ray johnson and the birth of mail art
Today, the only things in our mailboxes are bedding catalogues and menus from Chinese takeouts. But for legendary pop artist Ray Johnson, mailboxes were the Met.
Marcel Duchamp with a Xerox machine, Johnson abandoned the Abstract Expressionist ambitions of his New York peers and founded the New York Correspondence School, one of the most notable mail art networks. Personally sending thousands of artworks through the postal service, Johnson laid the foundation for generations of artists to come, who would later distribute zines or web pages on the early internet.
It's been nearly twenty years since artist Ray Johnson died and his work is having an unprecedented moment. Always elusive beyond the art community, Johnson was referred to as "New York's most famous unknown artist" in a 1965 article in The New York Times. With an exhibition at the MoMA library this summer and one currently at Karma, as well as two books published by Siglio Press (The Paper Snake, originally published in 1965, and Not Nothing, a collection of selected writings), Johnson is finally getting the recognition he deserves. i-D spoke with Karma's Brendan Dugan and curator Jay Gorney, who collaborated with the Ray Johnson Estate and Richard L. Feigen & Co. for Karma's latest exhibition, about the energy surrounding Johnson's work.
What attracted you to Ray Johnson's work?
Jay Gorney: I have been attracted to Ray Johnson's work all my life; it was a very natural decision. I also think there was something nicely matched about Johnson and Karma, because Karma shows art and publishes incredible books. Given the aspect of Johnson's practice that involves mail art and ephemera it seemed like a very natural and interesting choice.
Brendan, what interested you about exhibiting Johnson's work at Karma?
Brendan Dugan: I always feel like working on a project with an artist's work is a way to dig deeper and learn more about the artist's work so it was exciting to have that opportunity with Ray Johnson. At the Ray Johnson Estate, it was just incredible to see the pure energy and all these ideas that he had that seemed to be coming out in different ways. You still feel that energy today.
Had you ever met Johnson?
BD: No, I didn't meet him. It's been interesting to hear about him as a person and how he interacted with people. It's very personal; even though he was very distant in the way he lived his life, he was also very present at the same time.
JG: I did meet Ray Johnson when I was in my early twenties, in the late 70s. He was just an interesting, intense guy. I obviously never forgot it.
Johnson's work spans painting, photography, collage, and other media; do you feel there are any overarching themes in his art?
JG: There are themes that weave their way through Johnson's work and are continually recurring. He uses other artists, popular figures, and film stars, from Anna May Wong to Shelley Duvall. This show includes several works that have Ray's face obscured with his bunny logo, other words and moticos, and a series of images of Elvis masked with other imagery. There are also themes of coded information and gay identity; even though it's not overtly political art, the queer iconography is all there.
Why is the bunny logo in particular is so effective?
BD: He's always using all different types of visual and contextual symbols, and I think the bunny symbol's repetition within his work is what makes it so compelling in the end. I also think a lot of his work deals with portraiture and symbols, so that icon merges both of those; it is a basic building block of a human portrait.
What decisions did you make when you were publishing Johnson's book for Karma in translating his material to print?
BD: With the Ray Johnson Estate, we edited a group of three-hundred collages which hadn't been seen before which felt particularly relevant. With Ray's work in particular, you really need to spend time with it because there are so many layers, symbols, and themes that you only start to realise when you have the chance to look at it.
There's something infinitely relatable about his mail art - it's made for everyone. Do you think this could be achieved on the internet?
BD: A lot of Ray Johnson's art was about these really specific connections between people and artists, so I think in a way some of that gets lost over time because some of these things become less relevant; we weren't there to understand who these people were or what a certain phrase means. That's one element of the work that changes over time, but I also think a lot of the images are so graphic that they translate in a digital way.
How is Johnson's work relevant today?
JG: The correspondence aspect of his work is certainly relevant to a lot of performance work and interactive work made today. Some of his themes about the construction of identity are especially pertinent.
Ray Johnson is on view at Karma, 39 Great Jones Street, New York until November 1st, 2014.
Text Benjamin Barron
Images courtesy Ray Johnson