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Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson mail art
Born October 16, 1927(1927-10-16)
Detroit, Michigan
Died January 13, 1995 (aged 67)
Nationality American
Field Intermedia, Conceptual art
Movement Mail art, Fluxus, Neo-Dada

Ray Edward Johnson (1927- 1995) was a seminal figure of the Pop Art movement. Primarily a collage artist, Johnson was also an early performance and conceptual artist. Once called “New York’s most famous unknown artist", he is considered the “Founding Father of Mail Art" and pioneered the incorporation and use of language in the visual arts.

Contents

Early Years and Education

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on October 16, 1927, Johnson attended Cass Technical High School, an occupational school, where he enrolled in the Advertising Art Program. From 1945-1948, Johnson attended Black Mountain College, a progressive school in North Carolina, where he studied painting under Josef and Anni Albers and Robert Motherwell. While at Black Mountain, he also studied with and worked alongside many important figures of the avant-garde, including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Richard Lippold. In 1948, Johnson moved to New York, where he joined the downtown art scene, befriending Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly. He worked part-time at the Orientalia Bookstore in the Lower East Side, where he strengthened his interest in and understanding of Zen philosophy and the concept of chance; these interests later shaped his collages, performances, and mail art. In these early years, Johnson focused on abstract paintings, reflecting his training with Albers, but by 1953, in search of a new mode of expression, he turned to collage. By 1955, Johnson had completely rejected his early abstract works and purportedly burned many of them in Cy Twombly’s fireplace.

Work

Johnson’s initial collages were mainly abstract works made of cut, painted and distressed paper strips and irregular designs. He referred to these early collages as “moticos,” a term he coined and used for several different elements in his work, including these collages and early poetic texts that he wrote at this time. Following his lifelong practice of cutting and recycling various materials, Johnson cut apart many of his early collages and used the fragments in later works. As Johnson once said, he created “Chop Art, not Pop Art.”

By the mid-to late-1950s, Johnson’s collages became increasingly referential, as he combined fragments from earlier works and ink drawings with images from popular culture. He included fragments of popular advertisements and images of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, and others in a way that anticipated the 1960s works of Pop artists, such as Warhol. Due to his early use of popular imagery, Johnson is considered one of the earliest exponents of Pop Art. Johnson also included references to art world celebrities and personal acquaintances. In the late 1950s, Johnson began creating “tesserae”—small, highly worked blocks he created from layers of cardboard glued together, painted, and sanded—to add a three-dimensional element to his works.

Throughout his career, Johnson repeatedly returned to and re-worked his collages, adding additional elements and recording the dates of his progress directly on the collage. He developed several motifs and series in his collages, including silhouettes of artists and acquaintances, "Lucky Strike" symbols, Cupids, "Tit girls," Dollar bills, Potato Mashers, and "Fingernails." Johnson juxtaposed images, words, and ideas to create new meanings and endless associations.

In the late 1950s, Johnson began exploring the possibilities of Mail Art. He developed a network of friends, acquaintances and strangers to whom he sent highly conceptual images and texts. Like Marcel Duchamp, Johnson was one of the first artists to incorporate instructions for active participation in his artwork, as he encouraged the recipients to “add to” his work or to “please send to…” or to “return to Ray Johnson.” In 1962, Johnson founded the "New York Correspondance (sic) School," a name invented by Ed Plunkett and used by Johnson for his international network of Mail Art participants he spawned by mailing an enormous amount of material, including fragments of cut-up collages, drawings with instructions, found objects, snake skins, and annotated newspaper clippings.

One of the first performance artists, Johnson began staging what he called “Nothings” in 1960. These performances paralleled Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” and later Fluxus events. Johnson described his “Nothings” to William S. Wilson as “an attitude as opposed to a happening,” and he staged numerous performances throughout his life, including his “Throwaway Gesture Performances.”

Severely shaken after being mugged and attacked in lower Manhattan on June 3, 1968, the same day that Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas (and two days before Robert Kennedy was assassinated), Johnson decided to move to Glen Cove, Long Island, and then to Locust Valley. Until his death in 1995, Johnson continued his work in collage, sent out volumes of mail art, and staged numerous performances, but he became increasingly reclusive. As his contemporaries became famous, Johnson cultivated his role as an outsider, parodying celebrity through performances, fake openings, and photocopy-machine art. From 1982 on, he repeatedly refused offers from numerous galleries to exhibit his art, and for the last five years of his life, he refused all public exhibitions of his works.

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Death

On January 13, 1995 Ray Johnson’s body was found floating in a small cove in Sag Harbor, NY. All aspects of his death, revolved around the number "13". His age 67 = 6+7=13, the room number at his hotel was 247 which adds to 13, the date: Jan 13, etc. He jumped off the bridge on a cold winter night, and his body was found the next day. As with much of the particulars of his life, little is known about the circumstances of his death. Those who knew him best, inasmuch as they knew him at all, have even speculated that his suicide was his final performance (or Nothing as he then called his pieces). Johnson lived frugally, but had $400,000 in bank accounts at the time of his death. He left no will and his 10 first cousins inherited his estate.

Film & Television

With the help of Frances Beatty, Vice President of Richard L. Feigen & Co. and Director of the Estate of Ray Johnson, filmmakers Andrew Moore and John Walter spent the next six years exploring the mysteries of Johnson’s life and art. In 2002, they released How to Draw a Bunny, an award-winning documentary about Johnson, including interviews with his friends and fellow artists such as Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Jeanne-Claude and Christo. The film examines the importance of Johnson’s enigmatic life and work and his influence on Pop and Performance artists. The cable television network Ovation TV has aired the film.

External links


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