"The most famous unknown artist in New York" - this is how Grace Glueck, a New York Times reporter, characterized Ray Johnson after his collage exhibition in 1965. He was called the father of mail art, one of the first performance artists, a precursor Pop Art, and he is rarely absent from studies of fluxus. His connections extend beyond even these movements through his global postal performance, the New York Correspondence School. Despite his fame and also due to his decades long, non-stop work spiralling towards an anonymous position in the art world, even now, two years after his death the recurrent question persists, who Ray Johnson was, and what his role was in the contemporary art scene.
He was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, to Finnish immigrants. A world of possibilities was opened to the gifted student when he spent three years in the liberal atmosphere of Black Mountain College, a progressive institute in North Carolina, where he studied with Joseph Albers, Robert Motherwell, Mary Callery, and Lyonel Feininger. It was Albers who influenced him the most, encouraging his development in the direction of the Bauhaus-like, elegant abstract.
But at Black Mountain he also became acquainted with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and their influence can be seen in a freer form of expression that allows for "chance", as expounded by Cage, and that goes beyond the severe forms of the Bauhaus.
In 1948 Johnson moved to New York where he painted with intricate geometry, and where he showed with the American Abstract Artists group. He chucked abstraction only in the mid-fifties, when under the influence of Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly he started to produce the hundreds of small collages that he called moticos, which were in fact a combination of irregularly shaped ink drawings, newspaper clippings, and portraits of stars. Many people see the iconography of these collages as prophetic of the great Pop Art myths, although Johnson didn't respect the conventions of advertisement art in his compositions.
He continued working with the collage, finding enough inspiration in it for the following two decades, while at the same time this genre fertilized another domain of his activity. Johnson developed a specific kind of collage technique: first he cut a coherent image into strips and then rearranged them either using the strips as constitutive pieces or layers for new collages, or by sending them to friends and acquaintances. The idea of this alternative distribution of art work quite possibly generated the most durable invention of Johnson: the New York Correspondence School (NYCS). The Correspondence School was a more or less ironic - although not completely frivolous - denomination for the correspondence of a network that comprised artists in both loose and strong contact. Its origin, according to Johnson, stretched back to the period before Black Mountain College, when he had already begun to use the post as an artistic medium in his correspondence with his friend, Arthur Secunda. But mail art, built as a parasite of the postal system, which in return influenced its instruments and its ideology, began to exist as an autonomous form of artistic expression only at the beginning of the sixties. The characteristics of the mail art genre, its favouring communication over artistic originality are the direct influences of Johnson's personality.
The basic concept of mail art is bilateral communication in the most sincere sense of the words, why the letter carrying the personal message is at the same time an art work sent as a gift. Johnson played variations on the theme of giving. Sometimes he demanded that his partner take part in the collaborative creation with the command "Add to and return to...", resulting in a shared artwork that challenges the most carefully watched criteria of classical aesthetics: originality. Sometimes he forwarded the parcels to his correspondents through an intermediary. This third participant was sometimes an onlooker, a professional voyeur in the process, committing an infraction of privacy in communication, while another time he would play an active role in the formation of the art work.
Johnson's personality defined the policy of the mail art exhibitions as well. The exhibitions were public forums for the artists involved in the correspondences, but they differed greatly from classic exhibitions. Everybody was free to announce such an event, anybody could determine the subject, but all received work had to be shown, and the documentation of the exhibition had to be sent to all participants. The most remarkable mail art exhibitions of the NYCS were those in the Whitney Museum in 1970, and at Western Illinois University in 1974.
People put various dates to the inception of the NYCS. Mike Crane dates it from 1962, according to Johnson, it already functioned in the fifties. But the name, given by Ed Plunkett (New York Correspondence School), gained recognition only at the end of the sixties, mostly due to the increasingly regular meetings organized by Johnson. In the fifteen years between 1968 and 1983, Ray organized more than fifty meetings, heterogeneous in aspects and goals. These were usually assemblies dedicated to legendary artists and media stars (like the "Paloma Picasso Fan Club Meeting", the "Shelley Duvall Fan Club Meeting", the "Marcel Duchamp Fan Club Meeting", or the "Meeting for Anna May Wong"), but the events based on conceptualist ideas were also essential (like the "Snakes Escape", the "Stilt Walk Meeting", or the one titled "Oh Dat Consept Art"), as well as the events where nothing happened besides being together (Johnson called these "Nothings", in response to the happenings of the fluxus artists).
Though Johnson wrote a NYCS obituary for the New York Times in 1973, the school continued its activities under the names of different clubs and universities. The Buddha University and the Taoist Pop Art School were the most important among its incarnations.
In addition to his mail activity, Johnson continued to make collages, but simultaneously, he was careful to run contrary to the few exhibition forums and traditional art venues still open to his "serious art". Maybe this explains why his life work was not presented in contrast to his correspondents working in the field of Pop Art and fluxus. Johnson's public was gradually restricted to his correspondences and the meetings under the aegis of the NYCS. He retired to live in the privacy of his Locust Valley house, where he spent ten to twelve hours a day sorting the letters received and assembling his own mail. Reflections - sometimes blent with offended overtones - on contemporary art became a recurrent subject of the meetings. In his mail and phone conversations of the eighties, he was occupied with travesty, fakes, and subversion. His last important exhibition was during the mid-eighties in the Nassau County Museum of Art. As he gradually departed from the official art scene, he organized more and more Nothings, and encouraged the spread of his rumoured death. It's symbolic that one of his last possible public appearances - Michael Corbett, without Johnson's knowledge, had entered their shared work entitled "Condom Man" in the "In the Spirit of Fluxus" exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum - was disallowed through censorship. "I'm often killed", he wrote in his piece for the Uppsala Mail Art Display in 1994. In December 1994 he announced the death of bunny, the figure which had almost become his travesty.
On January 13th, 1995 he executed "the greatest performance in his life", he jumped into the water from a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York.
(Klára Kiss-Pál, 1997)