A Selection of Ray Johnson Ephemera
Modern Painters, January 2015
Enigmatic in life, deftly funny in his art, Ray Johnson was a quintessential personality of New York’s midcentury avant-garde. He counted among his friends such luminaries as James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, and created a robust mail art network that circulated among them.
Beyond his art-by-post, Johnson was a prolific creator of collages, performances, and conceptual art, peppered with pop-cultural references, cartoonish imagery, and wordplay. Yet traditional art world gravitas mostly eluded the artist, who died at age 67 in an apparent suicide on January 13, 1995. How to Draw a Bunny, a 2004 documentary about Johnson’s work, attests to a fringe figure whose death itself might have been a performance. Twenty years after his demise, Johnson’s work has attracted renewed attention and inspired a cult following among a younger generation.
“Mail art anticipates the idea of the network,” says Frances Beatty, the director of Johnson’s estate and president of the New York gallery Richard L. Feigen & Co. She adds that the Internet “has made Ray Johnson fascinating to younger people.” Describing his work as “radical, brave, and hilarious,” Beatty says that this exquisite-corpse mail art experiments—adorned with commands to alter the work and send it back—”flies in the face what the market demands.”
The recent focus on Johnson has keyed in on his expansive network. Karma, a bookstore and project space in New York’s East Village, mounted an exhibition of Johnson’s work last fall, which included a wall with his mail art. Earlier in 2014, Siglio Press in Los Angeles published Not Nothing, a collection of his writing. “Ray Johnson’s Art World,” on view through January 16 at Richard L. Feigen & Co., traces the relationship between the artist and his creative correspondents. The show includes work by John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, Yoko Ono, and many others. In the spirit of Johnson’s rhizomic oeuvre, we present a collection of images from his archive, many of which have not been previously published.