Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Ray Johnson mail art
Dates: ca. 1990-1994
Collection number: MS 310
University of California, Santa Cruz. University Library.
Special Collections and Archives
Santa Cruz, California 95064
Abstract: This collection includes 10 letters and 24 items of mail art created by Ray Johnson.
Physical location: Stored at Special Collections and Archives: Advance notice is required for access to the papers.
Languages represented in the collection:
Collection open for research.
Property rights reside with the University of California. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the records and
their heirs. For permission to publish or to reproduce the material, please contact the Head of Special Collections and Archives.
Ray Johnson mail art. MS 310. Special Collections and Archives, University Library, University of
California, Santa Cruz.
Collected by Rita Bottoms.
"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.
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,
Scope and Content of Collection
This collection includes 10 letters and 24 items of mail art created by Ray Johnson. The correspondence includes one "Thank
you" note to Lou Harrison and nine letters to Rita Bottoms, then UCSC Special Collections Librarian.
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in
the library's online public access catalog.