Sometime after 1965, it seems, a large brown envelope made its way from Something Else Press—or from artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995, attended Black Mountain College during its mid-1940s heyday)—
—to what Ray would refer to as his “official New York Correspondence School archive”: the nearby home in which Ray’s close friend William S. Wilson was raising his three young children and—unknowingly at the time—preserving the early history of what became the mail art movement, which proliferated in the 1960s and continues even into our own highly digitized era.
That envelope disappeared from sight for several decades before re-surfacing. When it did, it was found to contain much of the production material used in the creation of The Paper Snake, a lively compendium of Ray Johnson’s correspondence and collages from 1959 to 1964.
Released on Valentines Day of 1965, The Paper Snake was the second book published by the groundbreaking Something Else Press. It was arguably one of the most influential of the press’ publications, which included works by some notable figures of the 20th century, among them John Cage, Marshall McLuhan, Nam June Paik, Claes Oldenburg, Gertrude Stein, and Dick Higgins (1938-1998), poet, performer and Something Else Press founder; one of the impresarios of the early 1960s Fluxus movement.
Lively, quirky, often comic, the texts and drawings scattered among The Paper Snake’s pages provide an intimate look at the early work of Ray Johnson. It is something of a time capsule, filled with random snapshots of Ray Johnson’s idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, insecurities, ruminations, reconciliations, and flights of fancy. It is but a thin slice of a large pie – these are Ray’s mailings dispatched only to Dick Higgins and to Alison Knowles, two out of dozens of Ray Johnson correspondents. Still, it is an intriguing one.
But The Paper Snake appeared before it could be widely appreciated. In 1965 Ray Johnson was not well known outside of the New York Correspondence School, the far-flung, sometimes mischievous mail art network he had created. He defined himself less by what he was—a gifted collagist, a witty satirist and mail artist, than by what he was not—NOT a Pop artist, or a Fluxus artist, or a Conceptualist. NOT a poet.
Despite its less than auspicious reception and startling lack of commercial success during Something Else Press’ existence, The Paper Snake has since taken on a life of its own. David Ebony predicted in his article “Ray Johnson, from The Paper Snake to Shelley Duvall” (New Observations, May-June 1995), “Echoes of The Paper Snake will be heard for a long time to come.” Certainly that prophecy has come true. Half a decade has passed since The Paper Snake was hatched to its uncertain welcome. It’s been 40+ years since the Something Else Press shingle hung, just over 20 years since Ray Johnson’s suicide, more than 15 years since Dick Higgins’ untimely death. But a faithful reprint of the book is now available for a new generation; an entire exhibition about the book’s creation is ending its run at BMCM+AC, and the Journal about The Paper Snake’s creation, which you are now reading, is on the way to its release.
It gives me much gratification to have helped to present in this volume of BMCS personal remembrances by (or the fruits of the labors of) several people who knew Ray Johnson: Frances Beatty, Mark Bloch, Charlton Burch, Dick Higgins, Barbara Moore, Clive Phillpot, Marie Tavroges Stilkind, and Bill Wilson.
Please note: In the world of Ray Johnson, “the truth” is a matter of who is doing the telling. Varying versions of events in Ray’s life regularly orbited around him, then spun away to embed themselves in the record, “true” or not: Ray and Robert Rauschenberg were in Josef Albers’ classes together at Black Mountain College (they were not, despite Rauschenberg’s vividly remembered memories published later); Ray went directly from BMC to New York (he didn’t); early on, Ray supported himself mainly via his graphic design jobs (from the evidence, he couldn’t have); he burned his early abstract paintings in Cy Twombly’s fireplace (it doesn’t seem that Cy Twombly had a fireplace); his collages dating from the 1950s brought him into the Pop Art spotlight (he was not included in any of the seminal Pop shows of the late 1950s-early 60s). So, a careful reading of the articles appearing here will obviate several discrepancies in the record: Did Ray introduce Dick Higgins to Alison Knowles, or was that Dorothy Podber? Was it Dick, or Ray, who decided on the ridiculous price of $3.47 for The Paper Snake in 1964? For that matter, was it “Something Else Press” or “THE Something Else Press”? I like to think that Ray, and Dick, would take pleasure in watching us all have to grope our own way towards our own explanations.
What is The Paper Snake? It is NOT, by definition, an artist’s book. It is not a children’s book, but it’s not NOT for children. It is NOT a narrative or a manifesto, or an autobiography, though it is partly all of those. The Paper Snake is… Something Else, even all these many years later.
First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude to Bill Wilson, who has contributed to the “Something Else Entirely” exhibition and this volume of BMCS in numerous ways. Bill was one of the major lenders to “Something Else Entirely,” and, to a large extent, the reason why there is any Paper Snake production material to exhibit. Blake Hobby and I are immensely pleased to present Bill’s probing essay herein, written especially for this occasion. I remain indebted to Bill for his unfailing support and encouragement of my projects within and beyond the world of Ray Johnson. His archive is vast, and his freely shared insights into its contents lure visitors from around the world.
Thanks, too, to BMCM+AC staff and board members, especially Erin Dickey, Connie Bostic, Brian Butler, and Alice Sebrell. Alice and my fellow Ray Johnson scholar, Julie J. Thomson, both believed in the “Something Else Entirely” show from the start, and have enthusiastically given of their time and considerable expertise. Julie J. Thomson also designed and contributed an essay (full of newly found information from a broad range of sources) to the show’s printed guide. They both have my deep appreciation.
I would also like to acknowledge colleagues at the Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.: Diana Bowers, in particular, for her fine hard work and astute observations, and RLF & Co. president Frances Beatty, for her generous cooperation on several fronts. This issue would not be complete without the thoughtful assessment of The Paper Snake, written for its 50th anniversary of publication, by Frances and poet-editor Elizabeth Zuba.
A number of others contributed in a variety of ways to the exhibition, its printed guide, and related programming, and are also owed a big thank you: Rachel Graham, Sophia Kofodimos, Andrew Moore and John Walter, David Price, Susan Rhew, Walter Schnepel, Marie Tavroges Stilkind, and Ken Ward.
This volume of BMCS owes its existence to its contributors, and to Julie Thomson, who regularly supplied crucial tactical help. Diana Bowers, Charlton Burch, Steve Clay, Mary Emma Harris, Hannah Higgins, Jean-Louis Salinas, and Walter Schnepel have also earned my thanks for their assistance. Last but not least, my hat is off to Blake Hobby, for his dedication to the BMCS, and to The Paper Snake volume in particular.
Michael von Uchtrup
New York, August 2015
Names Appearing in The Paper Snake
Abe [ ?]
Gertrude Berg [= Stein]
Miss [ ?] Blunt
John Cage *
Nick Cernovitch [sic] *
Clark [ ?]
Merce Cunningham *
Simone De Beauvoir
Ralph di Padova
Diane Di Prima
Mary Baker [Eddy]
Albert M. Fine
Hampton Fancher III
Joel [ ?]
Mr. [ ?] Jones
[Alan] [sic] Kaprow
Gregory J. Markopolous
Steve McQueen “and his wife Thalia”
Joel Oppenheimer *
Pat [ ?]
“Petunia” [= Lidijia Pohrebynsky a.k.a. Lucille Valenti]
M.C. [Richards? *]
[Marquis] de Sade
Saroya [ ?]
Norman Solomon *
Alice B. Toklas
William S. Wilson
Anne Ubinger Wilson
“Natalie’s sister Lana” [= Lana Wood]
* = a Black Mountain College alum, lecturer or teacher
- Ray Johnson Ray Johnson. This 24-page pamphlet was issued by William S. Wilson in honor of his friend Ray’s 50th birthday in 1977. In it are reproductions of collages, letters, and photos by/of Johnson, plus an assortment of Wilson’s early articles on the New York Correspondence School. In the original “Birthday Card for Ray Johnson” mailing envelope. A rarity, it is being made available at this time for $20.
- Black Mountain College Dossier No. 4. Asheville: BMC Museum + Arts Center, 1997. Exhibition catalogue for the “Ray Johnson at Black Mountain College” retrospective at the Asheville Art Museum. With several insightful texts by William S. Wilson, a friend of Johnson’s for many decades; an essay by BMC historian Mary Emma Harris; and remembrances by fellow BMC students Normon Solomon, Nick Cernovitch, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. Illustrated with numerous color reproductions; softcover. $25
- LIGHTWORKS #22—The Ray Johnson Issue, 2000. A special issue devoted to Ray’s life and art, with “The Hatching of THE PAPER SNAKE” by Dick Higgins and with contributions by former BMC students Norman Solomon and Marie Tavroges Stilkind, and dozens of other Ray Johnson friends. 96 pages plus an audio CD of Nick Maravell’s documentation of Ray. Lightworks #22 is available for $13 per copy at the BMCM+AC or from editor Charlton Burch at Lightworks magazine, POB 1202, Birmingham, Michigan 48012-1202 (248) 626-8026. If ordering by mail, please add $3 postage per copy. For further info: [email protected]
- Ray Johnson—The Early Years. Published by Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York, as the catalogue for an exhibition at Art Basel in June 2007. Text: “Ray Johnson: Finite But Unbounded” by William S. Wilson. $5
- From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson, 1943-1967. BMCM+AC: 2010. This exhibition catalogue explores the early years of Ray Johnson’s work, from pre-Black Mountain College through his time at BMC and into his first few years in New York City. Fully illustrated with essays by curator Sebastian Matthews, Kate Erin Dempsey, Julie J. Thomson, and Ray Johnson’s longtime friends Arthur Secunda and William S. Wilson. $15
- The Paper Snake by Ray Johnson, reprinted by Siglio Press, 2014. Hardback with dust jacket, 48 pages, ISBN: 978-1-938221-03-3. In the spirit of the original, the print run is the same (1,840 copies). An introductory essay written by Frances F. L. Beatty PhD, director of the Ray Johnson Estate, with poet and editor Elizabeth Zuba, is included as a separate insert. It is available for $34.70 per copy at the BMCM+AC or via Siglio Press.
- Mail-Interviews: Part I. Breda, Netherlands: TAM-Publications, 2008. Includes Ruud Janssen’s “Mail Interview with Dick Higgins,” conducted by post, trans-Atlanticly, between April and December of 1995. This volume also includes Janssen’s mail interviews with Ray Johnson—cut short by his death—and with Alison Knowles, Clive Phillpot, Norman Solomon, and numerous others from around the globe. Viewable online at or in print: $21.35 plus $4 shipping. For further info: Visit this link or send an email: [email protected].