The Lost Ray Johnson

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for The Lost Ray Johnson

I have an admission. Actually, another in a string of admissions in a legacy of poor judgement calls. When I was at The New York Times I received a phone call from Ray Johnson (1927–1995, bio here). You may or may not know who he was. I was in the latter camp. We had a nice conversation about his “New York Correspondence School” and mail art, which he practiced, and asked if he could send me some of his work. I presumed correctly that he wanted some illustration jobs. He told me he was having a rough time making ends meet. I told him that “I’d love to see your stuff,” and he promptly sent a large envelope filled with jottings and scraps. It was not my idea of illustration. So, I wrote him (a letter) saying it was great to see, but I had nothing to offer. He would send me Xeroxes of things from time to time.

A few years later, maybe 10 or so, I read his obituary and then saw a number of books published in his honor. I had no idea that he was so highly admired by the ’40s and ’50s Avant Garde arts community. My ignorance knew no bounds. At least I wasn’t a jerk to him, but I certainly did not take advantage in my role as “historian” to learn more about Johnson, his work and its relevance. I did, however, keep the package and letters he sent (although I don’t recall their exact whereabouts at this time).

He was best known for this mail art and this. The posthumous bio film How to Draw a Bunny is also a classic. And there are various books by and about him. He was also a fanatic about the number 13, like I am. He drowned in 1995 at the age of 67 (6+7=13…).

What I learned only a few days ago while paging through one of my favorite vintage issues of Print (XI:1) from February/March 1957, the “Sources of Inspiration” issue, was that he did a form of graphic design using his own handlettering. The two below are featured in a section devoted to a little-known “young New Yorker” photographer, Norman Solomon, who had only been making photos for a “matter of months” before he caught Print‘s attention. Solomon collaborated with Johnson on a radio advertisement for WOR and a book cover for Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood.

Johnson, incidentally, also designed one of the most iconic book covers for the New Directions edition of Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, an important influence on Bob Dylan. And then there is this Rogers and Hart LP design for Columbia, which I’d love to have.

I don’t know much more about Solomon, although he remained close to Johnson, as this interview suggests. They also produced the graphic concept of Moticos together. Darn, I wish I could find the stuff Johnson sent to me—and more important, I wish I knew enough to talk to him about his life when I had the chance.

Support PRINT. Subscribe.

At PRINT, we don’t believe in paywalls. But we still need support from our readers. Consider subscribing to PRINT today, and get in on the conversation of what the brightest minds in the field are talking about right now.

Treat yourself and your team to a year of PRINT for $40—which includes the massive Regional Design Awards issue ($30 on newsstands).