Ray Johnson  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ray Edward Johnson (1927-1995) was a pop artist credited as the founder of the New York Correspondence School and a key influence in the formation of the Mail art movement.


Early Years and Education

Ray Edward Johnson was born October 16th 1927, in Detroit, Michigan. The child of Finnish immigrants, Johnson started his education in a primarily working class community. Johnson attended Cass Tech, an occupational high school, where he received the beginnings of a classical arts education. Upon graduation, Johnson found himself in the small North Carolina town of Black Mountain attending Black Mountain College--an experimental institution which would soon be recognized as an important incubator of the avant-garde. With guest lecturers such as Albert Einstein and William Carlos Williams and a faculty that boasted artists the likes Willem de Kooning and John Cage, Ray Johnson found himself in company of some of the mid 20th-century’s cultural giants. He himself studied under Robert Motherwell, Mary Callery, Lyonel Feininger, and Josef Albers (who had perhaps the most direct influence on him).


After leaving Black Mountain in 1948, Johnson made his way to the New York art scene. Channeling together traditional abstract methods and using Dadaist collage as one of his inspirations, Johnson began creating hundreds of small pieces. Made up primarily of ink drawings, clippings and other found ephemera, he called these constructs moticos.

“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.”--Ray Johnson

Due to the prolific nature of his work and his general contempt for the art establishment, Johnson often ignored gallery requests for shows. He instead chose a much more accessible form of distribution: Johnson began to mail his art. (He termed this copyleft, both as it pertained to his usage of mixed media imagery from popular culture and his unorthodox method of distribution. A correspondent of Johnson’s via the so-called New York Correspondence School would be left with a copy of one Ray Johnson’s moticos, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service; derivative works were actively encouraged.) [1] When Johnson did choose to have his art publicly shown he was represented by Richard L. Feigen, a well-known art dealer with whom he had a somewhat antagonistic relationship.


After Johnson was brutally mugged and his contemporary Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, Johnson left the city for a small town on Long Island; he continued his work in solitude for the rest of his life. On January 13, 1995 Ray Johnson’s body was found floating in a small cove in Sag Harbor, NY. As with much of the particulars of his life, little is known about the circumstances of his death. Those who knew him best, inasmuch as they knew him at all, have even speculated that his suicide was his final performance (or Nothing as he then called his pieces). Johnson lived frugally, but had $400,000 in bank accounts at the time of his death. He left no will and his 10 first cousins inherited his estate.[2]

Film & Television

In 2002 How to Draw a Bunny, a documentary about the life and work of Ray Johnson as told by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Christo, as well as agents and critics. The cable television network Ovation has been known to air the film.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ray Johnson" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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