The word "moticos" was coined by Johnson in 1955. Moticos is an anagram of "osmotic," a word chosen, according to Johnson, at random out of a book by Johnson and his friend, photographer Norman Solomon. Johnson used the term to refer to a number of things he made after moving to New York City in 1949. He called the small collage panels he made from about 1954 until the early 1960s "moticos"; he also used the word to refer to texts written at that same time. In 1955, Johnson made an installation of dozens of collages (most of which he is reported to have destroyed soon after) using images cut from magazines and advertisements mounted onto cardboard. Johnson often used the cardboard that came with shirts from the laundry, painting, drawing, inking and sanding them to make the elements of his collages. He would make silhouetted outlines of some of the shaped works and reduced the silhouettes to small black glyphs. He would then arrange these glyphs in rows as if they were letters or words to form a sort of "text". The silhouetted glyphs became looser and looser in shape until they hardly resembled their original forms, transforming into “moticos” that resemble something vegetal, mineral, or figural. He used the moticos glyphs as textual stand-ins or referents to other texts or images in his work. Through this practice, Johnson developed an extensive, ever-mutating vocabulary for his collages.
In 1974, Ray Johnson completed a series of collages with a “Cupid” motif appropriated from a commercial stencil popular from the 1960's, and familiar to most schoolchildren as Valentine's Day decorations. Johnson played with the ubiquitous commercial image in the same gesture as Jasper Johns did when he used the American flag or a target as a subject for painting, and gives it his own humorous twist by transforming Cupid's arrow into a phallus. As well as the Cupid, Johnson added heart motifs to many of his works.
Valentine's Day 1965 was also the release date for Johnson's book, The Paper Snake, the second book published by Something Else Press, which also included works by some notable figures of the 20th century, among them John Cage, Marshall McLuhan, Nam June Paik, Claes Oldenburg, Gertrude Stein, and Dick Higgins, poet, performer, and Something Else Press founder. Johnson wrote to fellow Black Mountain College alum, Marie Tavroges Stilkind in January 1965, "My book Papa R. Snake appears Valentine’s Day, yes it does. Tell your mama tell your pa.”
Johnson’s iconic “Buddha” motif, stems from his interest in Eastern Zen philosophy, which he developed in the 1950s while working at the Orientalia Bookstore in the East Village and while living across the hall from John Cage, an early student, and teacher of Buddhist thought. Johnson retained an interest in aspects of Eastern mysticism, including the concepts of loss of ego and nothingness, and he was interested in Chinese and other Asian characters.
Black Mountain College was an experimental liberal arts college in Black Mountain, North Carolina. While only in operation for a little over twenty years, from 1933 to 1957, the college had a profound effect on the course of postwar American art. Founded on the teachings of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s theories on the integration of community life and education, Black Mountain strongly emphasized the arts, and included some of the most famous names in postwar American art history among its faculty, students, and visitors: Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Lyonel Feininger, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Clement Greenberg, Helen Frankenthaller, and most importantly, Josef Albers, who taught there from 1933 to 1949.
Ray Johnson attended Black Mountain from 1945 to 1948 (with the exception of Spring 1946, which he spent at the Art Students League in New York City), and studied painting with both Feininger and Albers. It was at Black Mountain that Johnson first began to view art and life as one, and the relationships he made at the school would continue throughout his life. For example, when he first moved to New York in early 1949, he lived across the hall from John Cage in a tenement building on the Lower East Side. Johnson first met Cage when the composer visited Black Mountain in 1948 and staged a production of Satie’s “The Ruse of the Medusa,” for which Johnson had helped build the set.
In January 1964, Ray Johnson signed a letter to his friend William (Bill) S. Wilson with a small picture of a bunny head next to his name. This image rapidly proliferated, primarily becoming Johnson’s signature and “self portrait” as personifications of how he felt on a given day. Johnson also used the bunny head to represent other “characters” who populate his works, as well as the subject of one of his “How to draw” series. The bunny head is so emblematic of Johnson and his work that John Walter and Andrew Moore chose it for the title of their documentary on Johnson, How to Draw a Bunny.
The 1960s were witness to new kind of participatory art called “Happenings,” a term Allan Kaprow coined in 1957 to describe the various goings-on at George Segal’s farm in New Jersey during the summer of that year. Happenings consisted of a broad range of activities, from small performances to large-scale events, and included some of the period’s most famous names, such as Claes Oldenburg, Carolee Schneeman, and Nam June Paik. In response to these Happenings, Ray Johnson held “Nothings,” which he once described to his friend William S. Wilson as “an attitude more than a happening.” Johnson’s Nothings generally took the form of “events” where people gathered specifically for nothing to happen; the Nothing was over when something happened. For example, during one of his more famous Nothings, Johnson invited a group of people to the Willard Gallery in New York City. Johnson was late to the gathering, and upon his arrival, he dropped down a flight of stairs a box of wooden spools that he happened to have found on his way to the gallery. When things had settled, everyone left – the Nothing was over.
In 1964, Diana Epstein, an editor of Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, bought a closed button store and its inventory on a whim on East 77th Street in New York City. She named her new shop Tender Buttons after Gertrude Stein’s 1914 work, a collection of ruminations on small objects. About a week after Epstein opened the doors, Millicent Safro, an antiques restorer, stopped in to purchase a replacement for a missing button. Finding the store in shambles, she decided to help Epstein get organized and eventually became a partner.
In its first year of operation, amidst boxes of buttons, the shop functioned as an artists’ space for the stagings of many “Happenings,” including those organized by Ray Johnson, who must have been particularly drawn to the store’s name. Johnson was extremely interested in both Gertrude Stein’s works and persona and made many references to her in numerous collages. Johnson subsequently adopted the “Button,” which resembles a face more than a clothes fastener, as a kind of signature, logo and presence which becomes an integral part of many of his collages and mail art, in particular his “How to draw” series.
In 1965, Ray Johnson published the artist book The Paper Snake with Something Else Press, an independent publishing company that Johnson’s friend, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, founded in 1963 to publish both his and his colleagues’ works. The Paper Snake was a compilation of mailings Johnson sent to Higgins after he had asked Johnson’s permission to publish his work. The Paper Snake ran in a pressrun of 1,840 copies, plus an additional 197 special copies with an original collage or other Johnson ephemera included with it. The snake became a common motif in Johnson’s art after this, appearing in numerous collages and mailings as a long, phallic-shaped image. He came to consider the snake as a sort of alter ego, much as he did with his bunny heads.
Ray Johnson was the father of the The New York Correspondance [sic] School (“NYCS”), a mail art network for which Johnson used the Postal system as part of an art practice that linked people in a wide circle of artistic exchange. In high school, Johnson began sending objects, collages, letters and postcards with illustrated messages to friends. In 1955, he created mimeographed lists of moticos (in this case the moticos are phrase fragments) and then produced offset-printed pages of texts and drawings, all of which he distributed through the mail to a widening group of friends and prospective correspondents. Later using offset printing, he created the pages which formed his A Book About Death (1963-65) and subsequently distributed these pages a few at a time through the mail to NYCS "members."
By 1959, the practice of “Mail Art”, sending highly conceptual images and texts to friends and acquaintances, urging them to “ Please Send To...” and later to “Please Add To & Return...”, became a significant activity. The subject matter and the recipients were further linked by “correspondences” which Johnson created or observed using their names, identities, activities, and sounds involved in describing all the above or a numerological relationship between them.
In 1962, Ed Plunkett - one of his correspondents - suggested the name New York Correspondence School (NYCS), a humorous play on the "art" schools that advertised on matchbook covers in the 1950s and 1960s and on the "correspondence" courses offering advanced degrees by mail. Johnson switched the middle “e” into an “a,” making it Correspondance to suggest movement and play. Starting in April 1968, Johnson distributed mailings that called for “meetings” of the NYCS, where people sometimes came together (sometimes not) and during which Ray would often perform a “nothing”, part of his performance art practice. Many of his announcements were of fictive or virtual “meetings” of phantom “clubs.” On April 5, 1973, Ray Johnson sent a notice to The New York Times announcing the "death" of the New York Correspondance School. It is signed "Buddha University" with a bunny head. After this date, Johnson’s mailing activities continued apace (despite their announced “death”) under many guises such as Buddha University and Asparagus Club. Johnson continued to distribute announcements of new "clubs" and their activities - The Dead Pan Club, the Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, Spam Radio Club, and others - into the late 1980s. Johnson inspired a vast international network of mail artists and correspondents who continue creating, "sending" and "adding", and posting, to this day.
For more information, please see the following texts:
Blom, Ina. The Name of the Game: Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance. Oslo: The National Museum for Contemporary Art, Norway, 2003.
de Salvo, Donna and Catherine Gudis, eds. Ray Johnson: Correspondences. Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999.
Gosse, Johanna. “From Art to Experience: The Porous Philosophy of Ray Johnson.” Journal of Black Mountain College Studies 2 (Spring 2012).
Wilson, William S. “Ray Johnson’s First ‘Please Send To’.” Lightworks no. 22, The Ray Johnson Issue (2000): 19-20.
In 1969, Ray Johnson moved to the small Long Island hamlet, Locust Valley. He had moved out of New York City to Glen Cove, another small town on Long Island, the year before after he was mugged and Warhol was shot, and this final move to Locust Valley realized his permanent removal from city life. He purchased a house near his friends, the Lippolds, at 44 West 7th Street, which he named “The Pink House.” Johnson became increasingly reclusive and very rarely allowed people inside his home, but maintained connections to the outside world through his New York Correspondance School. Johnson created, photocopied, and posted countless mailers from the Pink House, making it into the NYCS’ unofficial headquarters, a title many correspondents acknowledged by adding the Pink House in the address of their returned mailers.
Lucky Strikes, or “Luckies,” were the top-selling cigarette in America in the 1930s. The logo was one of the most popular brand images in the history of American advertising and continued to be immensely popular throughout the next 4 decades. It was one of the first “pop” images Johnson used in his work, beginning in 1959 when he made a series of “Lucky Strike” collages that he sent to filmmaker Gerry Ayres in the mail. The “Lucky Strike” logo would continue to be one of his most lasting motifs; it continues to appear throughout his entire oeuvre.
In a play off the famous Rabbit-Duck Illusion, used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations to explore the concepts of "seeing that" and "seeing as," Ray Johnson often drew or painted ducks that could easily be interpreted as sideways rabbits. The duck image is thus linked to the ubiquitous Johnsonian bunnyhead altar ego, acting as yet another representation of self and identity for Johnson. The duck also leads Johnson to wordplay, as in his multiple references to "Bill Duckooning."
Johnson developed an interest in Eastern philosophy early in his career. In 1949, he worked at the Orientalia bookstore in the East Village. Zen was a popular topic in artistic and literary circles in New York in the early 1950s. Alan Watts’ lectures on Eastern philosophy were broadcast on the radio. John Cage, among others, heard D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University. Johnson was fascinated by Zen, particularly by its emphasis on the importance of operations of chance – something which he would have discussed with John Cage, who lived next to Johnson on Monroe Street from 1951-53. The Lower East Side is not far from New York's Chinatown, and Johnson often brought back things he found there with Chinese or other Asian pictographic characters on them. These signs were often incorporated into his collages, along with the small moticos signs that they often resembled. Johnson called his early performance pieces “Nothings” and the concepts of emptiness and release pervade his art throughout his career.
Johnson’s earliest collages were often made with long thin strips cut from paper taken from magazines or other colored paper sources. This linear technique reflects his early training with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College; his first works after leaving Albers's instruction were paintings made of fine lines of color laid down with a knife or razor blade in abstract patterns. During the early 1950s, these flat abstract paintings gradually gave way to more three-dimensional work that incorporated representational subject matter, including some of the earliest Pop images. The cut paper strips represent a transitional stage between the flat paintings and the later collages with more three-dimensional elements including the tesserae, made of thick layers of painted cardboard, which cast a definite shadow. Johnson's palette in these early pieces often reflects the colors used in the four-color printing process—the secondary colors cyan blue, magenta and yellow plus black.
The dictionary definition of “tesserae” is the plural of a small, square tile of stone, glass, or enamel used in mosaic, or a die or tally made of bone or wood used in classical times. The Ray Johnson Estate elected that tesserae was a fit description of Johnson's small blocks which he made by meticulously gluing layers of cardboard together, from two to as many as 10 layers deep. Each one is a finished composition, often containing richly colored biomorphic or simply eccentric abstract imagery. A pen or painted outline, formed by scraping or sanding away the painted surface, often border these tiny compositions. Johnson frequently glued fragments cut from early collages – pieces of the thin strips of colored paper that he used in the late 50s – recycling them onto the tesserae. In 1965-66, Johnson packed these tesserae together to form a richly textured assemblage of artful puzzle pieces. In 1966, he began to spread these tesserae out over the surface of his collages and then covered them in ink wash, drawings, and text.
In the 1950s, poet Marianne Moore visited Ray Johnson in his Dover Street studio. Afterwards, he began to send her messages and invitations to visit again, and she became one of the celebrities he incorporated most often into the collages of that period. As a symbol for the poet, Johnson adopted Moore’s signature tricorne hat. In 1967, he offered to show her his work, but she politely declined, claiming she "must compress, not expand" her activities—a phrase Johnson must have loved since compression was one of his other central concerns, as exemplified in his Potato Masher series, among others. Johnson’s interest in Moore is a reflection of his love of words and poetry. Many writers and poets make guest appearances in his collages, including Frank O’Hara, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and Arthur Rimbaud. Johnson himself was published in many avant-garde poetry magazines during the sixties and seventies including, Mudfish and The Unmuzzled Ox. He also included Diane de Prima and LaMonte Young, poets and editors of the Floating Bear literary magazine, in his circle of acquaintances.
In 1966, Johnson wrote to Joseph Cornell asking to be allowed to visit,and by the following year they were corresponding. Johnson made several trips to Cornell's house on Utopia Parkway and took him on rides around Long Island, where Johnson had moved in 1968. After Joseph Cornell died in 1972, Johnson continued to make many collages with his likeness using two different silhouettes taken from photographs. Around 1975, Johnson made a trip to Cornell's grave and found a daffodil growing from it. He made a pen and ink drawing of the flower and used it in at least two works with the text "Daffodil from Joseph Cornell's Grave." Johnson brought Joseph Cornell into his work not just by inscribing his name on his collages and bunny heads, but also by alluding to Cornell often, for example through his use of red and green, holiday colors that reference Cornell’s birthday on Christmas Eve, 1903.
There are many similarities between Johnson and Cornell. Both artists chose the concentrated and craft-intensive collage/assemblage genre as their primary mode of expression. Both were withdrawn from the art establishment, and yet remained intensely aware and curious about people and cultural happenings. They both used their connections with others — real or fantasized — as material for their art.
In the 1981 Sotheby's sale catalogue for the Julien Levy estate, Ray Johnson saw a photograph of a small Cornell collage from 1933. It contained the same old book illustration of a caveman that Johnson had used in his own collage Untitled: Easter. Although Ray Johnson didn't contact Joseph Cornell until 1966, he was an admirer of his work, and this serendipitous discovery of a chance duplication of an image prompted Johnson to make a new group of caveman prints and collages.
One image Johnson used in at least two collages is a photo of Cornell pushing against a large rock in Central Park published in Life magazine in 1967. The caption by David Bourdon reads: "In a photograph he asked a friend to take Cornell rescues a fragile relic from impending destruction." (according to credit in “Joseph Cornell” ed. Kynaston McShine, Museum of Modern Art, NY 1980/ also ibid for Palazzo Vecchio, Florence 1981, photo is Joseph Cornell in Central Park, ca. 1942, by Ernst Beadle.)
Marcel Duchamp was an iconic figure for avant-garde artists living in New York in the 1950s. Duchamp had settled permanently in New York in 1942 and became a United States citizen in 1955. During his time in the United States, he associated with other émigré Surrealists like Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy, but he also included in his circle of friends young American artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and perhaps a young Ray Johnson as well, although this has never been definitively confirmed. Ray Johnson made a number of collages with references to Duchamp and his work. Johnson frequently used a silhouette drawing of the headless female figure from Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés (Given: 1. the waterfall. 2. the lighting gas). He also appropriated the artist’s Self-Portrait in Profile, 1958, several times. He made reference to the Draft Piston (1914) in his The Frog is in the Snake (1971). Duchamp's Paris Air and Combs appear in myriad guises. The 1921 photo of Duchamp’s head with star tonsure (RJ Star) and the photo of Duchamp as “Rrose Sélavy” by Man Ray (1921) are also frequent referents. Johnson, in his practice of art in life, is one of Duchamp’s principal heirs.
In 1970, Ray Johnson made a series of Dollar Bill collages for a one-person show at the Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago. Johnson appropriated a drawing by Karl August Wirsum of the Hairy Who group in Chicago as the background for many of the dollar bill collages. These drawings are graphic representations of the back of a muscle man's torso with a bit of the back of his head.
In the spring of 1970, Ray Johnson had a "Tit Show" exhibition at the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York. The "Tit Show" of the title refers to a cartoon chart which Johnson had had since he was in high school at Cass Tech in Detroit in the 1940's, which assigned a humorous, descriptive title to the shape of the cartoon women’s breasts, like "Watermelons," "Sweet Potatoes," or "Flap Jacks." These Tit Girls appear throughout Johnson's oeuvre.
The Potato Masher series was shown in two European exhibitions. In 1972, Arturo Schwarz’s Galleria Schwarz in Milan held Johnson's first large European exhibition in which he showed the series, and in 1973, Famous People’s Mother’s Potato Mashers was held at the Angela Flowers Gallery in London.
Johnson owned the actual potato masher that served as the model for his drawing, which may have been given to him by artist May Wilson. It is an old fashioned, wooden handled potato masher with a looped wire top; in his drawing, Johnson tips the head of the masher onto the same plane as the handle creating a flattened, (mashed) image in two-dimensions, a nod to the upturned table-tops of Picasso and Matisse. The visual manipulations of Picasso, Matisse and others, with their "flattening" of three-dimensional objects, was an important concept for Johnson. In his collages, he broke the two-dimensionality of the flat surface by layering it up physically on top of the canvas to confuse our perception of objects in space. Johnson said he used the human foot, most useful when it is flat on the ground, to indicate flatness, but he turned it on its end, perhaps alluding to the current critical obsession with the flatness of the picture plane. William S. Wilson has written about the psychosexual aspects of flattening for Johnson, and its relationship to things being flattened in the sea—always a powerful idea for Johnson. The idea of bodies flattened one on top of the other was part of the appeal of "mashing," as Wilson has described it. The weight of water in the ocean, as it presses against bodies and moves them at its will was another sexual metaphor for Johnson.
Johnson sometimes drew rows of thin crescent-shaped images that he called "fingernails.” These small images do not depict the whole nail, but rather clippings from fingernails, and they vary in size from large to small like the ten nails on the fingers of a hand. The fingernails suggest the domestic ritual of one's daily hygiene, as well as ritual magic that uses hair and nail clippings from its subject in potions. This "fingernail" functions as a surrogate for the person in a number of collages, a kind of literal "thumbnail sketch".
In 1976, Ray Johnson began a portrait project that he would continue well into the 1980s. He would ask a subject, a friend, an acquaintance, or well-known person who had agreed to pose for him, to stand so that their shadow was projected onto a sheet of drawing paper taped to a wall. He then outlined his or her silhouette, cleaned up the lines, and transferred it to black construction paper. The final silhouette would then be used as a template in collages. Most of the silhouette collages were done on masonite, a departure for Johnson who usually used illustration board or thick cardboard panels.
The first silhouette portrait he did (on April 20, 1976), was that of Andy Warhol. Johnson had known Warhol since around 1956. Warhol introduced him to the art director at the department store Bonwit Teller, and others, who gave Johnson commissions for projects such as window displays and the covers of New Directions books. Johnson visited Warhol at the Factory and assisted him when he filmed Jill Johnston dancing. Warhol was one of Johnson's creative touchstones, and he did a number of portraits of him. Some of his other subjects were Morton Janklow, Paloma Picasso, William Burroughs, Arman, May Wilson, Richard Feigen, Willem de Kooning, James Rosenquist, Christophe de Menil, David Bowie, and many more.
After completing his silhouette series of the 1970s, in which he traced the profiles of people he knew, Johnson began tracing fingers, a more abstract silhouette form, in the 1980s. The fingers serve as a surrogate for the individual or a “thumbnail sketch”—much as Johnson’s references to fingernails or eyelashes serve as metonymic substitutions in other collages.
Ray Johnson and Andy Warhol met around 1956, relatively early in both of their careers. The two worked as graphic designers, creating covers for New Directions publications (of which Johnson’s cover for Rimbaud’s Illuminations is most well-known), as well as window displays for Bonwitt Teller. Also during this time, Johnson produced artist’s books including BOO/K/OF/THE/MO/NTH (1956) and P/EEK/A/BOO/K/OF THE/WEE/K (1957), which he self-published with Pernet Printing, following Warhol’s recommendation. As their careers grew (Warhol’s more so than Johnson’s, both situations by choice), the two remained close. It was Johnson who introduced Warhol to Billy Name, who would later become a fixture at Warhol’s Factory and was the one responsible for covering its walls with silver. It was also Johnson who brought Dorothy Podber to The Factory, where she pulled out a gun and shot a stack of four Marilyn silkscreens between the eyes (Podber was subsequently barred from The Factory for life, although Warhol did go on to sell the four canvases titled as The Shot Marilyns). The two artists shared a relationship beyond the professional and into the personal, becoming friends who enjoyed each other’s company and made jokes at each other’s expense. For example, when Johnson fell ill with hepatitis in 1964, Warhol placed an advertisement in The Village Voice announcing a fictitious group exhibition in Johnson’s room at the Bellevue Hospital. Johnson and Warhol were such close friends that Warhol’s shooting by Valerie Solanas on June 3, 1968, the same day Johnson (unrelatedly) was mugged at knife-point and only days before Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, was an instigator for Johnson’s move away from New York City to Long Island, New York. Johnson traced Warhol’s profile on April 20, 1976, making Warhol the first subject of his Silhouette Project, a series of profile portraits of that served as a foundation for Johnson’s collages. Warhol makes appearances in many of Johnson's works across multiple media, from his collages to his mailings. Artistic inspiration and support, however, flowed both ways. In an interview for High Times in 1977, when asked who he thought was the world’s greatest living artist, Warhol included Johnson in his diverse list. Many art historians have labeled Johnson’s early “moticos,” collaged constructions made from images culled from popular media pasted onto small cardboard mounts made in the early 1950s, as precursors to later Warholian Pop Art. The importance of Warhol to Johnson and vice versa was great and emerges throughout both artists’ oeuvre.
Josef Albers was a German painter, printer, and sculptor who has arguably had one of the most profound influences on modern art in both Europe and America. Not only was Albers an artist, but he was also a teacher, and it was through this role, both at Germany’s Bauhaus and then later America’s Black Mountain College and Yale University, that he affected the practices and approaches of generations of artists.
Ray Johnson had Albers as an instructor while he was a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s. Johnson was very much impressed with Albers’ teachings, and would often write home to his parents describing his classes in detail and singing the instructor’s praises. Johnson grew to be one of Albers’ favorite students, and arranged for him to design the cover for the November 1947 issue of Interiors, an international design magazine.
Much of Johnson’s earliest work bears a strong resemblance to Albers’, consisting of brightly colored geometric shapes and grids. While Johnson destroyed most of this early work (reportedly in Cy Twombly’s fireplace), his later grids still betray a strong influence with their underlying grid-like structure.
Ray Johnson and John Cage first met at Black Mountain College in 1948. Cage, along with Merce Cunningham, had briefly visited the college that spring while on one of their many trips around the country, and had returned again that summer. Johnson, who had been on leave from Black Mountain that semester while studying at the Art Student’s League in New York City, met Cage during his summer visit. Cage spent that summer organizing a Satie Festival, which culminated in a performance of the composer’s play “The Ruse of the Medusa.” Both students and faculty alike participated in the event; Johnson helped design the set. After leaving Black Mountain in early 1949, Johnson moved to New York City with Richard Lippold, and in 1951 the two moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side, along with Cage and the avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, who lived across the hall. The four called the building the “Boza Mansion” after its landlord, and were featured in a short article in Harper’s Bazaar in 1952 called “Four Artists in a Mansion,” illustrated with a photograph of the group in Lippold’s car. Together, this group developed a deep interest in Zen philosophy, particularly with chance operations. This interest would permeate all four’s artists’ practices throughout their careers, for example, Johnson’s “Nothing” performance events, and Cage’s 4’33’’. Although Johnson moved out of the Boza Mansion in 1953 when he received a fellowship to the Cummington School of the Arts in Massachusetts, the two remained close. In 1962-63, both Cage and Johnson participated in George Brecht’s “Yam Festival” held at George Segal’s farm in New Jersey, a mail art event that involved musical scores. Cage and Johnson continue to be associated with one another, as evidenced by the purposefully simultaneous exhibitions at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in 2009, The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art and Ray Johnson: Please Add to & Return.
Réne Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian painter, sculptor, draughtsman, photographer, and filmmaker. He is considered to be one of the most pivotal figures in the Surrealist movement. Magritte often explored different levels of experience and perceptions of reality, oftentimes giving new meaning to familiar things. This interest resulted in works that redefined relationships between word and image, such as with his The Treachery of Images, in which he depicts a pipe in a realistic style with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) written underneath.
Magritte’s work became well-known in 1948, when he signed a contract with the New York dealer Alexandre Iolas, and his reputation grew after a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Artists working in New York such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Ray Johnson, however, had already been introduced to Magritte’s work as early as 1954, when Sidney Janis, who collected Magritte’s work since the 1930s, organized the exhibition Magritte: Word vs. Image at his gallery. The paintings in this show were revelatory for these artists; they responded greatly to the detached and matter-of-fact way Magritte painted his pictures, and would adopt this quality into their own work.
Johnson was particularly interested in Magritte’s play with the relationship between words, images, and meaning. Like Magritte, Johnson’s work was largely founded on a type of game between word and image, employing homonyms, metonyms, and synecdoche, both textual and visual, to create works that altered the viewer’s preconceived ideas of what was represented. Johnson acknowledged this affinity in with cut-outs of a pipe in his many of his collages– a reference to Magritte’s famous pipe in The Treachery of Images.
Salvdor Dalí was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century, producing a body of work that crossed genres, from painting to sculpture and film. Typically associated with Surrealism, his highly-sexualized works, combined with his flamboyant personality, made him one of the most well-known twentieth-century artists.
Johnson met Dalí in 1979 at Studio 54, the famous New York City celebrity watering-hole where Dalí had a table. During this encounter, Johnson supposedly referred to Dalí’s bodyguard as a “lifeguard,” a change in terminology that apparently amused the Surrealist.
Surrealism, and especially Dalí, was an important influence in Johnson’s work. Johnson referenced Dalí’s work in many of his own collages and mailers; he appropriated the image of Dalí’s Mae West Lips sofa, creating a stenciled version of it that he most commonly paired with Lucy Lippard (both artists found Mae West to be particularly interesting. Dalí also referred to West in his writings, and Johnson would insert quotes from her movies into his works). He also used reproductions of one of Dalí’s most infamous works, Crucifixion, “Corpus Hypercubus,” cutting it up and pasting other clippings over it to create numerous collages.
Dating Ray Johnson’s collages is often challenging and, in many ways, contra-indicated (Johnson himself wrote “ No Chronology”). He created many of his collages over a period of years, even decades, repeatedly returning to and reworking them. They are all accumulations. Some include fragments of earlier works that he chopped apart and re-used as source material, while others were continuously “in process” until the year leading up to Johnson’s death when he added certain “final gestures” to many works.
The Ray Johnson Estate proposes three broad groups for the purpose of dating. Johnson’s first body of work comprises the early “moticos” collages from 1953-1959, which he “left alone” and did not subject to cannibalization. These can be dated stylistically, often within one or two years (though Johnson signed and dated them very rarely).
The second group of works are collages from the early 1960s and 1970s that Johnson signed and dated with a single date because he was compelled to “complete” them in order for them to be framed for specific exhibitions. It seems that if a work was not thus “arrested,” it was “in play” for the next 20 or so years.
The third and largest group of works includes collages that Johnson worked on periodically throughout the last two decades of his life. He assigned multiple dates to some (often in pencil in a lower corner), indicating some of the specific years, sometimes even the specific days, when he returned to and added to the work. He noted only a single date or year on others, despite the fact that they are clearly accumulations created over multiple years, and he left others entirely undated. In the middle of a collage, Johnson sometimes recorded the date of a particular element or gesture (sometimes the addition was a recycled fragment from long past, i.e. 1954, or sometimes it was more current, i.e. 1984). These dates do not accurately reflect the entire "campaign" of work on a collage and should not be understood as its “date;” rather, they are a record of certain additions. The individual dates on these works sometimes only represent a "final gesture" that Johnson added to a collage – such as the “perforated X” (an “X” with a hole stabbed into the center of a collage) - that Johnson added to a series of collages in April, 1994.
The Ray Johnson Estate always indicates the actual dates that Johnson inscribed on collages when such dates are visible. Collages bearing incomplete or no dates are assigned dates by the Estate; such dates are listed as circa and are used to indicate the years during which Johnson incorporated certain motifs or began certain "campaigns" on a particular collage. They are provisional. Johnson’s work must be understood as cumulative, and therefore not "datable" in the conventional sense. Johnson’s process subverts the viewer’s desire to categorize his work into particular "periods" or "eras," and like all of his strategies, it forces us to abandon our usual methodologies of looking and instead to keep wondering.