Invited to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ray Johnson shared the curator’s address with some of his closest friends. “Send letters, post cards, drawings and objects,” he wrote. Nearly a hundred people responded, from Malcolm Morley to Yoko Ono. Their work was the content of his 1970 one-man show.
Although Johnson was as prolific as most everyone he solicited – and his mixed-media collages were admired far and wide – a solo show comprising others’ work was a legitimate representation of his art. In fact, the exclusion of his correspondents would have been as negligent as a retrospective of Andy Warhol without his Factory cohort. As a landmark Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and catalogue illustrate, Johnson’s most vital medium was the social network.
Johnson approached this elusive art form by being everywhere and nowhere at once. Beginning in the 1950s, he devoted the better part of each day to correspondence, which sometimes took the conventional form of letters and postcards, but often manifested as questionnaires or instructions or other interactive prompts. The work circulating around him was his own in the sense that he’s activated it, but belonged to other people according to the conventional definition of authorship. What made matters even more confounding is the fact that this work sometimes passed through many hands. Exchange could be considered its essence, subverting even basic questions of ownership.
In 1962, Johnson formalized this modus operandi when he founded the New York Correspondence School. Referencing both the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and Correspondence Art Schools that advertised in the back pages of popular magazines, his institution looked askance at both simultaneously: He punked the New York School’s stilted claims to genius by appropriating the get-rich-quick correspondence art school methodology, for instance instructing his highly-accomplished correspondents in the art of drawing a cartoon bunny.
A vast body of work accrued over the next few decades, diligently collected by the English professor Bill Wilson, who Johnson appointed the Correspondence School’s official archivist, and whose collection is the core of the Art Institute exhibition. Comprising dozens of binders, selectively reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, the contents could easily command and reward months of diligent attention. But more than any individual postcard or drawing or object, the activity behind all of it stands out as an accomplishment of the highest order. Johnson’s pioneering use of the postal service as a creative platform – generating a flurry of mail art that would burst the postbox of any ordinary correspondence school – amounted to nothing less than an artistic expression of the countercultural collective conscious: an aptly pluralistic answer to the New York School’s self-importance.
The social network that Johnson assembled was orders of magnitude smaller than social networks as currently construed. He selected the participants, whose participation was hands-on, and paced at the rate of a first-class letter. All of these factors – together with the individual talents and shared values of correspondents – ensured that his social network amplified the playfulness of Johnson himself, never descending into the malice commonplace on Facebook.
Mail art was not Johnson’s exclusive invention, nor did it die with his suicide in 1995. In addition to the postal service, the internet has been explored by many subsequent artists as a creative commons, an idea that Mark Zuckerberg hopes to port into the metaverse. What makes Johnson’s contribution distinctive is the ambiguity of authorship, not only as a conceptual conceit but also as a creative act. This is not equivalent to the joint authorship of a collective work such as a Surrealist Exquisite Corpse, but rather comes into being through the fact that the artist Ray Johnson dwelled within each of his correspondents as much as inside his own body.
Ray Johnson was his own metaverse. Zuckerberg and his Metamates can only hope to be as imaginative.