Ray Johnson: The Zen Master of the Social Network

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

| Winter 2014

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?”