Introduction

Evolving out of a panel assembled by Sebastian Matthews at the 2nd annual Black Mountain College Conference, this issue of The Black Mountain College Studies Journal focuses on Ray Johnson. Thanks to Frances Beatty and Jennifer Grossman at Richard L. Feigen & Co. for their assistance with the Ray Johnson Estate. All images are reproduced © of the Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co. Little would be known about Johnson without the dedicated work of William S. Wilson, who has written extensively about his friend and has also assembled an archive on Johnson. Many thanks to Bill for sharing his knowledge with a new generation of Johnson scholars. Finally, thanks to Kate Dempsey for her hard work in shaping and helping edit this issue.

Ray Johnson’s work is suffused with communication. His correspondence art was literally exchanged; his collage work foregrounds language. Johnson was a ‘letterer’: he composed and mailed out letters, emphasizing equally the alphabet’s graphic qualities and linguistic significance. Language’s multi-faceted nature delighted Johnson. Fascinated by the visual appearance of written language and its many ways of transmitting meaning, Johnson encouraged the viewer to look beyond the surface, connect elements, and make disparate connections. Rather than aiming for a specific message, Johnson emphasized the meaning-making process, insisting the viewer become a co-creator. In this way, the issue’s articles demonstrate Johnson’s summation of the way his work speaks. When asked if he would record a guide to an exhibition of his work Johnson declined, explaining: “The next time these works are shuffled and shown, they’ll bring up other people and images and ideas. It’s constantly and kaleidoscopically different.”1 Each viewer brings a unique perspective to the work, something elucidated in what follows.

At the front of the issue, we provide an interview with Kenneth Snelson, who attended the 1948 summer session with Ray Johnson as part of an ongoing series of interviews. Michael von Uchtrup provides a Johnson biography that helps situate his life and works. Next, Johanna Gosse explores Johnson’s philosophy of art, emphasizing his efforts to remove art from the gallery system and engage the viewer in what philosopher John Dewey called “an experience.” Julie Thomson continues in this vein, arguing Johnson and George Brecht were each other’s ideal audience. Kate Dempsey explores Johnson’s interest in communication systems, particularly those that are undecipherable, mysterious. Considering a connection between Johnson and the weaver, Anni Albers, with whom Johnson shared a fascination with language, Dempsey analyzes the textile-like quality of Johnson’s early paintings. Finally, in “Reading Ray: VanDerBeek Deep,” Gosse, Thomson, Dempsey, and Sebastian Matthews present short readings of a Johnson collage made for experimental filmmaker and fellow Black Mountain College alum, Stan VanDerBeek.

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  1. Henry Martin, “Should An Eyelash Last Forever, An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Donna De Salvo and Catherine Gudis, eds., Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 185.
  2. All images are reproduced ©Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
    Richard L. Feigen & Co. represents the Ray Johnson Estate