Ray Johnson: The Zen Master of the Social Network

A closer look at the mystifying correspondence art of Ray Johnson.

Ray Johnson Follow Below

Like Lear’s daughters, whether we resist or we conform, we are urged to communicate something, anything, even when we wonder whether all this 24/7 contact might amount to a whole lot of nothing.

Illustration courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

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In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cordelia is forced to say something to prove her love for her father. Refusing, she answers with the single word, “Nothing.” In the play’s tragic take on miscommunication, her sisters’ maudlin pronouncements of devotion are—to borrow a word invented by the American artist, Ray Johnson—“nothings” accepted by Lear as something. Of course it hardly matters what the other two scheming, kowtowing daughters say to Lear; it only matters that they say something. This Shakespearean predicament foresees what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said that the medium is the message. A formal affirmation of love, a telephone call, a status update—each is less significant for its content than for how that medium rearranges daily life and transforms our social and mental landscapes.

It has been many decades since artist Ray Johnson pioneered postal art, or what he set in motion and named, using multiple spellings, The New York Correspondence School. Since then the available platforms for sending mail and messages to others have proliferated far beyond the post office—voicemails, emails, SMS, tweets, tags, selfies, Instagrams, public profiles, video clips, news feeds, LISTSERVS, message boards, Tumblrs, Snapchats, you name it. Like Lear’s daughters, whether we resist or we conform, we are urged to communicate something, anything, even when we wonder whether all this 24/7 contact might amount to a whole lot of nothing.

This universal anxiety about the something-ness and nothing-ness in our language coupled with the ambiguities or mirages of social networking and instant messaging lend a special charge to the new compendium of mail art in Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson 1954-1994. Though the volume exceeds 200 pages, its publisher, Siglio Press, has had to assemble a sampling of letters from thousands that Johnson mailed out practically every day for 40 years.  He was an analog-era hacker who wove a worldwide web using this collagist mail art, vanishing at the dawn of the internet age, in January of 1995, after he leapt off a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York. He was last seen backstroking in the icy water. He left neither a will nor a suicide note. Instead he offered cryptogrammic arrangements around the number 13 including the date (Jan. 13, 1995), motel room number (247), and license plate, along with personal effects in his Long Island home, suggesting that his death was one more form of mail art to be deciphered.

For a figure once labeled the “most famous unknown artist in America,” Johnson’s output has been gaining considerable traction lately. Siglio has separately republished Johnson’s poetic monograph The Paper Snake, which originally appeared in the mid-1960s through Dick Higgins’ cutting-edge Something Else Press, an outfit which had, not coincidentally, published Marshall McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations. In 2014, Johnson’s mail art, assorted writings, and masterful collages were featured in ten different exhibitions, from New York’s MoMA to top galleries in East Hampton and Buffalo and even in Madrid.

The multimedia letters in Not Nothing eliminate boundaries separating poetry, prose, drawing, and collage. In their parody of bureaucratic diction, in their miscellaneous observations, and in their crazy-quilt graphics, these letters unfold without any logic or cogently expressed purpose. The letters drop random threads and pick them up later. Or they don’t. They reiterate cryptic
requests, spiral into carefully typed logorrhea, and end abruptly. Surrounded by clip art that ranges from cartoons to how-to-manuals to product labels, Johnson’s text shifts into styles that
include diary entries, testimonials, asides, copy edits, gossip, intended typos, and cataloging. Concealing meaning behind complicated written and visual assemblages, Johnson calls attention to letter-writing’s artifice and to the medium’s lack of transparency. He anticipates the inevitable misinterpretations and confusions on the part of the recipient. Even the most patient reader will flip back and forth among the letters in Not Nothing, as surely original recipients did, wondering, “Who is this letter writer and what the hell is he going on about?”

Ray Johnson’s life story resembles an American folktale written by a magic realist. That biography—including his inexplicable suicide—was distilled in the critically acclaimed film documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002). Chronicling Johnson’s evolution within the postwar New York art scene, John W. Walter’s film tracks down those who knew Johnson and discovers that none of them really did. His lover for more than 25 years, the sculptor Richard Lippold believed that Johnson thought that “his life was a game.” (Lippold died in 2002). By the time their relationship was ending, Lippold was left asking himself, somewhat in despair, “Who was this man?” Another Ray Johnson friend, the film producer Gerald Ayers, declared him “an aesthetic clown.” That clever designation is apt. In 1969, while in the middle of working on prints involving human feet, Johnson persuaded his gallery, owned by Richard Feigen, to finance his rental of a helicopter, which flew him from Long Island to the East River where he then dropped foot-long hot dogs over an arts festival on Ward’s Island. To Johnson’s surprise many of the pedestrians ate the hot dogs. The gods are, indeed, as crazy as the humans. Johnson emerges from How to Draw Bunny as a sort of metaphysical stuntman with razor-sharp perception and a hyperalert, feline consciousness. One acquaintance recalls how while walking with Johnson in New York they came across a shattered jar of coffee to which the artist instantly pointed, quipping, “coffee break.” The grande dame of The Living Theater, actress and writer Judith Malina, astutely tells of how Johnson both, “simplified and complicated reality” through his art, leading her at times to wonder if he was the real thing, or a con man, or an autistic genius, or all of the above.

For all these unanswered questions, there are many solid facts about Johnson’s life. Born an only child in a middle-class neighborhood in Detroit, and raised by devout Lutheran parents who encouraged his art and inculcated him with an ethos of “waste not, want not,” the multitalented Johnson started out as an abstract painter, having mastered design principles and color theory in the 1940s under the Bauhaus master Josef Albers at the experimental Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. After his studies, Johnson moved into various unfurnished studios on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1950s. There he found uneven paid work in book and poster design thanks in part to the job references provided by his friend Andy Warhol. His unconventionality was gaining notice even among fellow nonconformists. Warhol’s Factory hand Billy Name recalls that not only did Johnson shun drug use, but many on the New York scene took mind-altering substances to achieve the sort of visionary fervor in which Johnson went about his daily life.

While absorbing Eastern religious ideas, in part thanks to his job in the Orientalia bookstore, Johnson’s art moved into explorations in repetition and chance operations, methods put into play by his peers, like composer and musician John Cage, and the Fluxus group of performance and conceptual artists which included figures like La Monte Young and Yoko Ono. Johnson co-opted Allan Kaprow’s theatrical “happenings” and renamed them “nothings.” In one such event, Johnson’s eager invitees showed up to find that the host was absent, that no staged production was ever going to commence, and that the collective befuddlement and unexpected camaraderie among the gatherers constituted the “nothing”—the medium as a purely unadulterated message.           

Though he remained a friendly admirer of dominant New York School painters who worked in abstraction and expressionistic modes, by the mid- 1950s, Johnson was making intricate and compressed small-scale collages by the hundreds. His direct influences were the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, both of whom Johnson frequently references in the letters contained in Not Nothing. Johnson’s collages remain unrivalled in American art history, both for their sheer quantities and their technical intricacy.

But it was his hybrid Correspondence Art, rather than pure collage, that was to make him famous, or infamous. The postal project had an immediate sociological objective, as Johnson leveled hierarchies around celebrity that were then being established both locally and nationally. Subverting the cliquish New York scene, he mailed letters out in equal numbers to the well-known, to the up-and-coming, to the completely unknown, and even to the dead. Not Nothing contains a letter sent to poet Marianne Moore, feminist leader Germaine Greer and painter James Rosenquist. Many are addressed to far more obscure people in the arts and culture, like Johnson’s close friend, the scholar and novelist William S. Wilson. More than one letter was mailed to a drug-addicted hustler and artist named Soren Agenoux locked up in the Bronx, and others went to random individuals in Europe or anonymous curators. The deceased Jackson Pollock was sent a letter as was the fictional addressee “Lulu Pickle” with Johnson listing Gertrude Stein’s Paris home as the postcard’s return address.

Often printed on letterhead stolen from public or private institutions, or typed on wrinkled notebook paper or the back sides of Chinese menus, the letters revel in Freudian slips, Joycean puns, intentional misspellings and malapropisms, arcane glyphs and charming anagrams. Frequently he embeds or superimposes onto the paper a silhouette of his recipient or a graffiti-laced photo of himself, or a movie star. An expert at the craft of rubber stamping, he adds those imprints, giving some letters an archival or official flourish. As warmly addressed epistles and intimate appeals derailed by their maddening digressions, the letters exasperate as they entertain. Often Johnson signs off using a talisman, like his famous drawings of a snake, or a rabbit.

The banal and the profound are mixed together. In one letter Johnson tells Wilson about a subway ride and then turns it into a fable of personal metempsychosis. In another he references an inquiry from the police on behalf of a Newsweek editor who received an “obscene” letter. Instead of dramatizing the experience by narrating it, Johnson tells his current recipient how his Correspondence School includes “everyone on Earth alive or dead, past and future” and cryptically adds that the police officer’s phone call “caused a series of responses to which I responded.” Writing to someone named “Harold,” (Rosenberg? Brodkey?) on ordinary typing paper that has been opulently transformed by makeshift letterhead cut out from an Italian manufacturer, Johnson explains the problems he’s having with a work-in-progress that involves stamped images of Henry David Thoreau. From there, he cross-references the 19th century transcendentalist and an obscure 1960s American novelist by imploring himself and his correspondent to not “thoreau the baby out with the barthwater.”  Other letters veer off from their ostensible serious statements to dissolve, or ascend, into fabulous prose poetry, as in one short missive to painter Al Kotin which declares, “I am sailing for Latvia tonight and a feather said to the sun since the weather will be gold tomorrow shell we look at a rock, Mr. Jones and the kid had an idea to say yes and sandpapered your painting.”

For all their aggressive detours and jubilant recycling of cultural detritus, an aura of religiosity, or concern about the sacred within the profane, seems to hover around these hermetic mailings. This religious tenor permeated his biography too. According to his New York peers, he was monkish, ascetic, detached, and learned. Speculating about Johnson’s outlook in her illuminating introduction to Not Nothing, editor Elizabeth Zuba attributes the opacity of Johnson’s Correspondence Art to his philosophical interest in the void and “the Zen ideal of emptiness.” She explains Johnson’s operative principle that language and visual data form enclosed systems of self-replicating “codes” that preclude original expression and prevent meanings beyond their sound and fury.

 If Zuba is right about Johnson’s nihilism, the Zen koan might explain Johnson’s communal, regenerative ethics. In the watered-down Westernized reductions of the concept, the Zen koan is said to be a cryptic question designed by a spiritual teacher to suspend the acolyte’s rationality and will-to-know. The most commonly cited example is, “Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?”

However, recent scholars have expounded on the Buddhist koan not as an incidental saying but as a literary genre unto itself that spread out interpersonally through a shared mental discipline, linking a network of spiritual aspirants, interlocutors and commentators. Writing on the koan’s etymology in Chinese culture, scholar T. Griffith Foulk translates the word as originally meaning a “public case,” or presented and posted briefs that contain “sayings, dialogues, or anecdotes” some of them culled from “biographies” that “comprise elements that render them difficult to understand at first glance,” such as “non sequiturs … reports of startling behaviors, or words and gestures that are apparently intended to be symbolic but are left unexplained.” This descriptive blurb about the koan could fit perfectly on the jacket of Not Nothing. Johnson named many of his artworks moticos, an anagram of osmotic and a word which, like the word koan, connotes a paradoxical state of fleetingness and concreteness. As perplexed readers of Not Nothing, then, we might engage in a reflective discipline through Johnson’s American secularization of the koan in the form of these letters. By standing in for his original addressees, we attend to the perplexing text and their graphic layout, and art operates not as a reassuring by-product of existence, or a sole commodity produced by one isolated person, but as a collaboration involving many people, correspondences in a humanistic sense as well as an aesthetic one—art as an open-ended undertaking, a shared state of being present to someone else rather than art as a hallowed object to be hung on a white wall. The letters’ mysteries can be approached by trusting intuition, free association, thoughtful hunches, multiple meanings or indeterminacy, and bridging the psychological gap between word and world. The letters’ words and pictures are no longer, like much language and imagery, disposable signposts for something outside them.

No longer fastened to practical, throwaway purposes, Johnson’s substantial messages operate outside of their timelines, reading like insights, trances and daydreams that become his readers’. As his correspondent, we inhabit a virtual Ray Johnson while he, through enigmatic prose and stimulating images, virtually occupies us. Wandering in a shared hermeneutical maze without closure, the goal is to wander back and forth within the letters’ imaginative glyphs and intellectual contours and humorous misdirection, challenged and exhausted, but no longer looking for an exit to meaning external to its haunting structures. Lost in such a literary and pictorial fun house, we know just how wrong King Lear is when he shouts at Cordelia that, “nothing will come of nothing.” Direct communication may be the biggest fallacy of the instant messaging era. As Shakespeare puts it “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” So maybe Johnson did see existence as a game. Maybe it is. Either way, imagine what the man could do with a Facebook account.


Tim Keane teaches creative writing and literary modernism at BMCC, CUNY. His writing has been in Modern Painters and many other magazines. Read more of his work at timkeane.com. A review of Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994 (Siglio, 2014); edited by Elizabeth Zuba with an essay by Kevin Killian.