Whilst, arguably, mailart could not have begun before the introduction of the postage stamp - which gave a formal structure for distance communication - there are clear and uncontested precedents for the use of the postal system by artists expressly for artistic purposes. In particular, writers on mailart have cited the Futurists who, before the first World War, printed postcards, envelopes and writing paper, in the manner of commercial companies advertising their corporate identity.1 Although part of a body of work produced by a movement dedicated to subverting the establishment of both art and society and with the clear intention of communicating, it did not require networking and the communication was solely within an elite and closed circle. Other forerunners in terms of subject matter have been cited, for example Rene Magritte,2 because he used verbal puns, but this citing does not differentiate between process (working through the postal system as a medium) and subject matter, which is entirely open in the case of mailart, and does not necessarily use verbal (or visual) puns. Similarly, the love of play, demonstrated by Dadaists has been a recurring theme in mailart. Dadaists also used the postal system, although usually for no more than to send works to each other. However, the use of the postal system by artists to send works to each other, whether related to the postal system or not, does not in any way foretell or inform us about mailart because the sendings were one way and not part of an exchange.
It might seem to be possible to look further to Marcel Duchamp as a forerunner of mailart in terms of the anti-art and antiestablishment agenda that he demonstrated in his subversive and abusive defacing of a postcard of the Mona Lisa, 'L.H.O.O.Q.' 1919.3 Yet Duchamp and the Dadaists readily exhibited in the established art marketing system, thereby supporting the very institutions that they purported to attack. Mailart however has always eschewed art marketing, even if mailartists have at times - or as parallel activity - used the art marketing system for their non-mailart activity. Whilst many artists have used the postal system, there are no contenders for the position that Johnson holds as originator of the system of exchange that is mailart.
Mailart is both the creation of a product and a social act - the sending (exchanging) of that product. Although in mailart the product and social act are indivisible, an examination of the Fine Art culture in New York in the early 1950s and Johnson's education help in an understanding of the influences on Johnson's products and his decision to use the postal system as a way of working (a social act). I will deal with this argument in conjunction with discussion of Johnson's work.
1.2. Ray Edward Johnson.
In the absence of diary entries and/or definitive catalogues and collections the only evidence for the beginning of Ray Johnson's mailart is to be found in the media and it was in October 1955 that John Wilcock in the village VOICE wrote of Johnson's use of the postal service for artistic purposes.5
In the mid 1950s in New York there was a change of emphasis away from serious and often intense subject matter such as the angst ridden paintings of the Abstract Expressionists. This move indicated a recognition of play as being important to the well being of society.6 This more relaxed culture was also noticeable in the move from a primarily literary based media to a primarily visual one, brought about by picture magazines such as Life (1936 - 1972)and Look (1937 - 1971) which were well established and by the rapid rise in ownership of televisions.
In New York the emergence of Pop Art expressed optimism and playfulness with combines and collages. This was in the context of an interest in Dada in the USA at that time. Robert Motherwell's book The Dada Painters and Poets was published in 1951,7 other books which included Dada,8 had been published earlier in New York but none had covered Dada so thoroughly as Motherwell. The book included a number of reproductions of collages with, particularly relevant to Johnson's mailart work, pages from Dada journals and catalogues exploring jokes, puns and the apparent random placing of both images and text in juxtaposition to each other as well as the use of a repeated popular image, for example the bicycle.9 Repeated popular images have been important to many Pop artists and mailartists alike as has the sense of fun, iconoclasm and play, in particular to mailart. Dada was also in evidence in New York galleries in the early 1950s10 and in 1953 MOMA acquired several Kurt Schwitters collages to add to their existing collection.11 In the same year, Marcel Duchamp organised the exhibition 'Dada 1916 - 1923' at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. Rauschenberg began making 'combines' in 1953, a form of collage often involving everyday objects with painting and in 1954 made collages out of a mixture of comic strips and reproductions of European works of art. Rauschenberg's first solo show was in 1951 and Andy Warhol had his first in 1952, both in New York.12 It was as a close friend of Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol, in this New York Fine Art environment in which Johnson was to produce his own collages, which Suzi Gablik cites as: " pioneer[ing] in the use of graphic techniques and images."13 It was in this environment that Johnson began the experiment of work that acted between art, play and life that was to occupy him for the rest of his life - mailart.
Johnson attended Black Mountain College (hereafter BMC),14 one of the most influential artistic communities in the USA, from 1945 to 1948, the mid period of its existence. Until the end of the 1940s, BMC was socially and educationally experimental, rather than artistic, with much debate amongst staff and students alike, leading in 1945 to factions, fears and fighting centred around the notion of community living and a belief in a liberal, inclusive education of self learning rather than the potentially narrowing experience that a Fine Art dedicated course could for example have provided.15 Unlike most education in the USA, BMC saw the arts as being central to their experience and made no differentiation between the importance of curricular and so called non-curricular activity. BMC was founded on a belief in the development of the individual according to his/her own interests, rather than imposing a set curriculum upon them. More importantly to the way in which Johnson was to work with mailart, John Rice - the founder of BMC - believed primarily in democracy and that art should be a function of democracy. Duberman, following an interview with Rice argues that:
'In stressing art, Rice wanted to encourage the student..." to put the same faith in doing that he has been taught to have in absorbing" - but by "doing" Rice didn't mean some vulgar equation between art and "self-expression." He detested those whose "private stomach ache becomes the tragedy of the world," who professed literature or music or art as their life, for life, without the quotes, is a process, a way, a method. It is not an experiment. 'Many who called themselves "artists" had, in Rice's view, withdrawn from life, not embraced it. They were in love with themselves, and "loved only what they themselves did."'...'He was not chiefly interested in producing painters, musicians, poets, but in making democrats...'16
Whether or not BMC influenced Johnson can only be guessed at, particularly given the very private nature of the man, but what is clear is that both mailart and BMC is/was dedicated to equality rather than the pursuit of supremacy, and that both believe/d in the importance of life rather than a precious attitude to the arts.17 It seems likely that the nature of Johnson's mailart activity was sown at BMC. John L. Wallen in particular was concerned in his teaching at BMC to promote experiment, exchange of feelings and group interaction, fundamental mailart activity as is Wallen's belief in the importance of the group as a whole rather than the artwork of an individual.18
In 1947, Johnson designed the cover for the November issue of the magazine Interiors, indicating his considerable graphic skills as well as his self confidence in getting work whilst still a student. Johnson, as I discuss later, was always ambivalent about his own 'success' and the Interiors cover begs the question as to whether such commercial activity was supported by BMC or an example of Johnson bucking the system and going his own way regardless of the culture in which he lived.19 Of particular interest is the editorial comment on the contributors page of Interiors that indicates the paradox of Johnson's artistic outgoingness coupled with his extreme reticence about himself:
"Ray Johnson, the most modest of our cover artists, is, we guess, well under twenty. He refuses to give us any information about himself except that he is a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, mostly with Josef Albers." 20
From 1944 there began a policy at BMC of encouraging innovative artists from varying disciplines to visit, amongst these was, the then little known composer, John Cage. It seems highly likely that Cage was a strong influence on Johnson, with his use of Happenings which Johnson was to emulate and especially given Cage's interest in silence and Johnson's subsequent frequent reference to 'Nothings'.21 Cage made his first visit in 1947 as musical director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, returning in the Spring of 1948, from April 3rd to 8th, for the Summer School at which he presented a Festival of Erik Satie. Although the nature of Cage's presentation was far from that of his later experiments (he had not begun his aleatory work) he nevertheless questioned established truths and rules. Cage's influence reached beyond artists because of his reluctance to differentiate between music, art and life and in this sense was an important influence on Johnson. In 1952 the first performance took place of Cage's silent composition, 4' 33'' in New York and he returned to BMC where he made a forty-five minute event that is held to be the first Happening, one of many collaborative works with Cunningham at the time when he was also making aleatory works with Rauschenberg.22 Whether or not Johnson came across Cage at BMC or kept in touch with BMC is not known but it seems highly likely that as an active member of the New York art world he would have been aware of Cage's works.
Johnson's comments on his work indicate a possible Cagean influence, for example his response to the question as to whether he considered mailart to be an art form:
"The contents is the contents; the stamp are the stamp; the address are the address. It is very clear your question 'Is this an art form' is the art form." 23
This answer is typical of Johnson, a non-answer to a question. The response can be read as being in the manner of replies from his friend Warhol or as a Cagean silence. What makes it markedly different though is that unlike Warhol and Cage, Johnson did not achieve fame and fortune and at times actively discouraged it.
Examination of Johnson's attitudes - throughout his working life - to making a living by selling his work and achieving fame add further confusion to understanding Johnson's continual pursuit of mailart. In about 1979 he was selling portraits for $800 to $3,00024 and $400,000 was found in various bank accounts when he died. This would seem to be a considerable sum to have been amassed by a man for whom Richard Feigen, his dealer for many years, said, "...ambivalence about the commercial aspects of art made him nearly impossible to work with."25 Chuck Close who knew Johnson, describes him as having been very shy and afraid of rejection to such an extent that in response to Close expressing a wish that there were a Johnson portrait in MOMA, Johnson bombarded Clive Phillpot, the director of MOMA library, with works, knowing that Phillpot would archive the material and so guarantee Johnson's place in MOMA.26 Nam June Paik adds that:
"Twice in the early '60s Ray turned down one-man-show offers from a prominent gallery."27
This could be attention seeking, a way of gaining publicity, as with his announcing non-existent exhibitions of his in the village VOICE. Perhaps more revealingly Bourdon describes:
"In 1980, around the time of his 53rd birthday, he took an ad in the art section of the New York Times to announce: 'Ray Johnson / Nothing / No Gallery.'"28
further to the confusion surrounding any understanding of Johnson's feelings about exhibiting are evidenced by Clive Phillpot who states that in response to invitations to participate in group shows, Johnson would either announce a 'Ray Johnson Nothing' or if he participated, it was at times with as little as a Ray Johnson badge.29 Even the badge was minimal, being simply his abbreviated forename 'RAY' in sans serif upper case type. (Plate 1) If Johnson had sent a large number of these badges, it would seem to have been self advertisement, but a single badge, especially given that he often sent nothing at all suggests, a very simple solution as to what to exhibit, dismissiveness of the exhibition or even depression and a negative attitude to life. It could be seen that he was mischievously playing with the galleries, almost flirting but at times in an infuriating way, as he was even known to remove his work from exhibitions before the end of the show.
Looking to information on Johnson's life for enlightenment about his attitude to his work is equally problematic, especially if given by himself as he enjoyed being unreliable, loving contradicting himself and confusing people. Although Johnson was often enormously generous with his time, he could equally well be unreasonable or angry and warm one day, cold the next. Perhaps his intention was to create an enigmatic persona for himself. Bourdon describes Johnson as having had a reputation as, "a mischievous court jester...ubiquitous buffoon..."30 and it is interesting to consider whether his actions were simply tomfoolery rather than a carefully constructed pose, intended to gain him fame. On his first visit to Johnson's house and his subsequent conclusions about the experience, Edward Plunkett shows that even visiting him was not necessarily enlightening, he describes:
"...sending things to Ray...' in 1959 and in 1962 met him in his apartment but was surprised to find rather than the expected Schwitters like muddle,'...a place empty of everything but a chair, a bed, a stove and refrigerator, and a few boxes containing collages. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor." 31
A year later, Plunkett discovered that Johnson did not live like that but that this was a trick that he often played on visitors, - another Johnson 'Nothing.'32 In a sense, it could be seen that the whole of Johnson's life was an artwork, perhaps it was a way of overcoming shyness, a distancing technique that game-playing creates in keeping relationships on a formal basis, like the potential of communication through the mail. Further evidence is suggested by reports that when Ray went on an outing, he would either have it meticulously planned or would be lead by coincidences, responding to serendipity, as with much of his mailart.33 When out with people, he would frequently, without warning, say goodbye and leave unexpectedly for no discernible reason, presumably something would have triggered his disappearance although whether it was a sudden whim or perhaps a sudden boredom or feeling of discomfort in company, we shall never know. Johnson's death is similarly surrounded in mystery following what seems to be a bizarre kind of ritual which it appears he planned meticulously as his final artwork.34
The nature of Johnson's early mailings and gallery work is more clear than the confusion of Johnson's private life. It was in 1955 that he, then a little-known New York Pop Artist, is said to have observed that his paintings were three times the size of an envelope and was moved to cut some of them up and mail the pieces to friends. Earlier as a student, Johnson had incorporated his retrieved letters in collages, however this use of letters is in the manner of Schwitters collages and totally unrelated to mailart. There is no logical connection or development in the relationship of recognising the visual and contextual potential of a fragment of a letter for a collage, and that of deciding to use the post as a medium in itself. Johnson however, enjoys confusing those who would try and establish his first use of the mails, he claims:
"I had an exhibition of my letters at the Raleigh, North Carolina Museum, (1976) and there were letters included in that exhibition from 1945, when I was a student - long before I was 20 years old." 35
No doubt it is true but most artists could drag-up letters from their formative years and seek to make connections to imply a precedent, whether it was the decision of the curator or Johnson to include the letters in the exhibition, does not clarify whether Johnson thought the earlier letters to be artistically meaningful or not. In any event, the presence of letters in an exhibition exhibition does not in itself signal mailart.
Johnson had his first one man show at the One Wall Gallery, New York in 1948 and had been a purist abstract painter in the late forties and early 1950s, making complex, methodical, detailed, hard edge paintings.36 By 1955 he was producing Pop Art collages, for example with a close-up of Elvis Presley's face, 'Elvis Presley No1' (15 1/2 " X 11 1/2"); 'Elvis Presley No2' (15 3/8" X 11 1/2") - both 1955. Johnson was to continue to produce collages of people until at least 1968.37 Critically, in 1955 he signalled dissatisfaction with the limitations of the conventional means of showing art by choosing to 'exhibit' his small collages outside the gallery situation in places such as in the street and in Grand Central Terminal. During the early sixties, he found another way to show his work: Bourdon describes it specifically:
"Ray didn't have gallery shows during the early 60s, so he staged private presentations in people's homes or offices. He would show up at the appointed time with 100 collages, all the same size (7 1/2 by 11 inches), wrapped in bundles of 25. He'd lay them out on tables, desks, beds, whatever,..."38
Bourdon in his use of 'so' implies that Johnson had been unable to get shows at this time, there is no evidence for this but it is further evidence of Johnson working outside the established art marketing system his wish for a more direct means of approaching people with his work. It is necessary at this point to reiterate that the visual appearance of Johnson's work is not important to an understanding of mailart, rather it is the nature of the transaction as I go on to discuss.
"I've got a big pile of things at home which will make moticos. They're really collages - paste-ups of pictures and pieces of paper, and so on - but that sounds too much like what they really are, so I call them moticos. It's a good word because it's both singular and plural and you can pronounce it how you like. However I'm going to get a new word soon."39
Wilcock's article in the village VOICE focuses on Johnson's Moticos and his invention of the word. Johnson cut out images from newspapers and magazines and added to them with ink and paint and cut up letters sent to him to use in Moticos. Johnson had no wish to give a definitive description of his Moticos and they could be said to be any artwork of his, that would probably include collage, which in turn might include material received by him from other networkers through the post and specifically his mailart work, which ranged from text through collage to drawings and followed no discernible style. In this 'catchall' use of the word, it could be linked to Schwitters use of 'Merz' although Schwitters was focused as to what he meant by his word and was clear as to its origins. However, although Johnson seems never to have referred to the fact, it is highly likely that he chose the word 'Moticos' (particularly in the plural) because it is an anagram of 'Osmotic'. The word relates very well to the way in which Johnson absorbed images, words, ideas and life into his collages and to the way in which he disseminated his work through the mail.
Bourdon gives further insight into Johnson's work at this time, reiterating Johnson's standard size of image:
"...hundreds of collages, invariably 11" X 7 1/2" and in retrospect, dated 1959. Made of printed or painted paper which Johnson cut into narrow slices, then reassembled on a cardboard mount, sometimes with an additional overlay of calligraphy. A street map, for instance, might be shredded and then meticulously reconstructed, with paper strips deliberately misaligned to create an abstract pattern." 40
Johnson's work could be separated into two kinds; collages for exhibition purposes, (whatever form that might take) and mailart, however his collages were often used for mailart and mailart works were often the start of his collages. The standardisation of his image size made his work ideal for sending through the mail, albeit that the collages were folded, but it is precisely his preparedness to fold his images and place them in a standard envelope rather than perhaps in a large card-backed one which indicates Johnson's lack of preciousness towards his sendings and an indication of the transitory nature of what he sent. The role of the 'work' is to make contact and give information: this having been achieved, the 'work' has no further purpose. The intimate scale and almost ephemeral images prompted negative reviews at times, for example Hilton Kramer's 1970 article in which he dismisses Johnson's mailart as being only "...good for 10 seconds." 41 He writes that it does not belong in a "museum exhibition" and yet applies 'Gallery Art' criteria to his criticism. His use of the word "inconsequential" indicates that he has given no thought to the importance of the ephemeral in life, the notion that a 10 second wry smile in response to a work in a gallery has its place and importance in the well being of people just as the feelings generated by the receipt of something through the mail.
A contemporary photograph (1955) of Moticos (Plate 3) spread-out on Johnson's studio floor, much as they were placed on the street and on tables in people's houses, shows his early use of popular images, particularly of film stars whose names were frequently to appear both in his meeting seating plans (discussed later in this chapter) and in his correspondence. A 1956 piece of mailart from Johnson, Untitled - 'Rimbaud' (Plate 4), incorporating a letter sent to him - just as he had incorporated letters in his collages as a student - demonstrates the similarity of subject matter in both his mailart and non-mailart collages (Plate 3), in terms of typography and facial images. Johnson interwove his work, cannibalising and reusing it over and again. Where Johnson's work differed markedly from other Pop artists is illustrated in a comparison with the work of his friend Andy Warhol who was interested, among other things, in process, evidenced by his fascination with silk screened, repeated images and the accidents that occur - changes to the image - when the screen is not cleaned, the same is applicable to Robert Rauschenburg's silk screens and in England, Peter Blake has been interested in physically painting his heroes. Johnson's interest was primarily in the iconography of the person and the possibility of making puns on their names or some part of the image, simply using found photographs of them without subjecting them to different media and processes.
Wilcock describes Johnson's 'Moticos mailing list', notes that it included 200 people, and quotes him, "I send lists either to people I think would be interested or to people I think won't be interested,".42 This is of critical importance because it clearly and unequivocally proves that by the date of the article (1955), Johnson was concerned with communicating with a large number of people through the mail rather than sending precious artworks to a select few, or at least claiming those to be the facts. It also signals that the people with whom he communicated were not composed solely of artists or the cognoscenti, an egalitarian principle that has remained central to mailart. There is no evidence as to what Johnson received back from his recipients or the amount of interaction that took place between them that he was able to generate.
Among mailartists, it is commonly accepted that what situates Johnson as being the person who began mailart is his use of correspondence, as an artist, within a network, which he created. That is as opposed to earlier and concurrent use by artists of the post simply to transmit information, for example manifestos, or as a creative adjunct to their artistic activity (although often simply using the mail as a concept and not engaging others) rather than creative activity in itself. The nature of the mailart sent and received by Johnson is so diverse as to be of no stylistic importance in understanding mailart. It must also be remembered that Johnson is not a luminary in terms of his creative output, (there are no cited disciples of his work), rather it is his chosen vehicle of mailart and preparedness to produce work that has no potential to generate a financial income for him. Whilst his bank balance proved that he had sources of money, some of which would have come from sales of his work, his pursuit of mailart could not have been profitable in financial terms.
By the 1960s Johnson had established a mailing list of about 300 people.43 It is difficult to be sure with whom Johnson communicated before the involvement of Fluxus: to assume that he communicated with people on his lists of various 'clubs' would be totally unreliable, unless you are prepared to believe in the existence of Mickey Mouse, given that he drew-up lists of people for his own pleasure. Whilst the number was small it nevertheless significantly reinforces the importance of the networking element of the activity rather than communication between a small coterie of like-minded cognoscenti. Although five years later the number appears only to have grown by fifty percent since 1955, it can be safely assumed that there will have been those who dropped out as well as those who joined the network. The number further reflects communications in the late 1950s and the fact that, at the time, no major attempt had been made to broadcast the existence of the network through the media. It should be noted that Wilcock's article gave no address or invitation to join the network and therefore no means for people other than those already contacted by Johnson to have participated.
One continuing theme can however be identified in Johnson's mailart, the Kilroyesque cartoon rabbit or 'bunny head' that could be called his trade mark. This can be seen as adopting a mailart persona, much as many mailartists today, particularly in the U.S.A. adopt an A.K.A., what they refer to as a combat name. These in some ways are similar to Tags as used by graffiti artists. Just as graffiti artists get pleasure in seeing their instantly recognisable tags in as many places as possible, so too it could be argued do mailartists get pleasure from seeing their combat names on as many pieces of mailart as possible. The choice of names ranges from those relating to mailart such as 'Ace Art' (Canada) to the apparently nonsensical 'Afungusboy' (U.S.A.). Some, such as 'Crackerjack Kid' (U.S.A.) also reveal their legal names (Chuck Welch) while others such as 'Pag Hat the Rat Girl' (U.S.A.) prefer to remain otherwise anonymous. Combat names are at times political, with references to art and gender, such as 'Woman Ray' (U.S.A.). Whilst Marcel Duchamp adopted A.K.A.s - for example R. Mutt for 'Fountain' 1917 - they were adopted for varying reasons, including a furthering of his penchant for puns as with Rrose S‚lavy, - for example for 'Why not Sneeze Rrose S‚lavy' 1921 - and not used consistently to hide his identity as is the case with mailartists.
The frequent accompaniment of Combat names with Post Office Box Numbers is an indication of a wish on the part of the user to separate the mundanities of their everyday life from their networking activities, keeping the reality of their name and address separate from the fantasy of their Combat name and P.O. Box Number. Whilst many mailartists imitate and simultaneously satirise corporations with imitation letterheadings and logos (as had the Futurists and Dadaists) the use of combat names serves both to ridicule the apparent seriousness of the formality of some networkers and at the same time, play on the notion of formality by 'sanctioning' everything that they send out by rubberstamping it with their Combat name logos.
For Johnson, however, the use of the 'bunny head' may well have just been for fun, he often used it to illustrate a group of people designated by him throughout his mailart activity. These images, which were always used as part of another image for seating plans or untitled mailart, varied enormously in appearance as indicated by Johnson himself:
"Well, it's derivative of Mickey Mouse or Mickey Rat, or it's a mouse or, at times, an elephant with a long proboscis. It's always expressive of who I feel I am at that moment I make that drawing."44 (see Plates 5; 6; 7; 8)
As this suggests, he did refer to the images as self portraits but they were often appropriated by others in homage to him and this confuses any attempt to define a chronology of a developing style of this image, particularly as others using it have both used photocopies of it and their own drawings and often not attributed the drawing. Attempts to show a logical development of these images (Plate 5) which can be followed through to 1993 (Plate 8) suggest consistency of chronological development however, this apparent consistency is not reliable, for example an image of 1978 (Plate 7) shows solid ears and the proboscis on the other side of the face as well as a similar stylisation to that found in the 1993 image. More obvious is the extreme stylisation found in the 1956 image (Plate 6), quite unlike the apparent development to be believed by later images (Plate 8). By contrast, Johnson's 'Venice Lockjaw' badge of 1990 (Plate 9) is reminiscent of his 1971 image (Plate 5). These examples stand as evidence that it is not possible to establish linear stylistic development in his work.
Having gained an idea of his work in terms of collages, Moticos and his trade mark, and identified the lack of a definable continuing style or technique it is essential to an understanding of mailart to have an idea of the nature of Johnson's interactions with his correspondents and his manipulation and control of the process, as this was to set the pattern for much subsequent networking activity. John Russell refers to Johnson's sendings as, "...often consist(ing) of several loose bits and pieces" and to his collages as being:
"intricate and discursive, a nest of associations and clues. They are to be read no less than his letters."45
This is evidence that Johnson was not simply sending one of his collages (motico) as a gift, but indulging in a complex series of pieces of puzzle that had the potential for the recipient to piece together and make some sense of, beyond any interpretation that may have been immediately apparent. Johnson did not use a formula for his mailart, he would respond to whatever occurred to him at the time, whatever was to hand, be it a reference to the recipient or to something topical, so making each sending unique. Accounts of his apartment suggest that the serendipity occurred in the very controlled environment of one who lived an ascetic life, a mind game almost, rather than working surrounded by visual stimuli. This is in some ways implied by Russell's comments about Johnson's inspirations:
"He draws on a blyth spectrum of Americana, gossip, and mass communications. His correspondence school spans the mailing lists of the art world and the exchanges of chatty friends."46
Johnson's use of stimuli is in marked contrast to an artists such as Francis Bacon who worked surrounded by visual stimuli in the form of colour supplements. Russell writes that it is not simply the content of the envelope that should be considered as Johnson's art:
"...'the art' is the completed process: the writing, the franking and directing, the walk to the mailbox, the loyalty of the unknown henchmen, the act of delivery, the opening, the perusal, the perceptions made and rejoiced at..." 47
Identification of the entire activity as 'art', although in inverted commas indicates that it is important for Russell to situate the activity clearly. Whilst the activity must be taken as a whole, it can be misleading to signal it as 'art' as this suggests that for example Johnson took as much trouble over his envelopes as the images that they contained. Unlike the work of many mailartists, this is not the case with Johnson although he would at times play with the spelling of part of the address (Plate 10). It is also interesting to note that the images he sent were not always properly trimmed, for example 'Lumber Party' (Plate 8) is roughly trimmed, top and bottom, again indicating that he was not concerned with producing a beautiful, finished, work of art. To give mailart the nomenclature 'art' is also to relate it to an activity involving galleries, sales and critical writings that are inappropriate to mailart.
Johnson's sending could be typed, beautifully hand printed, or a mixture of the two. The completed work often had a message scribbled on top in heavy black felt tip that would show through onto the image that he had photocopied onto the reverse. Equally, he often wrote very beautifully and carefully over a photocopied magazine or newspaper article. It would seem that he wanted to create order and perfection and then destroy or deny it, a kind of schizophrenia or self destruction that was common in everything he did. Both his mailart and non-mailart was often built-up over a long period of time but this was not reflected in his apparent destruction of it.
The unpredictable nature of Johnson's work extended to his choice of correspondents and frequency of sendings. Some received 'letters' two or three times per week and others never or very occasionally, regardless of their attempts at communicating with him. Equally, a 'letter' could arrive from him a long time after they had given-up hope of getting a reply. Analysis of 100 mailartists' correspondence with Johnson reveals no discernible reasons for his decision as to who to send to or the frequency of his sendings.48 It was clearly not because the mailartists sent something to him.
In general it can be said that Johnson's sendings were personal, even if he did not know the person to whom he was sending, there would be some reference to them, usually a pun, using deadpan humour. The 'letter' or 'work' would usually be collaged and then photocopied, with a cutting about an exhibition of his or a reproduction of a much earlier work of his from a magazine article, perhaps comic strips, a careful figurative line drawing, parts of his letters to other people, names and addresses of other people, rubber stamped names of his 'fan clubs', perhaps instructions for how to draw a rabbit, or even how to write a word, letter by letter - in other words there was considerable variation in the appearance and content of his sendings.
Puns were very important to Johnson and Wilson refers to his going so far as to take a journey by taxi from Harbor Bar to Barbara Bar simply for the pleasure of the pun.49 A 1956 work, size unknown (Plate 6), shows his enjoyment of punning on a name, by writing numbers from one to one hundred as a counting response to the name Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
More important was the way in which he would pun on the name of a recipient of correspondence from him, making the sending totally personal and the sending therefore more special and meaningful to the recipient. Although this in no way affects either the monitory or universal value of the 'work', it clearly signifies where the importance of the activity is centred from Johnson's point of view, i.e. the personal sending. An example of this is the sudden and unexpected mailing that I received from him (Plate 8). This work with a photograph of boys having a pillow fight which I take to be described in American English as a Lumber Party, a pun on my surname, is a black and white photocopy (213 x 275mm) with the message to me written in blue biro. The envelope, which is, typically for Johnson, nondescript (Plate 10) contained nothing else. It is not possible to know whether Johnson made this image simply for me, because he had remembered my name and made the connection, or whether he liked the image and photocopied a number to send to various networkers. If he had made the work specifically for me, it would raise the question as to why he photocopied it, unless for his archive, in which case, if his interest in archiving is of mailart, rather than simply images that he produced, it would have made more sense for him to have photocopied it after writing the message to me, it is of course quite possible that he added the message as an after thought when he had returned from the Photocopy Shop. What is clear is that he had a prodigious memory with a store of names that he could connect with images or words that he came across.
At times, the puns could be complex, for example 'Send Slips to Lucy Lippard' (Plate 11). At first sight this is a simple request, but 'Slips' in this context is easily misread as 'Lips', encouraged by the image, prompting the reader to make a slip in the reading. The double meaning of the word slip gives the opportunity for sending either garments or errors. No significance should be attributed to Johnson selecting Lippard for this work, it was no doubt simply that he was aware of this important New York art critic who had mentioned him in her 1966 book Pop Art and sending this photocopied request was simply another way to get his correspondents to send unsolicited mail to a third party.50
The 'Lippard' work is an example of how Johnson often asked his recipients to send something to someone else, acting as an orchestrator of the correspondence of people other than himself and thereby introducing people to each other through the mail. In doing this, it is clear that Johnson saw his activity as not simply sending a work of art to someone but orchestrating a network of correspondents that constantly changed its participants, partly through Johnson including new people by encouraging others to send things to them.
Johnson sometimes prompted his correspondents to send things to destinations other than that of private individuals, for example to Time magazine which received a flood of strange valentines immediately prior to Valentines day in 1969. This highlights Johnson's activity as instigator, co-ordinator and conductor of other people's activity. This kind of activity is as important as the production of a work by any individual, for example Johnson's Moticos, because it draws people together in a common cause. Johnson also at times would send a 'letter' to the press, for example, noticing that the village VOICE asked for 'brief letters', he sent them a Marlborough advertisement with 'Brief Cancer' written on the cigarette.51
Johnson did not limit himself in his orchestration to using the post but also used the phone, often in much the same way as his mailed work in that he would draw the attention of the person he was calling to a pun, with a pithy and brief comment. There is no apparent pattern in his phoning mailartists, phone calls were regular and frequent to sporadic or occasional and equally varied enormously in length.
Johnson's mailings frequently consisted of or included an 'Add-on', or 'Add-to and Pass-on', a typical example of this is 'BILL de KOONING'S BICYCLE SEAT' (no date, Plate 12). This simple, crudely drawn image is a vehicle for collaboration and networking, given that most participants include their name and address on the image, it also creates the possibility for increasing the number of contacts. This way of working, invariably consists of an A4 sheet of paper, usually portrait format, with an image created by the generator with his or her name and address (usually rubberstamped, as in the case of the Johnson example) and a request to 'Add-to, alter, copy, pass-on and eventually return to the generator.' The purpose of this way of working, is threefold: firstly the originators image is usually amusing and thus gives pleasure, and prompts a light hearted response; secondly it is a way of gaining new contacts; but perhaps most importantly, it is a collaborative way of working where no one person has control and there is no issue of authorship. Ownership is a separate matter and there is no guarantee that the image will ever return to the originator. Some mailartists request that the A4 sheet is photocopied and a copy sent to the originator so that s/he can enjoy the way in which the image changes as it is passed from networker to networker. Again, there is no guarantee that this request will be adhered to. Johnson took the idea of bringing together beyond the mail and organised meetings.
Johnson often listed names within his mailart collages (Plate 8) but typical of these lists there is a mixture of mailartists (e.g. Mark Fagagaga) with the famous (e.g. Woody Allen), about whom it is safe to surmise that they are not networkers: presumably the lists included personal friends. This then raises the question of the meaning of these lists for Johnson. He was known to have socialised with many famous people, not least through his friendship with Andy Warhol, and so may well have met them all and could have been remembering them fondly in his listing. Equally, they could refer to On Kawara's 'I met' postcards, recording the people that he had met that day, or recently. More simply, and likely, is that they were people that he had been reading about, admired or simply names that came to mind in a kind of free association Surrealist manner. What this use of names was communicating may be unclear but it is very clear that Johnson wished to introduce people to each other ('Send Slips to Lucy Lippard'). Introducing people to each other is the essential nature of Johnson's mailart, but having established relationships between other people, those relationships can attain their own importance, independently of - and thereby denying - a potential movement leader. In order to cement these relationships, Johnson held New York Correspondance Club meetings with seating plans (Plate 13), another list of names. These meetings were often thematic with names such as 'The Buddha University Meeting'52 or were held as 'Nothings', Johnson's wry answer to the 'Happenings' that were very evident in New York throughout the early 1960s, and maybe a reference to John Cage's 'Lecture on Nothing'.53 In many ways, Johnson was aping the fan clubs of actors and musicians which drew people together in a common bond even to the extent of referring to them as 'Fan Clubs.'54 These meetings were planned by Johnson, much as a society hostess would bring people together. Typically, Johnson chose April Fools Day for his first meeting and between the first and last meeting (1977) he held thirty meetings, with a range of names and assumed purposes, with Johnson either presenting them as 'Nothings' or in the form of games, similar to the group encounter activities then prevalent in New York.
Whilst it could be seen that Johnson saw the importance of mailart meetings in the sense that the importance of mailart is the bringing together of people and so brought them together in person rather than simply through the mail, it is equally possible that he saw it as an opportunity to raise his profile within the New York art world.
'Nothings' occurs throughout Johnson's life (and death), "Ray Johnson, Nothing, No Gallery"; his notes "Ray Johnson Nothing" in reply to some of the group show invitations; his habit of emptying his house prior to visitors arriving; his frequent disappearance on outings and his 'non' answers to questions in a Warholian manner. Johnson also used the word 'nothing ' in mailart (Plate 14) which when as in that case, also carried a reference to death, adds further negative and pessimistic feelings to his work. Some of these uses could signal a superiority, maybe suggested by his dealer referring to him as 'difficult' but more probably indicates an intensely sensitive and self absorbed man. There would seem to be many indications of a possible manic-depressiveness which would not be contradicted by Johnson's playful nature.
1.7. Naming the Activity.
Neither Johnson nor anyone else, named his activity, except to refer to his Moticos mailing list, but Plunkett, around 1962/3 named it the 'New York Correspondence School'.55 a send-up of 'The New York School'. Johnson played with the name, frequently calling it 'The New York Correspondance School',56 and making many other puns on it. Typically, Johnson was not consistent in his use of the term, for example his 'LUMBER PARTY' sheet to me of 1993 (Plate 8) is headed 'New York Abstract Expressionist Correspondence School.' (Note the conventional spelling of Correspondence.) There have been numerous variations, used by Johnson and other mailartists, some making interesting and / or amusing meanings, others just enjoying punning for its own sake.'The New York Corresponge Dance' could be said to refer to the way in which the network absorbs such vast quantities of work. On the other hand that interpretation could be a pretentious reading of what was nothing other than a pun. Clive Phillpot refers to the use of Corraspondance57 and other variations include Correspondense and Correspondunce58 Jane Beckett has suggested a possible sexual connotation with 'Co-respondent.' In 1973, Johnson announced its demise and resurrection as the Buddha University - one of the many pseudonyms that he had used (see footnote 49), - in a letter to the New York Times. Valery Oisteanu wrote of Johnson killing-off the NYCS and refers to his destroying bags of mailart.59 Given that Johnson continued to practice mailart after proclaiming the demise of NYCS, this action suggests that it was another example of him amusing himself although contrary to what Oisteanu suggests, the letter to the New York Times, although sent, was not actually published. It could, however be that Johnson wanted to mark a change in emphasis that was occurring in networking at that time from hand produced sendings to the use of the photocopier. There is no documentation of Johnson burning 'huge trashbags of mail art' but if true, it suggest that until that date he had seen fit to keep large amounts, or maybe everything that had been sent to him and presumably therefore had placed some value on it that by 1973 was no longer important to him.
A number of well known artists in the 1950s and 60s explored the established ideas of what art is and some included the postal system in their artistic considerations. By the late 1950s and early 1960s the Nouveaux Realistes Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni in Europe were questioning and exploring the meanings of art and the significance of the art marketing system in their artworks. Manzoni worked with the notion of the cult of the artist in terms of the reverence that is shown to the creator, (e.g. 'The Artist's Breath' 1960) often seemingly superseding, or at any rate equalling, the interest shown in the object produced. Whilst there is no evidence of Manzoni exhibiting in or visiting U.S.A., Klein had his first one man show in New York60 in 1959 and stayed there for two months: by then Klein had already made his own version of 'Nothings', 'Le Vide'61 and also used the mail in his work.62 Whilst there is no record proving that Johnson was aware of Manzoni or Klein, their work is further evidence of what was an international interest in questioning the established ideas about Fine Art. Two other members of the Nouveau Realiste movement, Arman and Daniel Spoerri worked with what was to become the mainstay of so much mailart, the rubber stamp that had been used in Fine Art works by Kurt Schwitters. (I have explored the use of rubber stamps in the following chapter.) Other artists were to explore unconventional media and further to the use by the Futurists of postcards, even some artists committed to paint, used postcards in the 1950s,63 for example Ad Reinhardt, albeit that he was pushing the conceptual boundaries of painting.
Although many artists both preceding and concurrent with Johnson were exploring aspects of art and art marketing, Johnson was unique in working with the essential networking element that distinguishes mailart. Equally, none of them had the same ambivalent attitude to authorship and commodification of artwork that is so clear from looking at Johnson's attitudes to exhibiting and evidenced in his sustained dedication to mailart. Johnson not only made networking central to his artistic activity but continued it until his death. Whilst Johnson is identified as the initiator of networking, the very nature of the non-elitism and non-heroic activity has ensured that the names of no other practitioners should be singled out as being formative in the development of mailart. This is not in any way to suggest that Johnson is important and that no other networker is, but that everyone participating in mailart is of equal importance: Johnson is singled out solely because it was he who began mailart networking. Although Johnson maintained his considerable commitment to mailart, he chose to ignore debate about the practice and ignored all the congress meetings that took place, even those in New York.
To summarise, it can be identified that Johnson began mailart as an exchange system; orchestrated his correspondents; began the use of 'Add-Tos' in mailart as an ongoing activity, developed what could be described as a mailart persona, in the form of his 'Bunny Head'; centred his mailart activity on the use of puns.
Johnson, however, chose to ignore the elements of mailart in terms of artistamps, rubberstamps (frankings) and postcards: it was Fluxus who began the practice of mailartists exploring these aspects of networking. Although he had been considered by Fluxus artists to be 'one of them', Johnson chose never to align himself with Fluxus.