Presents his small, irregularly shaped collages to viewers in arrangements on New York sidewalks, in Grand Central Station and in other public places.
Johnson and Norman Solomon coin the term “moticos,” a neologism which he applies to his early eccentrically shaped cut-outs, which are collaged with figures cut from magazines, advertisements, etc. Johnson will use the term moticos to describe different aspects/elements of his work: the poetic texts and phrases; the rectangular panels from the 50s; and the glyphs, which appear throughout his entire career. This early incorporation of Pop imagery earns Johnson a place as one of the earliest exponents of Pop Art (per Lawrence Alloway, John Russell, and Suzi Gablik). Johnson works on a series of unique collaged artist books, and begins mimeographing and mailing a series of cryptic flyers on the subject of his moticos. One, with his essay “What is a Moticos?” is excerpted in the inaugural issue of The Village Voice (October 26).
An installation of dozens of Johnson’s often asymmetrically shaped moticos, standing upright in rows, outdoors on New York sidewalks or in alleyways, are photographed by Elisabeth Novick and later reproduced in Pop Art Redefined (Gablik and Russell, 1969). Gablik later states that Johnson’s arrangements "may have been the first informal Happening.” She points to the importance of Johnson’s use of “chance encounters and odd connections,” his “continuous ‘postal Happening’ in the form of the New York Correspondence School” and his "pioneer use of graphic techniques and images.” She notes as an example: “a photograph of Elvis Presley by dripping red paint from the eyes. He called it ‘Oedipus’ and said ‘I’m the only painter in New York whose drips mean anything’” (ibid, p. 17). Johnson also makes James Dean collages.
Norman Solomon and Ad Reinhardt also photograph a group of moticos, displayed vertically in the cracks of the wooden floor in Reinhardt’s studio. Johnson subsequently destroys most of these shaped Pop collages or “chops” them up, recycling them into future collages.
Johnson, Rauschenberg, Remy Charlip and Vera Williams are credited as collaborating on Merce Cunningham’s “Springweather and People” (with music by Earle Brown) performed in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
Johnson creates dozens of collages, called moticos, over the next four years, cutting and pasting strips of paper which he paints and distresses and pastes together with fragments of photographs, texts and letters chopped from his own moticos or from commercial sources onto relatively small, mostly rectangular, cardboard supports. This process of recycling his works as raw material for other works—Johnson said “I do not make Pop art, I make Chop art”—is his modus operandi throughout the rest of his career. Sometime between 1954 and 1956 he creates a series of all white, punctured moticos.
Through Norman Solomon, he meets William S. Wilson, a graduate student in English at Yale, who will become a lifelong friend and the most important chronicler of Johnson’s work. He soon begins to correspond with Wilson and his mother, assemblage artist May Wilson, then living in Maryland.
Johnson knows Warhol by now. Both work as graphic designers and design book jackets for New Directions, New York and other publications. Johnson’s design appears on the Columbia Records album cover of Rogers & Hart’s ON YOUR TOES. Using offset lithography, he creates BOO/K/OF/THE/MO/NTH (1956) and P/EEK/A/BOO/K/OFTHE /WEE/K (1957), both self-published by Johnson and printed by Pernet Printing—Warhol’s printer of choice.
Designs a cover for a New Directions edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations using a Benday screened photograph of the symbolist poet; Johnson will use the image frequently in subsequent collages and mailings. Johnson’s backdrops for fashion photographs appear in the February and August issues of Harper’s Bazaar. Three of Johnson’s offset-lithography promotional flyers are reproduced in April’s Gutai magazine, published in Osaka, Japan.
Included in Collage in America at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, et al; and in an exhibition at Mills College, New York, with Ellsworth Kelly and others, curated by Ad Reinhardt. Listed in the Dictionary of Abstract Painting by Michel Seuphor (Tudor Publishing).
Johnson’s practice of mail art—sending found objects and images, texts, flyers, collages through the mail—becomes a significant activity.
Recognized as part of the nascent Pop generation: in January’s ARTnews article about Jasper Johns, a critic states that “Johns’ first solo show (. . .) places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” Begins to incorporate small three-dimensional blocks made from layers of cardboard into collages. Visits Rauschenberg in his studio and sees Factum I and Factum II. Is thought to have burned some of the early moticos and his earlier abstract paintings in Cy Twombly’s fireplace around this time.
Johnson begins a mural for The Living Theatre (founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck), which is later accidentally painted over.
Designs flyers and announcements for the group, and for Jargon Society, among others. Johnson’s backdrops appear in "Fashions of the Times", a supplement to The New York Times. The earliest known “Please Send To” mailing is postmarked on June 9, 1958.
Around this time, Johnson meets Billy Linich (later known as Billy Name) at Serendipity in New York, and in 1963 Johnson introduces Linich to Warhol. Billy Name was to be an important figure at Warhol’s Factory—he was responsible for its “silver installation.” Johnson begins sending film writer Gerry Ayres a series of “Lucky Strike” collages through the mail.
Shows movie star collages (Presley, Dean, Monroe) in the exhibition Out of the Ordinary at Contemporary Arts Association, Houston. Participates in exhibition Below Zero at Reuben Gallery, New York.
Moves to 176 Suffolk Street. Exhibits in Gang Bang at the Batman Gallery, San Francisco, with correspondents Bruce Conner and George Herms, along with Jay De Feo, Michael McClure, William Wiley, et al.
Begins sending letters with instructions to “Please Add To and Send To . . . ” Ed Plunkett baptizes the New York Correspondence School, by now an international network of individuals who exchange missives and mail art through the postal system. Johnson renames it the New York Correspondance (sic) School (NYCS) and alternates the spelling (Correspondence and Correspondance). Johnson will send out thousands of flyers and announcements during the next three decades referring to his virtual “school.”
Begins correspondence with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Paris. Nothing event at Maidman Playhouse, New York, and advertised in the Village Voice.
From 1961 on Johnson periodically stages events he calls Nothings, which he described to William S. Wilson as “an attitude as opposed to a happening.” These performances parallel Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and later Fluxus events. Johnson’s first recorded public performance, Nothing By Ray Johnson, takes place at AG Gallery, New York (July 30); attendees gather and nothing happens until Johnson throws a box of wooden spindles down the gallery staircase, creating a noise for all to hear.
Johnson may have met Duchamp around this time. His intense interest in Duchamp is shared by John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Begins to incorporate rubber-stamped phrases in his mailings, starting with “COLLAGE BY RAY JOHNSON.” Circulates announcements for the fictional Robin Gallery (name is a Johnsonian nod to the Reuben and Batman Galleries—Robin was Batman’s sidekick).
Johnson issues the first 13 pages of A Book About Death (1963-5). In group exhibition Pop Art U.S.A. at the California College of the Arts and the Oakland Art Museum.
During one of his frequent visits to Warhol’s Factory, Johnson brings his friend Dorothy Podber who unexpectedly takes out a gun and shoots a stack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreen paintings, which will later be sold as the Shot Marilyns. Places two cryptic classified ads in The Village Voice. When Johnson is hospitalized with hepatitis in August, Warhol places an ad in The Village Voice announcing a non-existent exhibition in Johnson’s room at Bellevue Hospital.
David Bourdon publishes “An Interview with nosnhoJ yaR” in the September issue of Artforum. Johnson’s earliest known bunnyhead drawing appears at the end of a letter to William S. Wilson.
Becomes acquainted with Nam June Paik soon after Paik’s arrival in New York.