R A Y J O H N S O N
Ray Johnson is more than a human being. He is a Myth, an enigma. This American halfgod is the pet and totem animal of the whole Mail-Art Netland.
Mail-Art is an international network of hundreds of artists who apply communicationmedia as artmedia. It concerns networkers or mail-artists who distribute their work primarily via mail, and less or not via galeries and museums. Through the years thousands (sometimes 50.000 is mentioned) of artists and non-artists have participated to this artistic movement. Ray Johnson once got the historical titel of "Father of Mail-Art" and that will always remain.
Ray Johnson was born in Detroit in 1927. Eventually he studies at the "Art Students League" in New York (1944-1945). Afterwards (1945-1948) at the "Black Mountain College" in North-Carolina, where he has lessons from a.o. Ossip Zadkine, Robert Motherwell, Mary Callery and Josef Albers. Here he gets in contact with the poetry of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson and the audio-experiments of John Cage. In this college a lot of attention goes to the philosophy of Zen.
In 1948 Johnson permanently moves to New York and has his first "One man show" at the "One Wall Gallery". The following year he becomes member of "American Abstract Artists" and this until 1952. During this period he makes abstract expressionistic work with color-motives and geometrical structures.
In the middle of the fifties he becomes strongly influenced by among others Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. He begins with the production of collages. Because he can't find another denomination of them he calls them "moticos". The term "moticos" can be used as singular as well as plural and you can pronounce the word as you like. It considers especially photographs from magazines and newspapers, which Johnson cuts and pastes, and where paint- & ink-lines are added to. He sells these "moticos" in galleries and he cuts and recycles the ones that are left into new works; which he sends to friends and acquaintances. The work from this period can be seen as pre-pop-art.
In 1962 Ed(ward) Plunkett (who himself sends artworks via mail) denominates the postal actions of Johnson as "NEW YORK CORRESPONDENCE SCHOOL OF ART". It is an allusion on the abstract expressionistic "New York School" on the one hand and the existing commercial artschools - who teach lessons via correspondence - on the other. Later on the letter "e" will be replaced by an "a" in the word "correspondance" to stress the playful character.
In 1965 Johnson exhibits in the Marian Willard Gallery in New York, here the "cuttings" and "moticos" have become notably bigger and more complex. Also there has been more use of real photographs and handwritten text has been added.
An historically important exhibition, where Johnson and Marcia Tucker were hostcurator, takes place in 1970 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, entitled "New York Correspondance School Show". Here the postal reactions of 106 correspondents to Johnson's moticos were exhibited. Afterwards it appeared to be one of the first Mail-Art exhibitions. Another Mail-Art show organized by Johnson calls "Intercourse Show" in 1972 in the "Wabash Transit Gallery" (Chicago, Illinois).
Worth mentioning from that period are also the "New York Correspondence Meetings", the purpose was for example the foundation of the "Paloma Picasso Fan Club". Sometimes it had to do with "Nothings" where completely nothing happened, a great contrast to the "happenings" of Fluxus, Gutai or Nouveau Réalisme which frequently took place during that time.
The artistic correspondence of Ray Johnson with Fluxus-artist Dick Higgins has been published by Higgins in 1965 in the beautifully edited book "The Paper Snake" (Something Else Press), a real collectors item. It is the very first book about a mail-artist.
On april 5th 1973 Johnson writes a letter to the New York Times (column: "Deceased") to notify that his New York Correspondence School ceased to exist. "BUDDHA UNIVERSITY" becomes the name he gives to his Mail-Art. Via Ken Friedman Johnson gets in close contact with the members of the Fluxus-movement, of which he never (wants to) take(s) part of. In 1974 he organizes at the Western Illinois University (Macomb, Illinois) the exhibition "Buddha University Correspondence School".
From that time on Johnson keeps on participating actively in the Mail-Art Network. The direct offshoot of the Mail-Art mailing-lists from a.o. the Correspondence School, is "Art Diary". In this booklet lists of artists' addresses are published. It would be a very fascinating story to examine in what measure Mail-Art in generally and the "New York Correspondence School" particularly have been influencing the contemporary artscene.
Ray Johnson is beyond doubt the "Grandmaster of Mail-Art". Since he is already being worshipped in the Network as a living legend, his art-historic importance will become more and more obvious in the future. In short, "Pray for Ray Johnson".
Wellen, November 1994