Mail Art for Neophytes, Part Two: Ray Johnson

Affinities, Ray Johnson

July 31st, 2014



On the occasion of Siglio’s publication of two Ray Johnson books, The Paper Snake and Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, we have created two blog posts designed as a rudimentary introduction to mail art. Part Two sketches a picture of Ray Johnson’s mail art. We have also included some resources for those seeking more about Ray Johnson. Part One includes several quotations that suggest a general history of the art form.

—Patrick Disselhorst




The North Carolina catalog had postcards from Arthur Secunda from the nineteen-forties. So the Correspondance School had its beginnings in the nineteen-forties, and it was a self-conscious activity in the fifties, and very self-conscious in the sixties, and, of course, now in the seventies it has been…we were discussing last night, there have been many people who say, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing Correspondence Art for years.’ And many people have. They have written letters, and sent things in the mail of a visual poetic nature. Everybody has done this. But art critics in describing my activity, Dore Ashton, for instance, very many years back stated that I have so obsessively done this for so many years, everyday as an activity, that I have achieved seniority in the action, and I love it. I love it because I have demonically pursued the subject. I have written and distributed thousands and thousands of letters with no logic in the reasoning. There’s an incredible loss and waste.

—Ray Johnson, Illogical as an Instructive Process: an Interview with Ray Johnson conducted by John Held, Jr.



I got involved in the mail-art network in July 1959 shortly after I met Ray Johnson in June. He sent me a marzipan frog, a wooden fork and three small letters in wood, which I correctly misunderstood. I sent him some wild mushrooms which I had gathered, and they arrived at his place on Dover Street just before they decomposed.

—Dick Higgins, Mail-Interview conducted by Ruud Janssen




Working in the tradition of collage and the objet trouvé, [Ray Johnson] was perhaps the first to identify the transaction of art works and notes with colleagues as an art form itself. Through this stroke of inspiration, correspondence art was born.

—Ken Friedman, “Mail Art History: The Fluxus Factor”



Not_Nothing_plate_61Plate 61 in Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, Siglio, 2014. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of Richard L. Feigen & Co.



Mail art was a protraction of the idea of the moticos; it was a way to paste the photograph on the side of the box car, to reintegrate the picture of the moticos (the art) into the moticos (the energy), in other words not just to emphasize energy, process and the act of composition in his work, but to enter into the energetic field itself, in accordance with the emptiness or non-discreteness of forms. By 1960, Johnson had stepped away from writing from a discrete compositional point and squarely into the forces of the void. “It might be [correspondence art’s] function to not have meaning. I like the idea of nothingness. I begin with no plan. I face the void.”

—Elizabeth Zuba, Introduction to Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson




The Correspondance School was a network of individuals who were artists by virtue of playing the game. Some of them were what [John] Willenbecher terms “initiates” by virtue of sharing–or at least appreciating–Johnson’s sense of humor: a readiness to respond to a certain kind of joke or pun, visual or verbal; to take trivial things as monumentally important; and to profess a fan’s dedication to certain borderline celebrities like Anna May Wong or Ernie Bushmiller, who drew the comic strip Nancy.

—Arthur C. Danto, “Correspondence School Art”




It has been said that what Joseph Cornell was to a box, Johnson was to the letter. It was a medium that he made completely his own.

It is for this reason that Mail Art has had trouble escaping the ghetto it has been placed in by the mainstream art world. Critics speculate that while Johnson was a major innovator, all others involved in a similar course were doomed to repeat his considerable efforts. He was so talented that he was able to make it look easy. When he encouraged his correspondents to “add and send to…,” Johnson let loose a flood of creativity that encircled the globe, but the activity has never been completely able to break free of the sheer force of its personality.

—John Held, Jr., Bunny Dead: The Mysterious Life and Death of Ray Johnson and the Rise of the New York Correspondance School of Art”



Plate 176 in Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, Siglio, 2014. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of Richard L. Feigen & Co.




As with most phenomena, a history of mail art can be cobbled together to give it ancestors, connections with the art of the past, or to validate it. People’s desire for time-blessed roots is strange and strong. The Futurists and Dada artists are often dragged in as progenitors for mail art, but until Ray Johnson developed it as a distinct verbal-visual activity, from his early beginnings in the mid-forties, mail art was incidental and does not warrant separate treatment as a distinct art form.

—Clive Phillpot, “The Mailed Art of Ray Johnson”



Certainly Ray Johnson was never the father or founder of mail-art. However, by asking a recipient to mail a paper object to someone else, he did start a network, which soon became a self-constructing informal system which, as it enlarged and continued to develop, widened its future and deepened its past. Earlier envelopes and cards became its foundation later. Now that other structures have been built on Ray’s network, it belongs to the history of networks, not to the history of all mail-art.

—William S. Wilson, “Retrospections on West 23rd Street”


The Estate of Ray Johnson Archives (A thorough selection of materials about and by Johnson: contains a timeline, a biography, bibliographies, selected artworks, along with PDFs of informative articles, essays, and reviews.)


Oral History Interview at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (1968, by Sevim Feschi)

Illogical as an Instructive Process (1977, by John Held, Jr.)

Detroit Artists Monthly (1978, by Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke)

Should an Eyelash Last Forever? (1984, by Henry Martin) (Link removed per request of Lightworks)

The Unfinished Mail-Interview (1994, by Ruud Janssen)