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Arts & Culture

Remembering Ray Johnson through his pioneering correspondence art.


Detail of a work from Not Nothing: Selected Writings, 1954–1994, published by Siglio.

Ray Johnson thought he was ugly, but I thought he looked cool—just like Ray Johnson.

Being a teenage modern-art fan in Texas in the sixties, I was excited to learn of the New York Correspondence School from Eye magazine, or maybe it was Artforum or Print. Ray, whose early abstracted celebrity photos and painted collages I had seen featured in the pages of many histories of Pop, was encouraging artists all over the world to make and trade mail as an art activity, an idea readily appreciated in the midcentury’s burst of experimental and novel art approaches. Thousands of people began to send art objects to each other through the postal service.

My notion was that Ray didn’t make the first piece of mail art, but his creation of a school around that activity was the benediction for a folk-art movement in motion. Some of these letters were finished statements or handmade objects; others were exquisite corpses conducted by mail, objects that traveled and accumulated the mojo of human touch and attention as they were ever modified. The latter was the kind of thing Ray did: he mailed objects and letters and asked the recipients to add to them and then return them, or send them along to other destinations. Ray’s handmade work, cryptic and rarely seen, was striking, sure, but humorous, too, a quality I really like in art. It had a purposive childishness, but also a readily appreciable design rigor—a controlled looseness, beautiful color, shape and textural sense, a mastery of a private hieroglyphics of bunnies and goo-goo eyes.

I see in the work of Dubuffet, Dine, Oldenburg, Hockney, Red Grooms, and the avant-garde Cobra group a self-conscious reversion to childhood artistic approaches and enthusiasms as a starting point for self-investigation. It can be helpful, and maybe essential, for artists to relearn the freedom and work of child’s play and to unlearn and strip away the imposed habits, expectations, and limitations of received culture. The aforementioned artists were marked by the twentieth century’s World Wars and economic depression; the culture needed some lightening up. Mail art was an art form everyone had access to. It developed before the computer age and even before high-quality photocopies; artists young and old could join the conversation, as could people in far-flung places.

I wrote Ray Johnson a fan letter on lined grade-school paper in 1970, and I am glad he didn’t remember receiving it when he called me up in the late eighties, and blew my fanboy mind by doing so. I had learned by that time what an influence Ray was on other artists and on the temper of the time and the chemistry of the transition from the black-and-white, suited, crew-cut fifties to the colorful, frantic, long-haired sixties. He was a major alchemist, employing the power of the small, personal gesture.

Maybe he called me because he was a fan of Pee-wee Herman. He mailed me a big Diesel jeans box, from which he had cut sections of cardboard, and asked me to send it to Paul Reubens, with instruction for Paul. I phoned Paul and told him it was important and valuable and that he should play along with the instructions and modify the box and mail it back to Ray, but I imagine that Paul was too busy being a movie star, which would have been one of the reasons Ray was interested in him in the first place. Another was that the Pee-wee character was a nerd misfit, and Ray seemed to reject his own lot; he thought himself a misfit and an outsider and kept it that way as a routine or policy or public persona. Moving his studio to Long Island and playing complicated games with collectors and curators kept people at a remove and kept Ray alone in the house making a lot of beautiful art objects, and puzzling ones, too.

He knew my work, though, and I was pretty swell-headed and happy about that. I asked him the first time he called if he was painting, which was an inexact way to begin to ask him about his long, complicated process of collage. He said, Let me put it this way, this morning I was out in the yard and there was a beautiful woodpecker on the roof, so I ran to get my camera and a ladder and by the time I got back, the woodpecker was gone, so I set up the ladder and climbed up and took a picture of the roof where the bird had been.

I said that it sounded to me like he was painting.

Ray never gave me his phone number, but he called out of the blue four or five times. I told him that he had a very young-sounding voice, and he said that he hated his looks and that he was old. He sent me a few photocopies with marks or stamps affixed to them and instructions to add to them and forward to people I didn’t know, all of which I did.

As a typical fan would inevitably do, I asked him to contribute to an underground comic, which never did see the light of day. I had asked a lot of people, and many sent me work in vain, little did they know. Little did I know. Ray sent me a photocopy of a traced profile of de Kooning ornamented with bunny stamps. A month or so later, Ray made his calculated and tragic and majestic and pitiful exit from this world, our world, where you can still make collages, tease friends, and wave to the postman.

Gary Panter is a painter, cartoonist, and designer. His exhibition of new work will be on view at Fredericks & Freiser, in New York, from August 26 through September 27.

All images from Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954–1994. Copyright the Estate of Ray Johnson, courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.