“With Ray, he made it very clear to me from our meeting, in the autumn of 1956, that I wasn’t supposed to ask about the past,” says William Wilson of mail artist Ray Johnson. Wilson kept this tacit promise over decades of close friendship, during which Johnson—who rarely mentioned his own family—came to Christmas dinners, celebrated the birthdays of Wilson’s twin daughters, and became close friends with Wilson’s mom, feminist assemblage artist May Wilson.
The few stories Wilson does know about Johnson’s Depression-era childhood in Detroit appeared unexpectedly in conversation, prompted by a song they were listening to, or a book Wilson was talking about, or something a friend had just said or done. One such story involved an afternoon in a rowboat with a friend, during which, according to Wilson, Johnson made “an erotic error.” This is all Wilson knows about the incident, because “if he told about the past, I was not allowed follow-up questions.” As close to Johnson as anyone ever was, Wilson still had to deduce the meanings and implications of such stories for himself—a dynamic that led to a lifelong study of his friend. Wilson’s collection of Johnson’s artwork is large, and his writing on Johnson is prolific. Regarding the “erotic error,” Wilson theorizes that the rebuilding of that friendship (following what is assumed to be a failed sexual advance) influenced Johnson’s art by teaching him “about construction as bringing forth something for which we have no prior rules.” It may also have taught him that intimacy required concealing aspects of his identity, even from his closest companions.
Johnson revealed more of himself, albeit obliquely, in his collages (called “moticos”) and his letters, sent regularly to everyone on his lengthy mailing list. “It would be very hard for me to separate him as a person from his work,” said sculptor Richard Lippold, who met Johnson at Black Mountain College, a former art school in North Carolina. In 1948, Lippold moved to Black Mountain—where Johnson was studying under Josef Albers—for a professorship, bringing along his young wife, a dancer named Louise Greuel (for whom John Cage would compose “Music for Piano 2”).
Richard Lippold and Johnson quickly began an affair, which then became a relationship, and they continued to see each other until 1974, long after all parties involved had moved to New York. “It’s very hard for me to say,” said Lippold about his partner of twenty-six years, “but who was this man? He kept so much of himself to himself… his whole life was a kind of game, like his work.”
Ray Johnson’s estate—collages, photos, sculptures, several thousand letters, and a pair of blue jeans—is housed in the Richard L. Feigen gallery, an elegant six-story building on New York’s Upper East Side. Researchers are encouraged to make appointments, and on any given day there may be an art-history major from NYU, a poet from Hunter College, and a mail-art enthusiast who’s come all the way from Berlin to study the man known as the founding father of mail art, all either poring through endless binders full of Johnson’s letters or standing contemplatively in front of one of the many framed collages.
In 1965, the New York Times called Johnson “New York’s most famous unknown artist.” Half a century later, and more than a decade after his death, he retains this cult status. (Though Siglio Press’s fall 2014 re-release of Johnson’s Paper Snake, as well as a selection of his writings entitled Not Nothing, caused Johnson to have something of a moment—the MoMA displayed some of his work for the first time in five years.) His habit of destroying or repurposing his own work, his reluctance to date said work, and the sheer amount of it—collages, letters, sculptures, letters, performances, letters—makes him a difficult object of study. The least intimidating option is to follow around the Ray Johnson estate’s director, Frances Beatty.
“See here, that’s a reference to Picasso’s self-portrait,” says Beatty, pointing to a section of Untitled (Ostrich, Tesserae, Table Tondo), a work by Johnson hanging in her office at Feigen. “And here, these are pieces of earlier collages, cut up to look like books, so he’s referencing a staple of still life—to show a person’s identity by showing the things in their room—but also literally showing us the things in Ray’s room by using the pieces of old collages that were probably sitting around his apartment. It’s art inside art inside art.”
Beatty strides over to a different piece, Untitled (Superman Bunny with Blimp, “LONG DONG SILVER”). “The bunny motif, obviously, is huge,” she says. “He signed many of his letters with a cartoon bunny, you know. And here,” she points to a series of black blobs that grow increasingly defined as they march up the left side of the collage, “you can see the evolution, or devolution, of some sort of super bunny.”
In the top left corner of the collage is the fully defined super bunny: a black silhouette, no facial features, just broad shoulders, muscled arms, and bunny ears.
“Look at this one; that reference to ‘Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.’” Beatty points to the exact phrase in Untitled (Cupid with “Marianne Moore’s Hat”). Other employees of Feigen gallery—a clutch of young research assistants and receptionists—have slowly gathered around, their footsteps silent on the carpet, hoping to scoop up some of Beatty’s pearls of wisdom. She knew Johnson, and helped supervise the making of a documentary about him after his death.
“You know the lyrics to that song, don’t you?” she asks. “‘She was afraid to come out of the locker…’ Don’t you see? What a perfect symbol for the gay community in the ’60s, afraid to come out of the closet. That’s why double meanings were so important. Especially for Ray. Everything for him had more than one meaning. You could write a whole book with the meanings in just one collage.”
Shortly thereafter, Beatty excuses herself to get a coffee and the other employees disperse. This is my second visit, and I have a whole day and unlimited access to Johnson’s work—an overwhelming offer, considering his output. So I choose just one piece of art, a medium-sized mixed-media collage called Feeting Poster, partly because it’s relatively simple and also because it’s one of the few dated pieces: 1969.
Feeting Poster is roughly twenty by twenty-four inches. This is pretty big for Johnson, who preferred working small and in fact made many of his collages using the shirt cardboards from Lippold’s dry cleaning. This put him at odds with the “bigger is better” ethos of his abstract-expressionist and pop contemporaries, as well as with art collectors, who in the ’60s seemed to pay by the foot.
But Johnson was too ambivalent about selling art to compromise his work and go big. “He was notorious among gallerists and museum curators for the ingeniousness with which he obstructed their attempts to mount shows of his work,” wrote professor Ellen Levy, “and equally notorious among collectors for the strange dances he would lead them [in] when they tried to buy his pieces.” Once, a collector offered him 20 percent less than the quoted price for one of his collages. Obligingly, Johnson accepted the price and sent the piece. But first he hacked 20 percent of the collage clean off.
Richard Feigen began representing Johnson in the ’60s, and through the next three decades he struggled to schedule shows and discuss prices with the artist, who seems never to have sent an uncryptic letter in his life. “I have only known three truly strange artists in my life,” said Feigen. “Victor Brauner, Joseph Cornell, and Ray Johnson.”
Johnson signed one letter to Feigen as the millionaire designer Bill Blass, writing that he (as Blass) wanted to buy some art so artists could “survive and pay rent and maybe even buy a new pair of shoes.” Despite his understanding of these basic needs, Johnson seems to have had a penchant for destroying his own work. He burned many of his early paintings in Cy Twombly’s fireplace (predating conceptual artist John Baldessari’s similar art-burning, in 1970, styled as an artwork titled Cremation Project). “Sometimes,” wrote Wilson, “he wrapped completed collages in brown butcher paper, tied them with a knot, then slipped them into the harbor-waters while crossing on the Staten Island Ferry.” Johnson also frequently cut up old art and glued the pieces onto new art, which makes dating his work exceedingly difficult. He called himself a “chop artist.”
And then, of course, the vast bulk of his work was simply given away. Through the New York Correspondence School—founded in 1962 and occasionally spelled Correspondance—Johnson mailed thousands of small works of art all over the world, gratis.
The school was not really a school; it was a steady stream of letters sent out by Johnson, and no piece was alike: magazine clippings, photos, cut-up pieces of older collages. There was always text: a poem, an invite to a real or fake event, a fake fan-club mailer, a pop-culture-laced joke, or even something innocuous such as “I am as fine as all get out. Hope your [sic] as nice as you please.” He liked typos, and Wilson argues that this is because he liked the possibilities in failure: “Ray needed accidents and failures, because we lack rules for what we do after our mistakes.”
Many of his letters had the phrase “Please add and send to _____ [celebrity, artist, friend, etc.]” written somewhere on them, in order to keep the art circulating. In this way, people didn’t just look at Ray’s art; they participated in it—and they didn’t have to leave home to do so. In the pre-internet world, this was unprecedented.
Through the New York Correspondence School, Johnson communicated with people all over the world, but Feeting Poster expresses a desire to knock down even more barriers—communication across time as well as space. In the bottom left-hand corner of the white cardboard panel is a miniature replica of an airmail envelope addressed to Isabel Burton, 67 Baker Square, London; from Ray Johnson, 65 Landing Road, Long Island. The real Lady Isabel Burton died in 1896, thirty-one years before Johnson was born.
Lady Isabel was an avid reader and the writer of several books, but was always overshadowed by her husband, Sir Richard Francis Burton, a notorious British explorer whom she adored. Sir Richard, in turn, adored anthropology, often with a focus on sex—he brought the Kama Sutra to English publication—and had a particular interest in sex between men.
The husband’s interest in homosexuality, the devoted wife whose talents are overshadowed—certainly parallels existed between Isabel Burton and Louise (Greuen) Lippold, the woman who’d been sharing her husband with Johnson for two decades. She was about to share him even more intensely. Feeting Poster was completed in 1969, one year after Johnson left Manhattan for Glen Cove, Long Island. The Lippolds—Louise, Richard, and their three children—lived in the nearby community of Locust Valley. Later that year Johnson would move to Locust Valley proper and become their neighbor.
Above the envelope addressed to Isabel Burton is a wooden table leg—a real table leg, tied to the cardboard backing with string—painted pale blue. Reminiscent of cozy farmhouse kitchens, this is a domestic symbol, but also undeniably phallic. The base of the leg, with a nail sticking out of it, faces the envelope addressed to Isabel. The gently rounded top of the leg points to two small raised squares covered with glued-down pieces of Johnson’s other collages, cut and sanded at the edges to look like tiles (called tesserae). Each tile has an image drawn on it: rectangles, triangles, minnows (or maybe sperm), and stick-figure people, most notably someone lying on a bed.
Assuming that Isabel Burton is a stand-in for Louise Lippold, this phallic table leg could be Lippold himself: pointed at Ray’s work (which is, as Lippold said, Ray himself), and rooted in Louise.
Beatty is right: the double meanings here could fill a book.
To the right of the two collage squares are two more of the same, giving Feeting Poster a pleasing symmetry. Below the second set of collage squares, to the right of the table leg and the envelope, are three miniature letters. The smallest, positioned at the top, is an invitation to the “First New York Correspondance School Feeting” and includes instructions for the recipient to mail an outline of their feet to Johnson.
“Feeting” and “Beating” were both used by Johnson as variations on “meeting,” to describe events that he either held or pretended to hold. The events that he actually held he referred to as “Nothings,” as opposed to Allan Kaprow’s concurrent “Happenings,” which were the early seeds of conceptual and performance art. In contrast to Happenings, which were often scripted and provided prompts for the audience, Nothings were unpredictable and hard to read. Sometimes a Nothing was not so different from a normal party: the guests socialized and went home. The most dramatic moment at such a Nothing might be Johnson dumping two boxes of wooden dowels down the stairs. He refused to guide audience reactions. He seemed to like confusing people.
For this same reason, using words in new, unexpected ways was appealing to him. Johnson’s work was text-driven—it seems nearly every one of his pieces was inspired by a name, misspelling, or phrase—and Feeting especially tickled his fancy. While in the process of collecting outlines of feet via mail, Johnson was asked to do something for the seventh annual New York Avant Garde Festival. He asked Feigen to rent him a helicopter and buy sixty footlong hot dogs. He stressed the importance of the footlong dog—this is what related them to feet, and thus to the Feeting.
On the day of the festival, Johnson flew above the artists and revelers on Ward’s Island and rained hot dogs upon them. People screamed in surprise, then laughed, then collected the hot dogs and grilled them. When interviewed about it afterward, Johnson’s response was—as per usual—quite deadpan: “I was surprised that people ate them,” he said, “the hot dogs that fell out of the helicopter.”
But back to Feeting Poster. Below the tiny invitation to the Feeting is a letter from Ray to Isabel:
Dear Isabel Burton,
I received in the mail today from Lawrence Weiner, the dirt artist a small bottle containing 100 blank white tablets (placebo) surrounded by torn check fragments.
Also a letter containing a penny from Nam June Paik addressed to Moon Ray Johnson.
Also a pocketbook titled “Nurse in Waiting”—how long could young Dr. Bob hide the terrible truth before Nurse Kane was forced to turn to another man?
The first two paragraphs of this letter refer to fellow artists Lawrence Weiner and Nam June Paik. Weiner, fifteen years Johnson’s junior, was one of the founding fathers of conceptual art. In 1968, just a year before Feeting Poster, Weiner’s fellow conceptual artist Walter De Maria created Munich Earth Room, an installation quite literally made of dirt, and “dirt artist” may be Johnson’s nickname for conceptual art as well as his way of hinting that he felt the movement was a bit ridiculous. Though both Johnson and Weiner used words in their work, Weiner was adamant that what was important about art was the idea behind it, not the object itself. He famously stated, in his 1968 manifesto, that to have value, “the piece need not be built.” Johnson, on the other hand, was incredibly object-focused. Even his habit of giving away and destroying his art only highlighted the value of the pieces as objects: only things with power need to be destroyed; only things we want are given as gifts. Perhaps Weiner’s work is just a bunch of “blank tablets” in comparison, a “placebo” for Johnson’s own work.
(Weiner was on Johnson’s Correspondence School mailing list, so perhaps I’m reading Johnson as being more pejorative toward Weiner’s work than he was. But I can’t help but imagine it must have stung, witnessing the success of a much younger artist who shared his obsession with words, even as Johnson remained under the radar and ambivalent about his own ambitions. By the time Feeting Poster was made, Johnson had left Manhattan, beginning the gradual process of isolating himself from the art world he’d been an integral part of: he had been friends with Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, to name a few. He left just as many of his contemporaries began to get rich and famous. “Torn check fragments” might mean Johnson’s lack of money.)
Johnson also notes in the letter that he received a penny from Nam June Paik, along with a nickname: Moon Ray Johnson—fitting for someone whom Paik described as “a great hermit.” Along with Johnson, Paik was part of Fluxus, an art movement inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s and John Cage’s use of everyday objects and noises, respectively. While Johnson’s art focused on the written word, playing with existing language using his letters in the mail, Paik’s art focused on music and communicating through television, in hopes of harnessing technology to create a new vernacular. Though the two were friends—even collaborating on a series of interviews in 1965—Johnson wasn’t nearly as excited about technology as Paik was. In fact, he burrowed away from the world as personal computers and the internet developed, through the ’80s and early ’90s. In the projected future of online communication, there was a place for the father of conceptual art, and there was definitely a place for the father of video art. But this was not a future in which the father of mail art could thrive. Hence, perhaps, the token penny from Paik.
The letter closes by veering ostensibly back to Louise Lippold. “How long could young Dr. Bob hide the terrible truth before Nurse Kane was forced to turn to another man?” How long could Louise stay with Lippold, knowing that Johnson was his lover? Johnson might have wanted her to leave him alone with Richard, but he might have feared her departure equally. If she left, they’d be exposed. Johnson and many of his contemporaries were out of the closet—most famously Andy Warhol—but still, even in relatively liberal New York, there were hate crimes and anti-sodomy laws. According to Wilson, in his younger years the Midwestern-born Johnson intermittently sought “cures” for homosexuality, dabbling in Christian Science and psychoanalysis even while dating Lippold.
Whether Johnson wanted her to or not, Louise never left. Lippold ended things with Johnson in 1974, five years after Feeting Poster, but he didn’t suddenly become a faithful husband. On the contrary, he broke up with Johnson because he had fallen for his assistant Augusto Morselli, who would remain his companion until Lippold’s death, in 2002. It is not known whether Johnson ever took another partner.
The third and last letter on Feeting Poster is from Isabel Burton/Louise Lippold, dated 1894 and addressed to a Mr. Tussaud:
Dear Mr. Tussaud,
I sent you a pair of sandals yesterday belonging to me, but today I have had the promise of a pair from the Prior of the Franciscans which would suit much better. I shall send them directly I receive them.
Shoes are a common theme in Johnson’s work. They’re generally an item that one thinks about continuously only when they are very bad: uncomfortable, embarrassing, letting in water. Shoes are also a measure of success or the lack thereof: from the flapping, oversize shoes of Charlie Chaplin as “The Tramp” to the well-shined brogues of Wall Street businessmen to the strident boots of Nancy Sinatra, “made for walking.” In “Worn-Out Shoes,” essayist Natalia Ginzburg wonders about her children’s future in the guise of shoes: “What kind of men will they be? I mean, what kind of shoes will they have when they are men?”
Johnson was a man with worn-out shoes, but for a while that was OK. Through the ’50s and early ’60s, he’d lived in downtown Manhattan in tiny apartments with friends. In 1952, Harper’s Bazaar ran a piece, “Four Artists in a ‘Mansion,’” about the tenement in which he lived with John Cage, Richard Lippold, and Morton Feldman, jokingly nicknamed Boza Mansion after their landlord. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were frequent visitors, and Johnson went to parties with Andy Warhol. “Those were glorious days,” said Billy Name, the artist who decorated Warhol’s Factory. “Nobody worried about money, because nobody had any.”
Those idyllic days were winding down when Johnson created Feeting Poster. He was forty-two, had shaved his balding head, and had followed his married lover to the suburbs. Some of his friends were gaining money and fame, but he was still broke, still “New York’s most famous unknown artist.”
His soles were wearing thin.
In the Feeting Poster letter, Isabel Burton claims to have already sent him her own shoes; then she finds him an even better pair from “the Prior of the Franciscans.” Johnson was not a religious man, but he was a searcher: he dabbled in Christian Science, and later, after a stint working at Orientalia Bookstore on the Lower East Side, began to embrace Buddhism. The idea of Franciscan monastery life—uncomplicated devotion in the company of men—might have been appealing. Perhaps the Prior of the Franciscans represents his life in Boza Mansion.
As for “Mr. Tussaud,” it may be a reference to either the husband or the son of Madame Tussaud, whose eponymous wax museum first opened in London in 1835. Before the museum, Tussaud was a wax sculptor and a rarity: a successful eighteenth-century female artist. The French Revolution saw her facing the guillotine for being chummy with the royal family, but she was released at the last minute and tasked with making death masks for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She married an engineer named François, and they had two children before their divorce, one of them a son also named François, who would have been Isabel Burton’s contemporary. Little is known about either François. Such anonymity may well have been Johnson’s fear, or desire, for himself.
I’m sprawled on the carpet in front of Feeting Poster. Next to me is one of the many binders full of Johnson’s letters, opened to a piece of paper that features three red cartoon bunny heads. On each head “FAILURE” is written in white capital letters. It’s hard to tell if it’s a wish or a judgment or an exorcism. Johnson did make some efforts to achieve critical acclaim—he had shows and performances, wrote to journalists whenever he hosted a Nothing, did interviews. He even sent letters to MoMA, care of librarian Clive Phillpot, who said Johnson “didn’t like dealing with museum curators because he didn’t like the idea of rejection, so he corresponded with the museum librarian, knowing his letters would have to be filed.”
But Johnson also sabotaged his own success by destroying his art, giving it away for free, and behaving ambivalently toward his dealer. In 1969—the same year as Feeting Poster—he took his only trip out of the country, in order to install some work at the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. During the installation he had a change of heart and decided to take the pieces back home, leaving nothing at the Fine Arts Gallery but a tiny smear of his own blood on the wall.
In 1973, he publicly declared the death of the Correspondence School, though he continued to send mail. Over the next decade, Johnson’s refusals to offers from dealers and collectors piled up. In 1984, two years after the first AIDS death in New York, his largest exhibition—and one of his last—was held at Nassau County Museum of Art. Johnson stayed in the parking lot throughout the opening.
For the last ten years of Johnson’s life, Beatty, on behalf of Feigen, frequently asked him to let her do a show of his work, but he refused. She assumed he’d stopped making art: he was getting into his sixties, had inherited some money when his parents died, and was living in seclusion. But in December of 1994, Johnson called Beatty and told her she might finally get to do her show. “After all these years of doing ‘Nothings,’” he said, “I’m finally going to do something and you will be able to do your show.”
On January 13, 1995, two young girls in Sag Harbor, Long Island, spotted a man, dressed all in black, diving off a bridge and backstroking out to sea. The next day, Johnson’s body was found floating faceup.
Later, when Beatty went to his house, it was chock full, floor to ceiling in every room, with boxes full of mailings, objects, books, Correspondance School materials, collages, and fragments.
Failure can become just as much an obsession as success. In an essay on Tender Is the Night, Geoff Dyer argues that Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Dick Diver, has “fidelity to a long-buried urge to shatter his life.” Only when his once-glamorous life is in tatters is he “free, free at last, to realize his true and wretched destiny.” Diver believes he is destined to fail; if the world won’t give him failure, he’ll bring it on himself. The same might be said of Johnson. He was poised for success—talented, educated, well connected—but he seemed to need to sabotage himself.
Just as in the world of indie music, where a band is “cool” only if nobody but the critics has heard of them, the art world is also often skeptical of commercial success. Hence the term sellout. But as many of his friends gained recognition, perhaps Johnson began to question this. Certainly Johnson was fascinated by the idea of other people’s celebrity, sending out bogus fan-club announcements for everyone from Shelley Duvall to Paloma Picasso to Edie Beal. But he didn’t seem to crave celebrity for himself. The relationship of a fan to a celebrity—a distant admirer—might have been more appealing to Johnson, who craved connection but increasingly chose to experience it only through letters. His mail art confused critics and created negative revenue, and countless Ray Johnson mailings ended up in the trash. Letters were both his downfall and his legacy, how he communicated with strangers and close friends, how he formed relationships. As isolated as he became, it must have been a source of relief to continue finding connections between disparate elements of his work, helping to work out his own connection to the world. Feeting Poster is a challenge to decipher, suggesting another challenge to the viewer. “Can you understand this piece of art?” becomes “Can you understand me?”