Return to Sender: Ray Johnson, Robert Warner and the New York Correspondence School

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Ray Johnson, Untitled (Cupid with Ad Reinhardt), 1974. Collage on illustration board. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York © Ray Johnson Estate
Ray Johnson, Untitled (Cupid with Ad Reinhardt), 1974. Collage on illustration board. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York © Ray Johnson Estate

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Ray Johnson, Untitled  (Joseph Circle), 1979–80–90. Collage on cardboard panel. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York. © Ray Johnson Estate.
Ray Johnson, Untitled (Joseph Circle), 1979–80–90. Collage on cardboard panel. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York. © Ray Johnson Estate.

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Ray Johnson, Baldessari Heart, 1973. Collage on illustration board. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York. © Ray Johnson Estate.
Ray Johnson, Baldessari Heart, 1973. Collage on illustration board. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York. © Ray Johnson Estate.

“I study cancellations, the manner in which the stamp is placed, the way the address is done…. It’s a marvelous art form, the letter—full of wonder and surprise.”

Ray Johnson (1965)[1]

In the mid-1950s, the New York based artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) initiated a new form of artistic practice called “mail art” that utilized the postal system as an alternative site for the distribution of art. Provoking “wonder and surprise” in the banal business of sending and receiving mail, Johnson developed a cult following that prompted a New York Times critic to call him: “New York’s most famous unknown artist.”[2] While other contemporary artists—from Yves Klein to On Kawara—developed concurrent artistic strategies that made use of the post, Johnson is considered the progenitor of the mail art movement because his practice placed special emphasis on the structure of the postal system and the interconnections it enabled. In particular, Johnson is known for a strategy called “on-sending,” in which participants receive a letter or object in the post, add to or subtract from that item, and then mail it onward to another participant or return it to Johnson. Through this process, Johnson forged an underground network of collaborators that came to be called the “New York Correspondence School,” and later the “New York Correspondance [sic] School” (NYCS).[3]

While certain participants in the correspondence school were some of New York’s most renowned artists—Willem DeKooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, to name a few—Johnson savored his paradoxical status as a famous unknown. Refusing gallery representation and promotion, and only selling his work when financially necessary, Johnson attempted to avoid the codification of his artistic persona and the commodification of his work. He instead emphasized the dispersion of both author and object by generating collaboratively produced collages, continually altered and circulated through the post. Rather than making autonomous works of art to be labeled and hung on art gallery walls, Johnson and his correspondents unworked the image of the individual artist, sometimes literally, as in the portrait of Johnson with inclusions by the artist James Rosenquist, the critic John Perreault, and at least one other unidentified contributor (Figure 1). This dispersal of authority also functioned systemically—destabilizing the singularity of subjects and institutions that postal conventions such as addresses, letterhead, and stamps reinforced. As one NYCS participant observed:

“On Christmas Eve I received an envelope from the Museum of Modern Art containing nothing at all, and I found myself wondering whether MoMA had joined the NYCS. In fact, I was no longer sure what was and wasn’t communication from the NYCS—it might be one of their objectives to surround all mail with mystery.”[4]

The NYCS, in other words, threw into question origins and aims of all other mail, thereby emphasizing how identity functions not as a self-enclosed entity (to be concealed and revealed like the opening and closing of an envelope) but rather something more porous and permeable to others. Furthermore, by stressing the anonymity, heterogeneity, and promiscuity of the modern post—through which any two people may be brought into contact—Johnson forged a community that worked against the atomization of individuals for economic and political gain. He and his collaborators instead underscored the interconnectedness between correspondents, particularly those of marginalized populations such as the newly visible gay and lesbian community.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the mail art movement grew and diversified, ultimately becoming international in scope and encompassing a wide variety of practices, including magazines and exhibitions. Actively engaged in the expanded movement, Johnson both coordinated exhibitions and contributed to artist magazines. His “Correspondence Show” at Western Illinois University in 1974, for example, used the queer art zine FILE (a pun on the mainstream magazine LIFE) to spread the word and rally correspondents. He also sent out a mass mailing to members of the NYCS and students at the university, asking them to flood the gallery’s mailbox with material for the show. The success of the exhibition, therefore, depended on the generosity of those in the network. In the end, several hundred people mailed in works, each of which was freely given and small enough to be sent in a standard envelope. With these submissions, Johnson covered the walls in a mosaic of correspondences (Figure 2), and after the exhibition, he held on to the works for repurposing and recirculation. While some of the material was recycled into new mail art collages, Johnson also saved much of the work in a box that he would ultimately give to one of his most engaged correspondents, Robert (Bob) Warner.

Numbering and labeling them “BOB BOX,” Johnson delivered 13 cardboard boxes to Warner in 1988, telling him that he would send instructions as to how to disperse their contents. And although Johnson died in 1995, leaving much of the boxes’ contents undistributed, Warner continues to engage the legacy of this movement both by sending mail art and creating art installations out of the BOB BOXES. These boxes—which contain objects that speak to Johnson’s signature iconography (e.g. bunnies, cupids, snakes, postage stamps, etc.), as well as mail art works by the various members of the NYCS—constitute a veritable cabinet of curiosities, particularly when unpacked by Warner. For this exhibition, Warner will reinstall the contents of the boxes, this time emphasizing Box 13, which contains mail art from the Illinois “correspondence show” described above.

In addition to these more ephemeral gestures, the exhibition also includes 25 framed collages that Johnson made for the handful of commercial gallery exhibitions that he had during his lifetime. While Johnson is best known for his freewheeling mail art, he also produced exquisitely constructed collages that were built out of dense layers of NYCS ephemera and made to portray prominent artists, curators, and critics of the New York art world. Similar to the mail art, however, these portraits are collective—never simply of one person but of many. 

 

Text by Miriam Kienle, Guest Curator and doctoral candidate in Art History, 2013.

 


[1] Quoted in Grace Glueck, “What happened? Nothing” New York Times (11 April 1965): X18.

[2] Glueck, Ibid.

[3] Punning on the “New York School” of expressionist painting, one of Johnson’s correspondents, Ed Plunkett, gave the network the moniker of the New York Correspondence School sometime around 1962. By 1968, however, Johnson began to refer to the network as the New York Correspondance [sic] School, evoking both the choreographed postal movements or “dance” that he set in motion and the deferral of sanctioned meaning that for some may recall the French philosopher Derrida’s famous lecture “Différance.” In this lecture, Derrida plays with auditory correspondence between the words difference and differance [sic], in order to defer meaning, show fluidity of speech over writing, and demonstrate how a “gross spelling mistake [exposes] a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly.” SEE: Ed Plunkett, “Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings, and Objects…The New York Correspondence School,” Art Journal 36:3 (Spring 1977): 234. Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Margins of Philosophy Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 3.

[4] Rosalind Constable “The Mailaway Art of Ray Johnson” New York 3:9 (March 1970): 42.