopping up ideas and works
Ray Johnson was born in Detroit on 16 October 1927, the son of Finnish immigrants. He was encouraged in his interest in art from an early age, and in 1945 he enrolled at the famous Black Mountain College, where his teachers included some of the most influential artists and intellectuals of the 20th century, such as Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell and Albert Einstein. Like fellow student Robert Rauschenberg, Johnson was permanently affected by the Bauhaus sensibility which Josef Albers brought to the college: the use of the grid, the autonomy of colour, and the potential of the found image. In 1949, he moved to New York, living across the hall from John Cage, whom he shared a Zen-inspired adherence to indeterminacy and chance. When, in the early-1950s, he befriended Andy Warhol, both artists were in thrall even then to the hyper circulation of images.
A precursor, too, of Pop Art, Johnson made use of humour and satire in his portraits of pop icons (Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple…). He preferred to think of himself as the creator of Chop Art, however, as he cut up and recycled fragments for reuse in later works, considering himself a kind of blender, not only of ideas, but also of people. In 1955, he coined the word “moticos” to describe the fleeting and fragmented nature of things and ideas. “Moticos” was the name he gave to the collages he was making in those times, constructing them from the cardboard pieces around which laundries fold shirts, which he World cut out into very different shapes, eschewing the traditional rectangle. He sold these works from a pavement on the Bowery, where the homeless were known to hawk bits and bobs. In form, they were reminiscent of Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, for Johnson was gifted with a prodigious member, was intimately familiar with avant-garde art and was powerfully attracted by photomontage, reproductivity and the use of language. In 1960 he began to call his performances Nothings, describing them as ““an attitude as opposed to a happening” and turning them into his trademark. He even offered to show “nothing” at galleries and once “filled” a plinth with precisely that, nothing.
Johnson constructed art out of social interaction, gathering celebrities, personalities from the art world and friends into his work and hobnobbing with media Stars. At least, until the early-1970s. In June 1968, the same week that Valerie Solanas shot and wounded Andy Warhol, Johnson was mugged in the street. Johnson cited these events as the reasons behind his move from Manhattan to Locust Valley, a small town on Long Island, going into a sort of voluntary exile and refusing to show any work publicly. He rarely invited anyone to his home, which was spare of furniture and crowded with collages. However he was often on the phone, persistently ringing friends, who reported hearing him sandpapering, as ever cutting up old work for new. And while every week he mailed out hundreds of annotated photocopies, his collages were secreted in his house.
Johnson's collages became palimpsests, composed of layers over layers built up over the years. He would often return to rework them, meticulously dating each intervention. Sometimes he cut whole sections out of them to send off to someone. Pictograms become ubiquitous, with rabbits, prawns, swans penises and faeces sketched onto surfaces with childlike abandon (he once said he “never got out of childhood”). Johnson was also a brilliant writer, using punning and word play to great effect. Moreover, he employed the language in visual art, extending the visual-verbal combinations of the whole collage project he began to develop with his frenetic Mail Art activity.
All Johnson's work seems performed. Finally, overlooked by Manhattan's art World but inundated by mail art requests, he must have become exhausted by his all-consuming life performance, which had consumed all his time and energy. On Friday, 13 January 1995, after telephoning his friends to announce his best performance yet, he jumped off a bridge in Sag Harbour (Long Island) and drowned. Although he had led a frugal life in recent years, he left a considerable fortune in the bank, as well as hundreds of unseen collages, neatly stacked at his house.