Ray Johnson
By: Franklin Bruno | Categories: HiLo Heroes

RAY JOHNSON (1927–95) was several artists in one: a Black Mountain-trained painter whose early rejection of Abstract Expressionist purity was as deliberate as Rauschenberg’s, Johns’s, and Twombly’s (in whose fireplace Johnson burned his student work); a formal collagist who combined Joseph Cornell’s gift for lending personal and symbolic weight to scrap material with a Warholian eye for transformative Camp; the founder and distribution node of “The New York Correspondence [sometimes 'Correspondance'] School,” which helped initiate the genre of “mail art”; a performer whose koan-like “Nothings,” which might consist of little more than Johnson standing in a bank lobby chewing peanut-butter cups and silently reading Walt Whitman, contrasted starkly with the antic, multi-media “Happenings” of the ’60s and ’70s. An insider’s outsider, three decades of such activity made Johnson “the most famous unknown artist in New York,” as one review put it, but he withdrew from the art world and market in the ’80s and ’90s, working privately while underlining his absence with thousands of typed and Xeroxed mailings. (Prophetically, his self-isolation roughly coincided with the rise of the Internet.) On a Friday the 13th in 1995, he drove to Orient, Long Island, warned one or two intimates of a coming “mail event” by phone, and dropped himself off a country bridge like a letter into a slot, leaving his Sag Harbor home and studio as a series of carefully staged tableaux. Like this last, self-canceling gesture, each of Johnson’s works — many of which were initially aimed at a single postal recipient — connects to hundreds of others through visual and verbal puns and cultural allusions, but the man at their center and his ultimate intent remain unfathomable, as though meaning itself were a vast, networked conspiracy.

***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Louis Althusser.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).

Share

MORE POSTS by

Franklin Bruno is the author of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (Continuum, 33 1/3 series). His current band is The Human Hearts. Twitter: @humanfranklin.