Retrospective gives elusive father of mail art his due

Sunday, September 10, 2000

Nancy Gilson

Dispatch Assistant Arts Editor


On a cold January evening in 1995, Ray Johnson, who made art on his own terms, ended his life the same way. He jumped from the Sag Harbor bridge on Long Island, swam for a while, then drowned.

Friends and colleagues considered his death as artfully planned as his collages and paintings. Many of the works -- created by the father of modern "mail art" and sent through the post - were either discovered in his home and studio or made accessible after his death.

They are included in the retrospective exhibition "Ray Johnson: Correspondences," organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts and opening there Saturday.

The exhibit premiered last year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where Johnson lived much of his life.

"I wanted the show to go to New York first," curator Donna De Salvo said. "Johnson was a New York character. He never left the United States, but he corresponded with people all over the world."

De Salvo, a senior curator at the Tate Modern in London and a former Wexner Center curator at large, was not surprised by the warm critical reception in New York.

"Artists in particular have always been amazed by his work and want to see more of it," she said. "There's extraordinary beauty in his work -- even a stillness.

"It's very cerebral, that's true, and it clearly demands more of a viewer. But it's not unlike a lot of conceptual work in which the process by which it's put together constitutes part of its meaning."

Mark Bloch, an Ohio-born artist and friend, calls Johnson one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Johnson, he said, not only founded mail art and created visually powerful works but also led the charge in the pop-art movement.

"He was one of the first artists to use celebrity as content," Bloch said. "He was using pop-culture symbols before Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg."

More than 150 collages, paintings, objects, silhouette portraits and examples of mail art from his tongue-in-cheek "New York Correspondence School" are included. Incorporated into his art are figures such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

The dense collages feature photographs, comic-book figures such as Nancy and Sluggo, commercial symbols ranging from Vicks VapoRub to Lucky Strike cigarettes, fragments of correspondence -- and often a funky-looking rabbit, his alter ego.

"He used the collage process to talk about the fragmentary nature of life and how communication is a mysterious process," De Salvo said.

Sherri Geldin, executive director of the Wexner Center, described the works as important and "deliberately elusive."

Johnson also is called the "most famous unknown artist" in New York and referred to as an "outsider artist."

"But I think he was the consummate insider," De Salvo said. "He associated with Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Christo, Robert Rauschenberg and an array of others."

One member of that array, Columbus artist Mark Corroto, has organized an invitational exhibit of mail art to run simultaneously with the Johnson show.

"I started corresponding with him in the early 1980s and finally met him in 1993," Corroto said. "Ray would call you at all hours of the night or in the middle of the day. His art involved hooking people up with each other. He didn't care if you were Chuck Close, Yoko Ono or Mark Corroto. He would have Chuck Close send art to me and me send art to Robert Rauschenberg.

"He also became fascinated with my dog, a big brown Lab. He'd send mail to my dog or call on the phone and bark."

Bloch, who as a young artist idolized Johnson, began "impersonating" him through the mail. Johnson discovered the works and liked them, and struck up a relationship with Bloch.

"He'd send me an art-opening invitation and say, 'Mark, please attend this event for me and impersonate me,' " Bloch said.

De Salvo, who never met Johnson in person, became aware of his work in the early 1990s while organizing a pop-art show in Los Angeles. She wrote, asking him to participate.

"He just started sending me all this stuff in the mail."

Johnson later contributed work for the Wexner Center exhibit "Face Value: American Portraits."

"Just before it opened, he killed himself," she said.

Johnson, who was born in Detroit, attended the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina; two paintings from that period are included in the new exhibit. In 1948 he moved to New York.

The art world was in flux, between the peak of abstract expressionism and the advent of pop art. After he moved to Long Island in the late 1960s, Johnson kept in touch with his Manhattan friends by mail and telephone.

His work focused on the medium of collage; many of his pieces were recycled into others. He organized a 1970 exhibit at the Whitney -- the first of mail art in a major museum.

"Mail art is part of a correspondence network played out on a visual, verbal level," De Salvo said. "Network is key, and it's not an exchange that necessarily goes from point A to point B.

"Ray's art represents a tremendous generosity. He just sent it out."

A critic, David Bourdon, once said, "Johnson's mail-away art can't be bought or sold but only received."

Corroto and De Salvo wonder whether and how Johnson would have adapted his art to the internet: Perhaps he would have liked the immediacy and scope but lamented the loss of a handmade look. Both agree that his art is fascinating and largely unexplored.

The fact that Johnson took his life at age 67 "keeps us perpetually guessing," Bloch said. "From the beginning, his work dealt with water and death. If part of the meaning of his work lies in secret messages, then he left us something for the ages."

"Everyone always asks why he committed suicide," De Salvo said. "I tended not to want to respond to that question in this exhibit. There have been so many writers and artists who ended their lives that way, but that's not what you see when you look at a Rothko painting.

"I really felt that Johnson deserved a serious look."


Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch

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