by Kara Westerman
Unless you move in or around the art world, you may never have heard of Ray Johnson, who was once labelled ‘the most famous unknown artist in America.’
Over a period of 40 years, until his death in 1995, Johnson sent small, mixed-media pieces through the mail. These postcards and letters — which had instructions to either add to the work, to forward it on to another, or both — were part of what he called The New York Correspondance School, a network of artists that he invited to participate in this mail activity, which also evolved into various sub-categories like The Edie Beale Fan Club, The Silhouette University, The Ted Dragon Fan Club, Correspondence School Spitting and The Dead Pan Club, among many others.
His work is the subject of a retrospective at Guild Hall in East Hampton, “Please Send To: Ray Johnson, Selections from the Permanent Collection,” on view through Dec. 16.
“Methodically every day I open my mail and respond to every letter and postcard,” Ray Johnson told the Detroit Artist Monthly in 1978. He had lived a reclusive life in Locust Valley, where he retreated from New York after the tumultuous national tragedies of 1968.
“I have a whole process, of a steak knife which I use to open my letters, it’s like prayer, it’s a ritual for me, a ceremony. I’ll go out to the mail box, bring the mail into my house, I have a very good mailman, he sort of piles things very neatly. I put them on my work table; I turn on the television set; I have my cup of coffee; I turn on the overhead light; it’s like a corpse on the table. It’s really my prayer; I start at the top, I perhaps see there is some very juicy interesting things here at the bottom. It’s like archeology. And then I surgically insert the knife in these envelopes… I get new people every single day which is very ex-citing because I’m very interested in what is absolutely new. Like a name or address on a postcard, or whatever, from someone I’ve never heard of, it means I get to do a little detective work to try to figure out.”
Jess Frost’s first priority as Guild Hall’s associate curator and registrar of the permanent collection is to organize over 2,000 items into a new database and webpage, which should be up by the end of 2018.
But shortly after taking her position in 2015, she came across an extensive and important cache of Ray Johnson material, including mail art and collage — sent to artist Ted Carey, and entered Guild Hall’s Permanent Collection through the Tito Spiga Bequest, an artist for whom one of the museum’s galleries is named — and was inspired to suggest that it be shown at the museum.
“I never expected to be curating exhibitions,” she told me, but felt like, “This is incredibly fresh right now because of what’s happened with the explosion of Instagram and Facebook and the return of the zines. A lot of young people will be really excited to see this.”
Her press release adds: “The cryptic arrangements of notes, doodles, newspaper clippings and rubber stamped texts in these works offer great insights into the shifting social dynamics of this fertile period in American art. Despite regular exhibitions, the artist remained wary of the public eye. When he retreated to a suburb on Long Island, limiting his communications to the telephone and post, his work became increasingly populated by narratives surrounding the celebrities and members of the art scene he had vacated.”
Johnson was born an only child in Detroit to devout Lutheran parents who supported his artistic ambitions. He studied at the famous experimental Black Mountain College with Bauhaus master Joseph Albers, Robert Motherwell, and Paul Rand. In 1949 he set off to New York City as a young man to pursue his craft of abstract painting, but finding paid work in book and poster design. Over time he became friendly with Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, James Rosenquist, and other ground-breaking artists of the 1950s and 1960s.
Recently curators and art historians have recognized the influence Johnson had on his colleagues, using celebrity photos and other pop-culture material, like Lucky Strike cigarette logos. Some think he began his collage art and mail art as a response to the commercial art world, which failed to give him the recognition he desired. But that seems strange for a man who purposely avoided the spotlight, and even incorporated his obtuseness into his main body of work.
From the interview in 1978, Johnson tells us “I attempt in the Correspondance school to be a sort of free clearing house of people and information and objects, and I spend a great deal of time just bopping around and meeting people, old people and new people, and finding out about things and distributing information…I send out what is most necessary and essential — I’m very frugal. I just don’t slap things in envelopes. Everything I make is made for the person I’m writing to — there is a whole daily process of what the envelope enclosure is to be, how it is folded, what is enclosed, what the envelope is, what the style is, whether it is very casual or very formal… It’s as though I’m here speaking to you, this is the way I compose a letter… I’m a great put-on artist, I’m the Dead Pan Club and you really shouldn’t take everything I say too seriously although I’m very soberly serious, but I’m also a put-on person.”
Ray left an astounding collection of work in his nearly empty house in Locust Valley after his death in 1995, which may or may not have been a suicide, a performance incorporating suicide, or an accidental drowning after he jumped from the bridge in Sag Harbor. According to witnesses he was last seen backstroking in the icy water.
Like most things in Johnson’s life and work there was a performative aspect to to the act. He left no will or suicide note, but left a puzzle of unexplained number thirteens, including the date (Jan. 13, 1995), motel room number (2+4+7=13), his birthday and license plate number.
“Apparently there were two girls under the Sag Harbor/Noyac Bridge who saw Ray backstroking — that’s the word”, Ms. Frost says. “(Art Historian and former Guild Hall curator) Helen Harrison seems to think he might not actually have been trying to kill himself, that it was a kind of performance that maybe went awry. But I can’t speak to that. I have to go with what I’ve read on the estate’s website and other reports.”
“Also the bridge overlooks the Sag Harbor Post Office,” Ms. Frost reminded me, “which could be seen as a direct connection to his mail art.”
Jess Frost has many favorites from this exhibition. She walks me over to a large silhouette of the artist Ted Cary which was sent in a letter to Helen Harrison, a former Guild Hall curator who left her post in 1990, the year the envelope was postmarked. “But there’s also a little doodle of ‘Mr. Montauk’ on the envelope that says: ‘The Ted Dragon Fan Club’.”
“1990 was the the year Alphonso Ossorio passed away and left his estate to Ted Dragon, who then became sort of the keeper of Ossorio’s,” said Ms. Frost. “As far as I’m concerned, as an archivist and caretaker of the collection, the circle of this artwork, and the acknowledgment of these people — Ted Dragon, Ossorio, Helen Harrison, Ted Cary, Tito Spiga — it really epitomizes the collection since we have all of these artists in it. This show is in your backyard and about your backyard.”
“The exciting thing about the work is that different aspects of it ring differently on people’s radar,” she added. “There’s definitely an avenue in it to participate, no matter where you’re coming from. There’s a great appreciation for contradiction in a lot of Ray’s work.”
In her former career working with artist Mathew Barney whose art combined live performance, film, painting, photography, and sculpture, Jess Frost told me she was used to letting work of a certain nature “have a life of it’s own, and not have to nail everything down, because a lot of artists don’t want to have a didactic interpretation of what they’re doing. It loses a lot of energy when you make a skeleton key for it, and say ‘This means this’. You close off other opportunities for interpretation. I would need 10 years to research and cover all the connections here. That’s what appeals to me about this work — it just keeps going…”
On any day during the 40 years of The New York Correspondance School project no-one knew exactly how many letters were in circulation at any given time. Jess Frost tells me that, from what she’s read, Ray Johnson became overwhelmed with the maintenance of the project. “They would return to him and he would shelve them and then return to them and work on them and send them out again…each one might have had ten lives,” between the ones sent and returned to Johnson, or forwarded on to be altered and then returned, etc. It really piled up.
In contrast to his obsessiveness and the seeming need for control in his work, Johnson made sure to leave spaces for elements of chance. Invitations to his performances, called “Nothings,” in response to “Happenings,” which were popular in the art scene of the time, might include a no-show by the artist; and although he was meticulous about his mail rituals, he could never be sure when or where his pieces might be returned, which left room for daily surprise.
“When I have to give a lecture I can be pretty sure that I will receive something in the mail that morning that I can wear at my lecture: a T-shirt, a ring, it’s magical, I’m dealing with magic,” Johnson told the Detroit Artist Monthly. “I provoke the mail box to provide me with the subject of my lecture; I will read what appeared that day. To me that’s very important because that’s the concentration. Because I’m possessed by letters and correspondence. I’m the maniac of correspondence, I’m sure.”
“Please Send To: Ray Johnson, Selections from the Permanent Collection” will be on view in Guild Hall, 158 Main Street in East Hampton, through Dec. 16. The exhibition is open, with free admission, Mondays, Fridays & Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
In conjunction with the exhibition Guild Hall presents a free screening of John Walter and Andrew Moore’s award-winning 2002 documentary, “How to Draw a Bunny,” which explores Ray Johnson’s work, on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 4 p.m.
Ms. Frost will also give a gallery talk on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 12:30 p.m.
Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.