Invited to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ray Johnson shared the curator’s address with some of his closest friends. “Send letters, postcards, drawings and objects,” he wrote. Nearly a hundred people responded, from Malcolm Morley to Yoko Ono. Their work was the content of his 1970 solo exhibition.
Although Johnson was as prolific as most anyone he solicited – and his mixed-media collages were admired everywhere – a solo show including other people’s work was a legitimate representation of his art. In fact, the exclusion of his correspondents would have been as careless as an Andy Warhol retrospective without his Factory cohort. As a landmark exhibition and catalog from the Art Institute of Chicago illustrates, Johnson’s most vital medium was the social network.
Johnson approached this elusive art form by being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. From the 1950s, he devoted most of each day to correspondence, which sometimes took the conventional form of letters and postcards, but often manifested itself in the form of questionnaires or instructions or other interactive prompts. . The work that circulated around him was his in the sense that he activated it, but belonged to others according to the conventional definition of authorship. What made matters even more confusing was the fact that this work sometimes passed through many hands. Exchange could be seen as its essence, subverting even fundamental issues of ownership.
In 1962, Johnson formalized this modus operandi when he founded the New York Correspondence School. Referencing both the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and the Correspondence Art Schools that advertised in the back pages of popular magazines, his institution looked askance at both simultaneously: art school methodology, for example by teaching his highly skilled pen pals the art of drawing a cartoon bunny.
A vast body of work accumulated over the following decades, diligently assembled by English teacher Bill Wilson, whom Johnson appointed as the school’s official archivist by correspondence, and whose collection is at the heart of the exhibition of the Art Institute. Comprising dozens of binders, selectively reproduced in the exhibition catalog, the contents could easily command and reward months of diligent attention. But more than any postcard, drawing or individual object, the activity behind it all stands out as a first-rate achievement. Johnson’s pioneering use of the Postal Service as a creative platform—generating a wave of mail art that would burst the mailbox of any ordinary correspondence school—was nothing less than an artistic expression of Countercultural Collective Consciousness: A Perfectly Pluralist Response to New York School’s Sufficiency.
The social network that Johnson assembled was an order of magnitude smaller than social networks as currently interpreted. He selected the participants, whose participation was convenient, and paced to the rhythm of a first-class letter. All of these factors — along with the correspondents’ individual talents and shared values — have ensured that his social network amplifies the playfulness of Johnson himself, never falling into banal meanness on Facebook.
Mail art was not Johnson’s exclusive invention, and he did not die with his suicide in 1995. In addition to the postal service, the Internet was explored by many later artists as a creative commons, an idea that Mark Zuckerberg hopes to bring to the metaverse. . What sets Johnson’s contribution apart is the ambiguity of authorship, not just as conceptual vanity, but also as a creative act. This does not amount to co-authorship of a collective work such as a Surrealist Exquisite Corpse, but rather comes from the fact that the artist Ray Johnson inhabited each of his correspondents as much as within his own body.
Ray Johnson was his own metaverse. Zuckerberg and his metamates can only hope to be as imaginative.