Ray Johnson: Still Perplexing After All These Years

Making unexpected connections between ordinary people, places, and things
Ray Johnson’s “Untitled Mailings” include “Head,” from 1970 with a mustache drawn on it, and a magazine photo of Zsa Zsa Gabor with a Babar elephant nose. Guild Hall

Having thought about the “Please Send to Ray Johnson” exhibition at Guild Hall since before it opened, it was still daunting to assess the artist’s oeuvre of “Mail Art” and a few other examples from his career that have been on view since late October. Such a problem likely would have made Johnson quite happy.

“That Was the Answer: Interviews With Ray Johnson,” a book published by Soberscove in September, underlines the artist’s desire to buck the conventional, to break through the mundane dates and places of typical background questions, and to create a deeper, more meaningful interaction between interlocutors, the interview as performance piece.

In an early interview in ArtForum, his reply to a question about his background was that he liked the actress “Giulietta Masina in ‘[Nights of] Cabiria’ She does interesting work and I do not have the slightest interest in where she was born or when.” 

In response to the interviewer’s first question about collage, he said, “Yes, I was born in Detroit in a log cabin and I attended Black Mountain [Collage], in North Carolina,” an intentional misstatement of the school’s name to highlight the correspondence he saw in the words college and collage. He then described carrying a log at the school up and down the mountain and then throwing it in a stream. 

Are you still with me?

If so, good, because as mind-bogglingly oblique as he can be in these exchanges and in his artwork, it is worth the effort to plumb their superficial impenetrability. In fact, what becomes apparent (after throwing the book against the wall a few times in aggravation) is that as far away as he was willing to cast the line of his conversations from their original point or focus, he had the end in sight. Readers or listeners may have thought he had lost the thread, but in one quick flick of the wrist he reeled the dialogue back to its fundamental point, but addressed it on his terms. 

It is all pretty masterful. Johnson allowed you to see how his New York “Correspondance” School, which he apparently misspelled intentionally, wasn’t just about sending things in the mail. It was also, and maybe even mostly, about making unexpected connections between ordinary people, places, and things as an everyday activity and objective. 

In addition, and just as important, he wanted to call attention to the spaces between objects, thoughts, words, and events. These spaces could be long pauses that seemed to go on forever, like in his “Nothings” performances. “Nothings” were his version of “Happenings,” art events that took place among artists and the cultural elite in the 1960s. In his take, those invited would gather someplace and then wait around, sometimes for a very long time. Eventually he would turn up and drop something or do some other often-improvised mundane act. Then, the “Nothing” was over. Thank you, good night.

Like the interviews, the pieces in Guild Hall’s show aren’t necessarily going to make sense right away, if at all. There is some wall text and video to help. Johnson’s apparent fascination with popular culture helps place the works into a proto-Pop Art framework (he has been credited with being the movement’s earliest practitioner when he started this series in the 1950s) and then rese­mbles the output of the Fluxus movement as the years proceed. A few of the works were framed when they were left to the museum, but the artist’s foundation said the preferred way to display the “Mail Art” was as ephemera placed in vitrines rather than frames, according to Jess Frost, the exhibition’s curator. 

Before the exhibition opened, she said that the amount of times the works changed hands and were altered by their recipients before being sent on again — as per Johnson’s instructions — made it nearly impossible to know how much of any work was purely by the artist’s hands. Therefore, framing the Mail Art would give it an imprimatur that may not be appropriate. This is not the case with the collages, which can be framed.

So a show that might have otherwise made sense in a smaller gallery has ended up in one of the museum’s largest spaces. In this way, his work may be spread out and lingered over by viewers, hopefully to make those vital connections and allow for the spaces between them.

Although the artist’s last act, a swan dive into the water from the bridge from North Haven into Sag Harbor Village, has tied him inextricably to the South Fork, there is not that much else that connects him to the area. He didn’t live here, but did visit from time to time. Many of those in the art world that he either wanted to know or wanted to be known by spent a portion of their time here. Included on his mailing list of friends and acquaintances were universally known names associated with the South Fork such as Peter Beard, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, but also people of more local note such as Helen Harrison who, before becoming director of the Pollock-Krasner House in 1990, was curator at Guild Hall. Even The Star’s publisher, Helen S. Rattray, was included in his mailings. He clearly researched the worlds he wanted to be part of, at least in spirit. 

One of his close friendships, with Ted Carey, a fellow artist and mutual friend of Warhol’s, resulted in this large bequest by Tito Spiga (a partner of Carey’s who had a house in East Hampton) to the museum. Mr. Spiga gave Guild Hall other artworks as well.

Why did Johnson travel from his house in Locust Valley to jump off the bridge where and when he did? Was it meant to be his final act? Was there meaning in the date, his age, and the room number he chose at Baron’s Cove Inn? Could it be something he had planned for a long time, figuring he too could be part of the art history shaped here by so many of his generation? Ms. Frost noted that when he jumped he was on the side of the bridge facing the Sag Harbor Post Office, perhaps a final salute to the primary “galleries” that disseminated his artwork. 

The words, images, fragments of stories, and other compositions and juxtapositions here look not unlike a static Instagram story, and the museum makes the point that these works could have anticipated how we communicate on social media. This is not unlike hypotheses made about the work of Warhol now on view in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but Johnson did come first.

His cultural critiques, collages, use of stamps and mass media, and self-referential coding became important parts of neo-Dada, Pop, and conceptual art, as well as serving as the foundation of his own medium of Mail Art. We may never fully understand all of his artistic output, but we can enjoy trying to figure it out, at least until Sunday at Guild Hall, after which the exhibition comes down.

Ray Johnson’s “Untitled (Witches Are Rising),” an undated work, consists of a Look magazine photo with a collaged photo of Ray Johnson as the necklace worn by the subject.