NYT on Ray Johnson—”a brilliant, uncontainable polymath, an artist-poet, the genuine item”

News Section, Reviews

August 10th, 2014


(Review) Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994


Life Revealed in Letters and Doodles



With his death in 1995, the American artist Ray Johnson left a vapor trail of interest that has grown and grown, far beyond what might be expected from a career that, from a conventional viewpoint, traveled the byways of art and produced inscrutable, disposable things.

Johnson’s most physically substantial works are the collages he made from the 1960s onward, as chunky as mosaics and clotted with visual and verbal information pulled from pop culture, advertising, art history and a personal database of arcane references. He is most widely known, though, as the founder, or at least most avid practitioner and promoter, of mail art, an art movement literally about movement, about the transit of art, in the form of letters, postcards and drawings, through the postal system.

Because Johnson’s mail art is epistolary, and likely considered more of a reading than a looking experience, its visibility in museums is fairly low, which makes the arrival of “Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994,” from Siglio Press, a real boon. But more than filling a gap, the book crackles with intellectual energy, with enough drawings and mini-collages embedded in its reproduced texts to hold even a nonreader’s attention. Most important, it fills out the picture of what and who Johnson was: a brilliant, uncontainable polymath, an artist-poet, the genuine item.


Image from Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994 courtesy of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and the Estate of Ray Johnson.

Born in working-class Detroit in 1927, he was turning out elaborately illustrated letters to friends even in high school. From 1945 to 1948, he studied abstract painting with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C. There he met John Cage, who nudged his interest in Zen Buddhism, and the sculptor Richard Lippold, who became his lover. By 1949, Johnson was in New York City. Slight, bright and wired, he networked through the art world; Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol became his friends.

By the 1960s, Johnson was holding the creative equivalent of three jobs. He was making collagelike objects (he called them moticos) with proto-Pop content; organizing content-free, pre-Happening performances that he titled “Nothings”; and sending out what amounted to chain letters, instructing recipients to add something, and then pass them along. He soon attracted a Facebook-style circle of fellow mailers. One came up with the name New York Correspondence School. Johnson tweaked it, changing “correspondence” to “correspondance,” and later rejected the label altogether, but it stuck.

In 1968, traumatized after being mugged, Johnson left town permanently for Long Island. He kept exhibiting in Manhattan, did performances and convened New York Correspondence School meetings. But by the end of the 1970s, he began to withdraw, communicating mostly by telephone and mail. By the early 1990s, he was refusing to show in commercial spaces and focused almost entirely on correspondence art. In 1995, at 67, he jumped from a Long Island bridge and drowned.
The Siglio book, edited by the poet Elizabeth Zuba, spans most of this history. The first entries, from the mid-1950s, are pure text, blocks of single-space typed prose. Gertrude Stein’s cut-and-paste approach to language is an obvious influence, jazzed up by Johnson’s penchant, verging on compulsion, for associative wordplay and puns.

Continue reading at the New York Times.