The King of Correspondence Art

I was rummaging through old files prior to donating them to the School of Visual Arts’ The Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives, when I stumbled upon a folder called “eccentrics.” The sole contents was a sheath of correspondence to me from Ray Johnson (1927–1995). He was a collagist and leading correspondence artist involved in Neo-Dada and early Pop art. As “New York’s most famous unknown artist” he was associated with the Fluxus movement and in the 1960s founded the New York Correspondence School.

One day out of the blue, he started sending me his art. At first, I didn’t know what he wanted me to do with the Xeroxed scraps and pieces. Did he want to make art for the Times? Did he want me to commission him to do illustrations? In time I realized it was just a gift. As if he picked me at random from the telephone book, he began showering me with correspondence (and the occasional phone call) with no other purpose than to be a recipient of his art. When I uncovered the “eccentrics” file, I thought maybe it was all a grand plan. Just perhaps, on the chance I wouldn’t throw the stuff out, he wanted me, or anyone else, to share his work with others. Little did he know the Internet would be such an apt tool for this purpose. Little did I know I would find the work years later and be able, through this forum, to share with others.

Johnson  lived in New York City from 1949 to 1968, when he moved to Locust Valley, Long Island, where he resided until his suicide. On January 13, 1995, Johnson was seen diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and backstroking out to sea. His body washed up on the beach the following day.

A film “How to Draw a Bunny,” documenting Johnson’s life, directed by John W. Walter, was released in 2002. Here are some of seemingly random pages he sent to me – and an excerpt from one of his to-do lists (below bottom).

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

Ray Johnson Art

 

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for sharing these images. I’m working on an essay that discusses, among other things, Johnson’s interest in Gertrude Stein. I wondered if he used her image in any of the works you received? thanks.

  2. You are perceptive and admirable to perceive Ray’s mailings and calls as “gifts.” And then to share them with the world thanks to this remarkable invention, the Internet. We as self-absorbed, too-busy humans (yes, that includes me) don’t realize that a simple “hello,” yet another email from a friend, or even an imposing favor from a neighbor, are all GIFTS. Even the way my rambuncious kitten harasses the older, nearly blind cat is a GIFT – it keeps her alive and alert.
    Here’s a gift for you and your readers. It’s a watercolor with a beautiful story to go with it, which I received today by a precious friend. Please take the time to enjoy this: http://artandotherthings.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/two/
    One more thing, what a coincidence a few of Ray’s renderings utilize moveable-type rubber stamps, which you featured the other day. That brings back wonderful childhood memories of composing “books” with those rubber stamp sets.

  3. Thank you for sharing these. I am imagining how many gifted Ray Johnson’s are out in the world.  It’s fascinating to see your collection of these and glad to hear they will be donated to SVA.  It’s also timely as we are putting together the relaunch of New Observations magazine, a contemporary arts journal published from 1981-2001 in NYC founded by Lucio Pozzi a long time SVA faculty.  Each issue has a guest editor and the topic of the first new issue is “Gift Economy.”  I also missed meeting you in Italy this summer. It was inspiring.  Erika

  4. Steve: Your Ray Johnson piece today was of great interest since my neighbor Lucy Lippard often shows me her collection of his correspondence art. But it was the mention of donating your work to SVA that was of particular interest given my upcoming donations to at least two schools of which I am an alum. I thought it might be interesting to write about the various depositories of “Graphic Design History”…SVA, RIT, YALE…I am running into many designers of our age range who are not thinking about saving and archiving this information. All the best, Tom Morin