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Culture

'New York's Most Famous Unknown Artist' Is Now More Important Than Ever

Ray Johnson was the antithesis of disposable culture.

by Nathalie Olah
14 August 2014, 2:12pm

A piece of Ray Johnson mail art (All images courtesy of The Ray Johnson Estate)

Writing about Ray Johnson on this titanium, LED-lit Macbook feels wrong. Anything inherently digital is awkwardly out of place next to the masses of ephemera the artist produced in the course of his lifetime – the paper, cardboard, tins, rocks and found objects that were so integral to his work. And sending the finished piece to my editor over email just seems lazy, contrasted with the thousands of mail artworks Johnson distributed across New York via post, either to friends or unsuspecting strangers. 

Unsurprisingly, it’s this absolute separation from the mass-distributed, digitally-manipulated everything we’re sick of today that’s given his work a fresh lease of life. People tend to be more impressed with the tangible and handmade when they can’t even go for a run without an app reminding them how well they’ve done. So much so, in fact, that some recent claims by critics put Johnson in the running for most influential artist of the late-20th century.

This summer, MoMA dedicated a space to Johnson’s designs in their newly-opened research building. It’s one of the many retrospectives held since his death in 1995, but its arrival couldn’t be timelier. As one reviewer in the Summer 2014 issue of Book Forum wrote, “From our current vantage it’s not hard to acknowledge that one of the presiding spirits of early 21st century art is Ray Johnson.”

Flippant and funny, his collages, warped bunny drawings and defaced portraits of Rimbaud, James Dean and Elvis Presley have always attracted the more left-field independent publishers and street artists. Mark Gonzales, for instance – a pioneer of modern street skating, and an artist himself – discovered Johnson’s work in 2006.

Frances Beatty, Johnson’s close friend and the manager of his estate, recalled the moment The Gonz and some of his friends arrived at the studio eight years ago, requesting to see Johnson’s collages for themselves. “They really got it,” she explained to me over the phone. “They instinctively got this serendipitous collision of different elements and this incredible, interesting, fun-filled – but also dark and constantly moving – mind.” The result was a full spread of Johnson’s work in Journal, edited by Gonzales.

Ray Johnson with Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet's Correspondence Art book, San Francisco, 1984. 

Fans of Johnson’s work don’t just admire its aesthetic, but also the spirit in which he created it – avoiding the infrastructure of the traditional art world to instead distribute his works through the mail, which led him being hailed by some as the founder of the “mail art” movement. So it’s no coincidence that he’s always been championed much more fervently outside the four walls of the gallery – not that the establishment haven’t played their part in keeping Johnson’s legacy alive, of course. After all, a friend of Andy Warhol’s is a friend of the contemporary art world, and the two were friends, as least as far as their mutually idiosyncratic personalities would allow.

Warhol placed an ad in The Village Voice for an art show in Johnson’s room at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital during a period of sickness in 1964. The pair exchanged ideas, helping to evolve one another’s style, and maintained contact throughout the majority of their careers. There are clear parallels between Johnson’s collages of stars like Elvis Presley and James Dean, and Warhol’s iconic portraits of the same cultural icons. Johnson’s repeated use of brand insignia, such as the Lucky Strike logo, is also echoed in Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola and Marmite paintings. Ray even produced a series of silhouettes of Warhol, and fled New York for good following a mugging at knife point on the same day Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanes. For him, the two events transformed the city he’d lived in for decades into a place of instability and danger.

Both artists were concerned with the growing cult of consumerism – of images and logos being disseminated to the masses via fast-evolving interconnectivity. But while one sought to become an icon himself, the other obsessively explored and toyed with the emerging networks that were beginning to transform American society.

As Beatty explains, “Ray was the Yin to Warhol’s Yang. They were both interested in branding and celebrity, but Ray wasn’t trying to grab it for himself.” Instead, he functioned as a weaver of connections; not a networker, but a social network unto himself, albeit for the pre-digital age. As a constant stream of posts flood our Instagram and Tumblr feeds today, so Johnson would share images of a rapidly expanding pop culture with his own followers through his mail art. The only difference being that he had absolutely no interest in building a personal brand.

Before being labelled “New York’s most famous unknown artist”, Johnson grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Detroit, later enrolling at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The visiting faculty during his final term at Black Mountain – an icon of 20th century American culture in itself – included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and Richard Lippold, many of whom starred alongside Johnson in a college production of The Ruse of Medusa.

It was here that Johnson entered into his 20-year affair with sculptor Richard Lippold, which continued after Johnson moved to New York. After reconnecting with Cunningham and Cage he also befriended many of the 60s’ leading artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and, of course, Andy Warhol. An initial flirtation with painting ended with him burning his early work in Cy Twombly’s fireplace and declaring himself a collage artist forever thereafter.

Untitled (Please Send to May), May 14, 1975, May 13, 1972 

Johnson’s mail art can be traced back as early as 1958. Often inscribed with instructions such as, “please send to…”, “please add and return to…” and even, “please don’t send to…”, they formed the basis of a postal network that Johnson later formalised with the help of friends and renamed the “New York Correspondence School”. During the 1960s, Beatty told me, Johnson would also sneak into the IBM offices with the help of one their employees, a friend, to use the enormous, giant frame computers. The internet had yet to arrive – in fact, desktop computers weren’t even a thing at this point – but Johnson was already interested in the mechanisms of technology and the possibilities that would be opened up via digital networks.

In this way he represents the very best of what the internet opened up to us as a society, but which we then quickly abused in our pursuit of Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Had Johnson come up with an equivalent statement, it would have been far closer to the idea that, in the future, we might know each other for 15 minutes. Of course, that was never going to happen, given that Johnson continually obstructed his own root to pop-stardom, preferring to create works whose meaning was intentionally difficult to decipher.

In short, he had absolutely no ambition of being packaged neatly, distributed to the masses and launched into celebrity. So much so that, on the 13th of January, 1995, Ray Johnson dived from the pedestrian walkway of Sag Harbor bridge, leading to North Haven. A much wider bridge replaced it four years later. The tide was swelling and two teenage girls reported seeing him bob to the surface before swimming on his back into the mouth of a cove. It is here, fists clenched and crossed in front of his chest, that Johnson was found dead, 50 metres out, the next day. He had no history of depression or mental illness, no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system, tested negative for HIV and had $400,000 (£240,000) in his bank account.

Untitled (Mae West, Rum and Potato), 4.21.91, 4.16.94 

“He lived very frugally,” Beatty told me. “His mattress, which looked like it was made of horse hair, was on the floor and covered with what looked like an army issue blanket. The whole house was bare bones, but still full of art.”

Beatty recalls arriving at Johnson’s house with friends following his suicide. “He had left little rocks with skull heads on them and rocks with bunny heads on them. I don’t want to say it was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [a film renowned for its bizarre set design], but his whole entire house had been transformed into a 3D work of art. He’d packed things into boxes, arranged everything on his desk and washed all the dishes. Everything was completely arranged, and I remember when I went into the basement I was looking at a snow shovel and thinking, ‘Okay, Ray, is this Duchamp or is this just a snow shove?’ Because he would have thought of that.”

Every picture had been turned to face the wall, besides a portrait of Johnson hung above his bed. In the weeks leading to his death Johnson had called every one of his friends and, as they pieced together the clues left in his wake, a preoccupation with the number 13 began to emerge – not least in the date of his death.

While many have dubbed this a final act of performance art, it’s still typically low-key. The bridge from which Johnson dived was small, unassuming. The cove in which he was later found, while pleasant, was certainly not a place you’d find in any guide books pointing you towards natural beauty spots. Had the two teenage girls not been on their way to a movie, his suicide would have passed without a witness, and all that would have remained were the clues left behind. Clues that got people talking and working together to decipher their meaning. Clues, in short, that formed a network or puzzle that brought everybody else together.

“I was speaking to Ed Ruscha about Ray,” Beatty laughs, “and he said, ‘You know, you’d be sitting there talking to him, having a conversation, and you’d turn to your left to share whatever you were talking about with somebody else, and when you turned back Ray would have vanished. You wouldn’t see him again. Once he had planted an idea, he was happy to evaporate at any given moment.”

@NROlah

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