Cover of “Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954-1995” (2014), Sigilo Press (all images courtesy Sigilo Press)

Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954-1995, recently released by Siglio Press, is edited by poet and translator Elizabeth Zuba, with an essay by poet and novelist Kevin Killian. Coinciding with its appearance is a reprint of The Paper Snake, a slim volume of Johnson’s writings originally published in 1965 by Something Else Press, which was founded by Johnson’s close friend and correspondent, poet Dick Higgins. The participation of three poets in bringing Johnson’s word-works into print is not coincidental, and while Not Nothing will make absorbing reading for those interested in mail art, Fluxus, Pop, Conceptualism, the legacies of Dada and Surrealism, the reception of Duchamp, or the downtown New York scene in the years spanned by Zuba’s selection, the two books will likewise be a pleasure for anyone beguiled by language-and-image as a field of play. For, while the increased availability of Johnson’s letters, notes, and statements subtilizes our understanding of this legendarily well-connected yet enigmatic artist, his flattened logorrheia is also just fun to read. Where else do Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol seem to collaborate on a lewd, somehow hobo-ish children’s book? How is it possible that a such a sizeable chunk of an artist’s archive should be so redolent of sensibility, yet so purged of confessional ego? Zuba writes in her introduction:

If you see language as something that is by and large not your own but rather an entity that mutates through you, then you also see the personal expression of, or dominion over, language as an illusion [….] Johnson’s letters reveal this conviction. And this approach to individual expression, indeed to identity, is critical to understanding his work—illusion, the elusive, the ephemeral and the void are the essential form and content of Johnson’s writings and mail art.

Framed by Zuba’s and Killian’s essays, Not Nothing comprises 208 plates, presented mostly in full bleed, often in color. A biographical timeline is provided, abridged from more extensive material available from the Ray Johnson Estate, along with a “Cast of Correspondents” identifying interlocutors whose names appear in the letters, postcards, notes, collages, drawings, written-over photographs, and flyers for the performance events that Johnson titled Nothings. The collection reads, in a weird way, like an epistolary novel—which is not to say that a plot coheres. “Any scrap is a scrap of information,” Johnson wrote in 1978. In 1972, he urged an addressee (in fact, it was Arturo Schwarz, the Duchamp scholar): “Please understand the nature of my work, it’s split-ness between what is a true attempt at statement and the echo of failure.” He allowed at one point, “It feels good to be called a poet-painter.” Such affirmations are as direct as this intricate manipulator of words and syntax gets. “One wearies for an actual line, something that isn’t a parody or pastiche of something else, for more than an ounce at a time of honest feeling,” admits Killian. I know what he means. Taken in isolation, bits of Johnsoniana risk a kind of gnomic inanity. They accumulate weight as snowflakes do, however—and this is another reason why it’s good that Not Nothing is long, and accompanied by The Paper Snake. (A few entries in the former are inserted in the latter as loose broadsides, as is a short essay by Frances F.L. Beatty, director of the Ray Johnson Estate.)

Ray-Johnson-The Paper-Snake

“Johnson reveled in abstracted places and dates, trapdoors of intention and permutations of symbols,” observes Zuba. “His biography is particularly hard to pin down and is considered a work-in-progress.” As viewers of the documentary How to Draw A Bunny (directed by John Walter and Andrew Moore in 2002) already know, Johnson is a riddle. Increasingly, however, it seems apparent that if one seeks to diagram the space between, for instance, Black Mountain College and the Factory—or, say, between the New York School and the art of social practice—that is, if one wants to consider how we got from 1954 to 2014 in thinking about word, image, audience, popular culture, the recycling of history, and the artist’s role as creator of coterie—then one could draw a Johnson bunny as a hub.

*   *   *

Ray Johnson was born on October 16, 1927, in Detroit, a Libra. He attended Black Mountain College from 1945 to 1948, studying with Josef Albers and meeting John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, and the sculptor Richard Lippold, who became, like Higgins, a lifelong friend—and who tells an interviewer in How to Draw A Bunny, “Now that I think of him after his death, I don’t think I really knew who he was. It’s very hard for me to say that. But who was this man? He kept so much of himself to himself.”

Johnson’s names for his mail-art practice include Flop Art, Snail Art, the New York Correspondance School (but then he scolded, “I do not like correspondence spelled correspondance”), Buddha University, the BLUE EYES CLUB, and the BRUE EYES CRUB. Collage-objects and events supported through his person-to-person network are known as moticos (an anagram of “osmotic”), and Nothings (i.e. non-Happenings). The merest sampling of his obsessions as illustrated in Not Nothing includes Rimbaud, James Dean, Jean Seberg, Shelley Duvall; Lucky Strike cigarettes; generic-brand peanut butter; circles (often pasted on), and squares (frequently cut out); silhouettes; Marcel Duchamp; the coincidence of Marilyn Monroe’s birth and death dates (1926-1962), and of her initials with those of Marianne Moore; Miss Moore’s tricorne hat (which the artist sought to draw, though the poet declined); doodles, among them the cockeyed rabbit, a three-eared and asymmetrically-tongued gargoyle, a goggle-eyed human, a penis-trunked elephant, a snake; and the artist’s own gap-toothed, illuminated face. (He seems to have understood that this oft-used self-portrait photograph looks uncannily like the headshot, which he also uses, of Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale.) His fascination with a Cagean Zen was, on the evidence of these writings, ornery, American, and unnervingly sincere.

*   *   *

Writing about Johnson necessitates the making of unwieldy lists, for the talismanic repetition of names—and the way in which repeating a name empties it out, leaving a semiotic silhouette—this piling-up while emptying-out was Johnson’s stock-in-trade. The parenthetical interruption seems relentlessly Johnsonian.

 *   *   *

Every writer about him repeats a sketch of his biography. One feels compelled to do it again anyway, as if retelling a favorite film or a dream, because the facts of his life and the facts of his art seem inseparable—even if “fact” becomes an inappropriate term. What Henri Pierre Roché said of Duchamp is true of Johnson: His best work was the use of his time.

*   *   *

Zuba comments on the motion in moticos; Killian on the dance in Correspondance. Both consider how Johnson’s insistence on one-to-one exchanges distributes the artist’s powers across a wide, but not anonymous, landscape of people, things, and situations. “You could say,” Killian muses, “that this correspondence is a practice of writing past. Writing beyond.…Writing ‘past’ accords the passer-on, the accomplice as it were, the same vatic powers as the tutelary genius, the original Romantic figure.” Johnson asks the recipient to construct the work with him, to be conscious of reception as construction. Spread out along his carefully curated though ever-expanding mailing list, the job of making art—of making meaning—is thus streamlined while being endlessly elaborated. (Zuba adds: “Imagine if you can that for almost every one of the pages in this selection, Johnson sent out some five to fifty versions of each, nearly every day.”) Or as he explains in a poem?—list?—statement or series of statements?—in The Paper Snake:

back for envelope

            1. I am interested

in the art

of greatest simplicity.

Ray Johnson

2. I never save anything.

Ray Johnson

3. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ray Johnson

4. I am interested in the art of greatest simplicity.

Ray Johnson

 *   *   *

Johnson collected official stationery. Letterhead appropriated in the letters in Not Nothing—correspondents must have filched it for him—includes that of the Julliard School of Music (Office of the Registrar); the Department of Housing and Buildings of the City of New York; the Young Men’s Christian Association (West Side Branch); the Lake Shore Club of Chicago; DDP Systems, Inc.; PMI Programming Methods, Inc.; The Brattle Inn (“One Minute from Harvard University and Radcliffe College”); and the Holiday Inn of Johnson City, Tennessee—as well as the backs of menus from the China Pear (not Pearl) Restaurant. He had stamps made up with which he franked his works, among them PLEASE ADD TO AND RETURN TO RAY JOHNSON, COLLAGE BY RAY JOHNSON, and COLLAGE BY JOSEPH CORNELL.

Addressees and luminaries name-checked in Not Nothing range from Chuck Close to Paloma Picasso; alliteration pleased him, and he sometimes signed himself BABAR. Lynda Benglis, Yukio Mishima, Holly Solomon, Twiggy, Franz Kafka, Suzi Gablik, “the old Aga Khan,” George Washington, “Dear Mr. Derrida,” and a zillion others pop up too. Johnson’s art-world access was formidable. He was friendly with Clive Phillpot, director of the library at MoMA. Marcia Tucker, in her capacity as curator at the Whitney Museum, received mail on his behalf. He casually mentions attendance at parties, openings, and Max’s Kansas City. His art was shown during his lifetime in galleries in New York, Cologne, Hungary, London, and Milan, as well as at the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, the Venice Biennale, and in Artforum. He was awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Artists Public Service Program (CAPS, in New York State). But he was notorious for refusing exhibition opportunities and thwarting sales, and when he was mugged on the very day—June 3, 1968—that Valerie Solanas shot Warhol, he moved out to Long Island to a house painted first pink and later gray, though still called The Pink House (“Like you name a baby Ray and when it is pink later it turns gray and is still called Ray”). Who his family of origin was, or his lovers, remained secret. He all but stopped circulation of his work. On January 13, 1995, he was seen leaping from a bridge in Sag Harbor and backstroking out to sea.

In 1965, Grace Glueck described Ray Johnson in the New York Times as “the most famous unknown artist.” He is alleged to have enjoyed the phrase, and as late as 1987 was writing letters decorated with his googly-eyed glyph, this time sporting curly eyelashes, labeled “Grace Glook.” (Gee, look.) Glueck’s tag has acquired the patina of an epithet, like “the godfather of soul” (James Brown)—or “the Pope of Surrealism” (André Breton), or “the technician of shock” (Duchamp again). Indeed, nearly twenty years after his death, the Mobius loop or ouroboros-doing-the-Twist through which fame and unknowing intertwine remains a helpful rebus in contemplating Johnson, who once announced I DO NOT EXIST. I NEVER DID ANYTHING. Granted, in the same letter (dated November 1, 1973 and addressed to one Virgil Ghinea at “3, Villa Patrice Boudard, Paris 16, France”), the artist cautions, SPECTATORS DO NOT EXIST and advocates—announces, enacts—DETACHMENT AS COMPOSITION. Portions of the page are scored with dotted lines.

Ray Johnson had a politics:

April 9, 1974

Art-Rite Magazine

149 Wooster Street

New York City 10012

Dear Art-Rite:

In response to your request from me for a political statement, I enclose two mailing items that I request you mail to John Evans on two different days so that when he receives the second one he can say OH! NOT AGAIN!

My “roughly the same length” political statement is:


Recall: In April, 1974, the American military has been in Vietnam since 1950; withdrawal from Saigon is still a year away, and the White House is about to release transcripts of the Nixon tapes. (We are not told who John Evans is.)

Ray is for Peace:


*   *   *

Last year, I taught Ray Johnson’s work to my art-school undergrads in a writing class. They were outraged that they had not heard of him before. We read Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” too, and the casual name-dropping in that celebrated I-do-this, I-do-that memorandum annoyed them—they didn’t know who Verlaine was, or Hesiod or Lattimore or Behan or Genet, and they practically went to sleep with quandariness in feeling unaddressed. But they adored everything about Johnson, and did not care when they didn’t get his references. They loved how willfully he obstructed his own career. They loved that he dropped hot dogs from a helicopter (as part of the 7th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival, 1969). Understanding, as Killian explains, that simply by paying attention they had been recruited into his open-ended pass-it-on experiment, they found his self-annihilation thrilling. Normally, I try to counter young artists’ fantasies about immolation on the pyres of genius. In this case, though, what could I say to talk them out of it? He died coolly, slyly, not only for but in and as his art. In this way, he belongs in a class with Bas Jan Ader, another stubborn true believer lost at sea.

 *   *   *

Johnson stipulates, in what looks like black Sharpie on tissue-paper taped to a support:


CHRO            LOGY.

But Zuba does arrange the material in Not Nothing by date. This allows us to track a progression, nonlinear though it is. We begin with hectic stream-of-consciousness, as in “Old Moticos” at plate 2—the effusions of a smart and word-drunk man in his late twenties:

Moon over the Palisades          Collage             which can be held as a meat chopper but not used as one                      The tortoise hasn’t moved       A             star is born

Virginia Woolf looks at the young bull fighter  boat in a           Man killing a lion MAN KILLING A LION                       Ethel Me          Cookie-cutter sparrow

Endings come, four decades later, spare and razor-sharp; the final dated entry in the book was completed six weeks prior to Johnson’s suicide at age 67. (The numerology surrounding his chosen death-date—in which his age, the day of the month, the number of the hotel room where he stayed the night before, etc. each adds up to thirteen—is of a piece with the fixation on rhymes, anagrams, coincidences of all sorts that characterizes his thought from the beginning. Like the sallies of a fool in Shakespeare, his modes turn tragic without losing their poise.) Plate 205, typed on what must be the title page torn from some nice, poetic book:


Plate 206 jotted crooked, like a hasty note-to-self:


Plate 207, a portrait of the artist as no-self:


Plate 208, an ars poetica? An exhibition wall-label? An epitaph? A book title?:

Ray-Johnson-Hand-Lettered Nothing

LETTERED, here, is of course a pun, meaning not only “written” (and “literate”) but “addressed by mail”; words crafted into shapes and sent to specific recipients are, for Johnson, equivalent but also preferable to paintings. Both are made by hand, through the effort of an artist who signs his name to the artifact but knows that genre, facture, legibility, and identity are cancelable, NOTHING. The sister arts have rarely merged so strangely and acutely.

Not Nothing: Selected Writings By Ray Johnson, 1954-1995 (2014) is published by Siglio Press.

Frances Richard writes frequently about contemporary art. She teaches at Barnard College and the Rhode Island School of Design.

11 replies on “Man of Letters: Ray Johnson Art in Motion”

  1. Wonderful article! Ray had a great presence; gracious and edgy- he made you aware that there was an art community beyond the art world. Most importantly, Ray made younger artists immediately feel that you were part of that greater community, and that you could make art, and share art, (for the price of a postage stamp!) without being solely dependent on the fixed grid structure of gallery system, museums, etc.

  2. How sad I am that I missed out on knowing this man. Thankfully his puzzle is continuously worked on by others!

  3. It is gratifying to read an essay about essays about letters and writing by Ray Johnson that doesn’t stop until the last drop (mostly) of Ray’s special brew. Ray would certainly have noticed that the author’s name, Frances Richard, echoes other important names here: Frances Beatty and Richard Feigen, both of Richard Feigen Gallery, which of course directs the Ray Johnson Estate.

    Ray Johnson was a terrific splicer of words and meanings and utterances and non-utterances. His work was puzzling, hysterical, deliberately obtuse and sometimes deceptively simple and was, as the author suggests – a work in time. Echoing (again that word) John Cage, who was a teacher and friend of Ray’s. [Ray called me the day John Cage died and said: “John Cage died…” and then basically hung up the phone]. Ray tossed pebbles in still waters and launched a thousand rings radiating out (to shores? to sures?)

    Ray’s influence in words and pictures and ideas and deeds is enormous. In 2009 we launched an exhibition / work at the Emily Harvey Foundation in NYC : A BOOK ABOUT DEATH. It was a global mail art show, an unbound book on the subject of death. It was giant, wild, unwieldy and filled with words and images, and lots of Ray. 487 artists participated in that show – which was free for the taking – and the “book” is now part of the permanent collections of MoMA and LACMA. The project has since expanded to some 28 venues all around the world, and about 5000 artists have participated. The most recent exhibition took place in Australia and the next one opening in Wales, UK in October. All of these shows (and now these artists) have Ray’s finger prints on them – a kind of invisible ink writing.

    Take a look at the project if you like: http://abookaboutdeath.blogspot.com/ and the archive: http://abookaboutdeatharchive.blogspot.com/

    Thanks, Matthew Rose / Paris, France

    1. Matthew, Check where your first link leads. It has nothing to do with Ray Johnson or mail art. Is this what you intended?

      1. Good water? Where can you find it? Paris? Thanks for the comment Re: Johnson – How to Draw a Nalogy. Went to your site. Remarkable work. You live in Paris? Damn. We were there for 3 weeks in June. Family in the 11th. Next time p’r’aps hook up.

Comments are closed.