Ray Johnson is born on October 16, in Detroit, Michigan, and lives on Quincy Avenue in a working-class neighborhood. Attends classes at Detroit Institute of Arts while in junior high.
Attends Cass Technical High School, where he studies drawing, art composition, graphic design, art history, and lettering; wins a certificate of merit in the Michigan Regional Scholastic Art Exhibition at Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. Schoolmate Arthur Secunda moves to New York City in 1943, and Johnson begins to send him heavily illustrated letters with cartoon-like drawings, captions, and requests for celebrity ephemera. Johnson later calls this the beginning of his mail art activities.
Attends Ox-bow, an affiliate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in Saugatuck, Michigan, during summer 1944, between his junior and senior years.
Before graduating, Johnson is awarded scholarships to the Art Students League in New York and to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Attends BMC’s Summer Institute. Studies color and design with Josef Albers, painting and drawing with Ilya Bolotowsky, painting with Lyonel Feininger, graphic design with Alvin Lustig, painting with Robert Motherwell, and advertising art with Paul Rand. Except for the spring 1946 semester, Johnson remains at Black Mountain College for over three years, through the end of the Summer Institute of 1948.
Spring 1946 lives at 324 West 56th Street, attends classes at the Art Students League and works at New York Public Library. Is rejected for induction in the Army. By the summer, Johnson returns to Black Mountain and Josef Albers arranges for Johnson to design the cover of the November 1947 issue of Interiors magazine.
Summer: Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, and Richard Lippold arrive at Black Mountain College. Johnson designs the props and they all collaborate on the absurdist production of Erik Satie’s “Ruse of Medusa,” part of Cage’s Satie Festival. Autumn: 21-year-old Johnson moves with Richard Lippold to a converted mill in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Moves to New York City with Lippold. Meets Cy Twombly and Ad Reinhardt. Lives at 149 West 119th Street. Summer 1950 visits Black Mountain College. Begins exhibiting paintings with the American Abstract Artists group (which continues into 1952) and later becomes Treasurer.
Moves with Lippold to 326 Monroe Street to a tenement called the “Boza Mansion,” which they will share with John Cage and avant-garde composer Morton Feldman.
In July, Harper’s Bazaar runs “Four Artists in a Mansion,” a profile with a photograph of Johnson, Cage, Feldman, and Lippold.
Fellowship at Cummington School of the Arts, Massachusetts; Johnson’s friends, photographer Norman Solomon and art critic Suzi Gablik, are there at the same time. Moves to 2 Dover Street in lower Manhattan where he remains until July 1960. Nearby is Coentie’s Slip (which became an artist’s community in the late 50s, early 60s) where friends Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Ad Reinhardt (for whom Johnson serves as an assistant) will have studios. Around this time is working part-time at the Orientalia Bookstore on East 12th Street in shipping with the help of Nick Cernovich. Deepens his knowledge of Zen philosophy and develops strong interest in the role of chance in art and life.