Ray Johnson and the Road from BMC Into—and Out of—New York by Michael von Uchtrup

“I Plan To Send Startling Letters:” Ray Johnson and the Road from Black Mountain College Into—and Out of—New York

by Michael von Uchtrup

These tantalizing words appear in a letter Ray Johnson sent to his parents sometime in spring 1948: “I have changed plans after talking to [Josef] Albers about going to California from Black Mountain. He thinks I should stay here for the summer…”

Because Ray’s teacher convinced him to attend BMC’s Summer Institute before leaving the college, Ray came to know and be profoundly influenced by that term’s visiting lecturers: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and Richard Lippold. He participated in Cage’s landmark production of Erik Satie’s “The Ruse of Medusa.” He established an intimate connection with Richard Lippold that lasted a quarter of a century; thanks to Richard, Ray found himself in New York within a few months of leaving Black Mountain, with superb connections and a circle of dynamic friends. Would there have been the equivalent of Ray’s mail art network, the New York Correspondence School, if he’d found his way to another city, or to a rural setting, as he longed to do at the time? Twenty years later, Ray followed Richard and his family to Locust Valley, on the Long Island’s north shore, and from there was drawn slowly but irresistibly to the water.

Not everyone’s life brings them to a single moment that changes almost everything that comes after. Ray could point to two of them – the discussion he must have had that spring with Albers, and a chance meeting about three years later on March 17, 1951. That day, Ray was on his way to a matinee of “Turandot” with his friend Hazel Larsen Archer, a BMC student during Ray’s time and later a teacher there, who was visiting him in New York. Stopping in a Woolworth’s on the way, Hazel recognized then-current BMC students Norman Solomon and Dorothea Rockburne. Solomon moved to New York the next year, and became Ray’s close friend and occasional collaborator. Through Norman, Ray met William S. Wilson, then studying at Yale, who in turn brought Ray into contact one by one with the others who were to be instrumental in the creation of his mail art network, and much else: May Wilson, Bill’s mother and a fellow artist; Toby Spiselman, a mathematician; and (via a friend of Bill’s) Marie Tavroges (later Stilkind), who had also been to BMC. The New York Correspondence School essentially grew out of this cluster of lifelong friendships.

Ray Johnson was born in Detroit in 1927. Ray’s parents recognized and nurtured their son’s artistic talents, enrolling him in Saturday classes at the Detroit Institute of Art, the art program at Cass Technical High School, and a summer session between his junior and senior years at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan, an outpost affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, he befriended Elaine Schmitt, whose older sister Elizabeth had that summer (1944) begun a long association with Black Mountain College. Elizabeth Schmitt’s letters home persuaded Ray, Elaine, and Elaine’s friend Ruth Asawa to apply to BMC. All three were accepted. By the end of his senior year, Ray had won scholarships to both BMC and the Art Students League in New York. He arrived at Black Mountain College for the Summer Institute of 1945, three months before his 18th birthday. Except for the spring term of 1946 – which he spent in New York, having become curious about the ASL – Ray remained at the college until autumn of 1948.

Ray is believed to have travelled to San Francisco from Black Mountain, although little evidence survives explaining why, how, or for how long. In fact, evidence about where Ray lived when and how his art developed over the next seven years is only now coming to light. Ray and Richard Lippold must have been reunited shortly after Ray’s trip to California. In an interview with Mary Emma Harris, Richard later recalled,

That previous winter, ’47-’48, I [had gotten] a job… teaching at a small junior college in Trenton, New Jersey… [Ray] wanted to live in the country… And since I was out there a number of days a week, we took a place together… I worked a little bit there and I also worked at home…Eventually [Ray] wanted to move to the city. The place [near Trenton] was an old mill we’d fixed up… And the winter was pretty severe. You couldn’t heat it properly.

[Ray was installed in an apartment on 119th Street in Manhattan, either late in 1948 or early in 1949]

 

According to his own sometimes contradictory resumes, from 1949 to 1953 Ray joined Lippold in exhibiting with the American Abstract Artists group, the founding of which had been due in large part to Ray’s two influential BMC teachers, Albers and Ilya Bolotowsky. Thanks to Carolyn Brown (another BMC alumna), we know that it was late summer of 1951 when Ray and Richard Lippold moved to a tenement on Monroe Street, near the Brooklyn Bridge. Living in the apartment across the hall from theirs were John Cage and Merce Cunningham, along with composer Morton Feldman. The impact that these neighbors – notably Cage – must have had on the young Ray Johnson can only be imagined. In 1952, according to one chronology, “[John Cage] wrote 4’33”… encouraged by Rauschenberg’s white canvasses, one of which hung in his apartment.” Other influences on Ray were also manifesting themselves: Norman Solomon would later remember that he and Ray “particularly threw ourselves into… Chinese and Japanese philosophies and religions: Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism. We read everything we could find of these, attended classes of D.T. Suzuki’s at Columbia University…”. When their building was to be torn down around 1953, Richard rented another workspace, and Ray moved to Dover Street, where he would reside until 1960.

What did Ray’s artwork look like around this time? Little of it is still extant, and less of it is dated, but judging from a small number of paintings and from vintage photos of vanished works, they were rigidly, self-consciously, geometric, symmetric, and un-painterly. Just when and what led him to suddenly abandon these paintings – and later burn all of them that he could in Cy Twombly’s fireplace – is not known.

Norman Solomon’s reverent descriptions in letters sent to Bill Wilson after Ray’s death offer hints about the evolution of Ray’s earliest collages. “Made between the abstract geometric paintings and the pre-moticos [mid-1950s works]… paper pieces fixed to … those ubiquitous Chinese laundry shirt cardboards… scraps… fashioned into new shapes… this was the stock from which the moticos emerged.” Snippets clipped from magazines, maps and the like must have made their way into Ray’s work around 1952 or 1953. A collage called “Joy Garden” (known only from a photograph, later dated “ca. 1952”) features a bird-shaped element probably cut from a Chinese restaurant’s menu, perhaps inspired by the Camel cigarette ad appropriated into Willem de Kooning’s “Study for Woman” (1950).

Whatever the origin of this impulse, Ray’s obsessive raids on popular culture resulted in a visual vocabulary which included images of movie stars, muscle-boys, cigarette logos, printed advertisements – the trappings of a new, giddy consumer culture taking root in the U.S. and elsewhere. The huge significance of these early experiments of Ray’s would slowly become apparent. As Lucy Lippard pointed out not long after the fact, “[Pop Art] was born twice; first in England and then again, independently, in New York”; Adrian Henri would state later that “Ray Johnson was, in the 1950s, very much an equivalent of Richard Hamilton.” Dating from the second half of the decade, “[Ray’s] collages ‘Elvis Presley No. 1’ and ‘James Dean’,” according to Henry Geldzahler, “stand as the Plymouth Rock of the Pop movement.”

It seems probable that Ray had set himself free of the restrictions of the straight line by early 1955. In April of that year he sent a mimeographed list to the Museum of Modern Art’s library (entitled “Announcing 36 New Collages by Ray Johnson”) naming what were most likely small, irregularly shaped constructions. Already, Ray seems to have turned his back on a gallery system which would not have welcomed him at the time anyway. He “would only show his work in places like Grand Central Station, or on the street,“ Suzi Gablik recalled in Pop Art Redefined (1969). “Carried around a cardboard box of 100 collages, showed them on every Mies van der Rohe table in town,” quipped Ray in his undated “Brief Narrative Account of MY Career” (1967?).

1955 was an amazing year for Ray Johnson. He had just begun mass-mailing often enigmatic promotional flyers advertising his graphic design services, so the birth of the New York Correspondence School (given its name in 1962) was imminent. In August, he and Norman Solomon arrived at the term “moticos” for Ray’s little collages, and Ray was sending out “What is a Moticos?” and other manifestos by the month’s end. One of them was received by art critic John Wilcock, who wrote about Ray in the inaugural issue of The Village Voice that October:

…There are about 200 people on his mailing list so far… What their reaction is to receiving moticos isn’t on record… mainly because Johnson usually hands out non-existent addresses in the Bronx to people who ask him where he lives… Every now and then, someone tracks him down and sends him a check for 29 cents or so for a particular moticos that strikes their fancy. “I always cut up their letters and send them something different,” Ray says. ‘Strips from their letters make good moticos.’

Also that autumn, Suzi Gablik (another BMC alum) brought photographer Elisabeth Novick to document Ray’s moticos on the streets of the Lower East Side. “The random arrangement … on a dilapidated cellar door in Lower Manhattan may even have been the first informal Happening,” Gablik declared in Pop Art Redefined. Beautiful photos found among Ray’s papers show Ray and Suzi wearing and playing with dozens of delightful collages which, according to Bill Wilson, Ray burned immediately after. Ad Reinhardt photographed scores more of them, and Norman Solomon photographed him photographing them. If any survive, it’s because they were incorporated into later works.

Ray must have met Andy Warhol around this time, certainly by early 1956. Warhol was working then in commercial design, and via his introductions, Ray began to create book covers, record jackets, backdrops and window displays, and greeting cards. While innovative – the Benday dots visible in his cover for Rimbaud’s Illuminations (New Directions, 1957) predate Roy Lichtenstein’s use of them by several years – Ray was not very successful as a graphic designer. He supplemented his income by working at Orientalia Bookstore, where his friend, BMC alum Nick Cernovich, was manager. Besides reinforcing Ray’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Orientalia became an endless source of scrap papers for Ray’s collages, and he is said to have used their mimeograph machine for his earliest mass mailings.

A small but well-received 1955 solo show of Ray’s collages in a Cambridge, Massachusetts print shop was followed by two subsequent group shows in New York which included his work, and a caption in Art News, January 1958, proclaimed “[Jasper] Johns’ first one-man show … places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson”. Like some of his peers, Allan Kaprow in particular, an increasingly confident Ray Johnson began to designate some his spontaneous yet eloquent, often absurd gestures as performances of sorts, soon referring to them as “Nothings” in reaction to Kaprow’s own “Happenings”. Also like Kaprow, Ray became active in Fluxus circles (though he never considered himself a “Fluxist”). His first publicly announced “Nothing” took place at George Maciunas’ AG Gallery in July of 1961. Walter De Maria, Henry Flynt, and LaMonte Young were part of the same performance series, and one of Yoko Ono’s first known solo exhibitions was on view on the walls at the time. On the appointed night, Ray’s “audience” gathered. The evening consisted of Ray pouring a cardboard box full of wooden dowels down the gallery’s staircase, and the indelible impressions this made on many of those present. His “Second Nothing” took place at the Maidman Playhouse the following year. He created and appeared at various types of public events through the late 1980s.

The earliest known “Please Send To…” – a postcard with a reference understood only by its intended recipient, Remy Charlip, mailed to Bill Wilson with Ray’s note asking that it be forwarded – was postmarked on June 9, 1958. Cryptic announcements for non-existent art shows were mailed out to his rapidly expanding network starting in 1961. By 1962, when the New York Correspondence School was in full swing, Ray and his ever-widening circle of accomplices were mailing to each other artworks, envelopes stuffed with clippings, junk, almost anything the postal service would accept. Missives marked by Ray with the phrases “please add to and return”, “please add and send to…”, and even “please do not send to…” circulated. His A Book About Death (1963-5) followed, consisting of 13 unbound printed sheets. Ever the prankster, Ray sent the pages to correspondents separately, over time, so virtually no one could ever hope to receive a full set. Players of Ray’s game – and many others who must have been baffled by the contents of their mailboxes – received papers and objects with sometimes scathing witticisms and private jokes. NYCS members who transgressed Ray’s “rules” were often publicly “dropped” from the School. Ray first called NYCS members together on April Fools Day, 1968, at the Society of Friends Meeting House. The School’s playful, mischievous nature was already well documented when, six meetings later, in early 1969, Ray directed NYCS members to send valentines to TIME magazine, and so many arrived that the company, mystified, mentioned them in its in-house publication. Hearing that art critic Hilton Kramer discarded his mail after but a cursory glance, Ray asked that envelopes containing dollar bills be mailed to him. Numerous such bombardments would ensue, drawing in more and more accomplices. A handful of the figures from the NYCS’s early days are still involved with mail art; certainly NYCS activities continued well after Ray’s death and do so even today.

Mid-August to mid-September of 1964 was a dizzying period for Ray. Diagnosed with hepatitis, he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital, where he was a patient for three weeks. September’s Artforum magazine with one of the first feature articles about him to appear in print – David Bourdon’s “Interview with Ray Johnson” (Ray’s ramblings, not a factual interview) – may well have been brought to him in his hospital bed. He was apparently released in time to run a classified ad in The Village Voice’s September 17th issue: “Send 96 Cents Postage for 8 Pages of BOOK ABOUT DEATH.” Did Ray know another ad would appear in the same issue? Placed by Andy Warhol (or for him by David Bourdon), it announced a “38-Man Show” in Ray’s Bellevue Hospital room, complete with hours and address. Days later, when Ray went to visit Warhol with his “terrifying” friend and cohort, Dorothy Podber, she pulled out a pistol and put a bullet through three of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, later sold as the famous “Shot Marilyns.”

It was almost certainly Richard who introduced Ray to Richard’s dealer, Marion Willard, who gave Ray a breakthrough retrospective in 1965. The show was well-received, and subsequently Ray was given regular solo exhibitions at the Willard Gallery (in New York, through 1967) and at Feigen Gallery (their New York and Chicago locations, 1966-1971). In his last year before leaving New York, Ray had three large solo exhibitions and participated in at least eight impressive group exhibitions throughout the U.S.

But there had been a down side to the heady New York years. The Bohemian freedom of the 1960s tore apart those eager but unprepared for its excesses. Some of Ray’s friends ended up in mental hospitals, or disappeared into Scientology. They shot things. They attempted shocking suicides, succeeding all too frequently.

What must the Midwestern boy who once said he wanted to live on a farm have thought of life in New York on June 3rd, 1968? That day, Valerie Solanas retrieved a gun she’d stored under the bed of Ray’s friend May Wilson and with it nearly killed another friend, Andy Warhol. That evening Ray was robbed at knifepoint. Robert Kennedy was assassinated three days later. Within a month of these events, Ray had left New York, permanently and without regret. He rented a house many miles east in Glen Cove, and the following year bought “The Pink House”, also called “100 Swans,” in Locust Valley.

If Ray’s goal was a less dramatic existence, he achieved it, though he was never inactive. He traveled to New York often and occasionally elsewhere, but mostly labored intently at home on collages that became increasingly complex and self-referential. He must have devoted hours every day to the massive amount of mail he sent. The NYCS was the subject of a large-scale 1970 survey at New York’s Whitney Museum organized by Ray and curator Marcia Tucker; frequent NYCS meetings and numerous other events were held, and chapters were established in other cities. NEA grants in 1976 and 1977 allowed Ray to rent a photocopier and expand his network even more. He began to produce silhouettes of friends, colleagues, art world denizens, minor celebrities – well over 200 of them (he circulated lists of his subjects) – and incorporated copies of the silhouettes into a stunning array of perhaps hundreds of collages.

Still, 1978 was the last year in which Ray would allow his work to be exhibited in a solo gallery show, frustrating would-be dealers. His public performances became less frequent, and ceased altogether in 1988. Despite all Ray’s successes, drawings, mailings and collages from the 1980s and 90s with the word FAILURE predominating can be found, somewhat ironically, among numerous prominent art collections that now feature his work. He is said to have demanded increasing isolation, allowing few visitors into his house, cultivating, perhaps intentionally, a cult-figure persona that persists today alongside a burgeoning interest in his work and wide acclaim following the award-winning documentary film How To Draw A Bunny (2002).

Perhaps there was something that Ray could not live with, or could not live without. On the 13th of January, 1995, Ray Johnson, highly regarded as an artist, with a successful career, money in the bank, and a wide circle of loving friends, was last seen swimming purposefully into the freezing waters of the Long Island Sound.

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  1. Alloway, Lawrence, Nicolas Calas & Nancy Marmer / L. Lippard, editor. Pop Art. New York: Praeger, 1966
  2. Cage, John, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns with Susan Sontag. Dancers on a Plane. London: Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1989
  3. De Salvo, Donna, Lucy Lippard, Henry Martin, Sharla Sava, Jonathan Weinberg, William S. Wilson, et al. Ray Johnson: Correspondences catalogue. Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center, Ohio State University / New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2000
  4. Gablik, Suzi and John Russell. Pop Art Redefined. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969
  5. Geldzahler, Henry. Pop Art: 1955-1970 catalogue. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1985
  6. Glueck, Grace. “What Happened? Nothing”. New York Times, April 11, 1965
  7. Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987
  8. Henri, Adrian. Total Art: Environments, Happenings and Performance. New York/Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974
  9. Johnson, Ray with David Bourdon. “An Interview with Ray Johnson”. Artforum, September 1964
  10. Johnson, Ray with Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke. “Ray Johnson Interview”, Detroit Artists Monthly, February 1978
  11. Moore, Andrew and John Walter. How to Draw a Bunny: A Ray Johnson Portrait. Documentary film. Palm Pictures: 2002
  12. Wilcock, John. “The Village Square” column. Village Voice, October 26, 1955
  13. Wilson, William S. with Mary Emma Harris et al. Ray Johnson at Black Mountain College catalogue. BMC Museum and Arts Center, 1997. Published as Black Mountain College Dossier No. 4
  14. Wilson, William S. The Early Years Catalogue. New York: Richard L. Feigen & Co., 2007
  15. I am indebted to the following colleagues for their invaluable information and encouragement: Mary Emma Harris, Henry Martin, Clive Phillpot, Julie J. Thomson. Thanks go to the Estate of Ray Johnson. William S. Wilson has made it all possible.

For Jonathan Williams, “curmudgeon to the stars”