Ray Johnson in his Suffolk Street apartment, 1965 (photo by William S. Wilson. Courtesy Ray Johnson Estate. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.)

Ray Johnson disappeared near Sag Harbor just over twenty years ago. But if we refer to the artist by the art, he’s still among us. In the last ten years, Johnson’s work has been presented in twenty-six solo shows and featured in 125 group exhibitions. In 2014, Siglio Press published Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson 1954-1994  and Ray’s lost 1965 classic The Paper Snake. Earlier this year, Karma produced the enormous compendium Ray Johnson.

As a result, the very name “Ray”  —  as he was affectionately known by his artist-contemporaries —  resonates like a call to art-as-action. Fittingly at the June opening of the ongoing show Please Return to: Mail Art from the Ray Johnson Archive, at Richard L. Feigen & Co., attendees were invited to create mail art using Ray’s original templates. This clever tie-in accentuated the interpersonal, extemporaneous essence of Ray’s unusual breed of mail art.

Guests set aside wine glasses to write, doodle, scribble and color upon Ray’s templates, stuffing envelopes to be mailed either to Performa, which is collecting responses, or to an  addressee of their own choosing. The general public is invited as well, and participants can submit mail art digitally using the #PleaseAddTo hashtag or via email. To date, the project has received submissions from artists like H.R. Fricker; John Held, Jr.;  Chuck Welch, aka Crackerjack Kid;  and Anna Banana;  as well as a range of interesting responses from students at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona. A public exhibition of these continuations of Ray’s mail art project is slated to run from October 27th through November 28 this fall at Printed Matter.

At the Feigen opening, a pinstriped Wall Street-looking type, disconcerted by the anarchic hive of art makers, wondered aloud to me who this Ray Johnson guy was.

Anonymous Ray Johnson silhouette drawing, possibly by Ray Johnson (c. 1980s) (© The Ray Johnson Estate. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.)

One plausible answer might be that he was the most mercurial of artists based in downtown Manhattan, particularly in its pre-Warhol era, when originality and irony weren’t considered to be antithetical values. But Ray eludes any pat formula. His work cannot be historicized or paraphrased; it speaks through innuendos, multiplicities, doublings, and gaps; and it amiably enlists others into its labyrinthine happenings, events he sometimes called “nothings.”

Like many of his New York peers, Ray sharpened his vision through a partial rejection of whatever he’d mastered. Trained partly by Bauhaus master Josef Albers, he started out as a first-rate abstract painter who heretically began infusing his paintings and collages with illustration. He lived among the Fluxus group, but unlike the innovative work from that movement, Ray’s art only appeared to be performance-based; his output was enduring rather than ephemeral. And despite his uninhibited coopting of material from celebrity fanzines, comic books and porno magazines, Ray gravitated toward a philosophical tenor and vital introspection, habits not in keeping with the many Pop artists who nevertheless were influenced by his fearless style.

In its pursuit of the enigmatic Ray, John Walter and Andrew Moore’s documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002) focuses too often on the specious paradox that everyone in the downtown New York art scene knew Ray, yet no one ever truly knew him. Mostly, that film’s distinguished array of commentators looked everywhere except the one place where it’s possible to find the man: the artwork itself.

By concentrating on mail art, with its invitation to alter the work by whomever receives it, he refused to create a body of work that exhibited a narrative arc of his own “development.” That productive repudiation carries forward the only motive of the avant-garde that really matters anymore: undoing Western culture’s ever-widening separation of one’s life (living) from one’s art (making).

As practiced by Ray, mail art involved self-dissemination, the cordial recruitment of others and an extensive gift economy. His mail art interrogates and disrupts the notion of authorship and the inevitable commodification and institutionalization of art. The work is simultaneously cerebral and visceral, markedly private while fostering community.  It draws on materials from the prevailing cultural landscape while remaining earnest and homespun.

Ray Johnson, “Untitled (Dear Marilyn Monroe, To: Chuck Close)” (1980), collage on illustration board 9 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches (© The Ray Johnson Estate. Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co) (click to enlarge)

To achieve all this, he didn’t simply seize the means of artistic production. He merged his identity wholly into mail art. Typically, even for an artist,  personal identity coalesces around discernible relationships to family, friends, romantic partners and peers. Instead, Ray presented his “real” self through his mail art’s ever-evolving, metamorphic raw materials, methods, intersections, collaborations and chance operations. Over a lifetime, the mail art objects stood in for everything that his associates and the public wanted to know about who he “really” was.

The walls in Feigen Gallery feature important statements by Ray on his lifework and that radical self-scattering:

I have simply had to accept that out of a life necessity I have written a lot of letters, and given away a lot of material and information, and it has been my compulsion. And as I have done this, it has become historical. It’s my resume, it’s my biography, it’s my history, it’s my life.

No wonder, then, that the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud figures so prominently in Ray’s mail art. Rimbaud, like Ray, was a restless prodigy and an early defector who wrote of himself (in a letter to his teacher Georges Izambard), “Je est un autre/I is an other.”

In 1957, Ray designed the cover for New Directions’ first edition of Louise Varèse’s English translation of Rimbaud’s prose poems, Illuminations. That edition remained in print for decades.

Arthur Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” (New Directions, 1957), cover art designed by Ray Johnson (courtesy The Ray Johnson Estate and Richard L. Feigen & Co.)

Using Étienne Carjat’s 1871 photograph of the poet at age 17, Ray’s captivating and accessible design was as crucial as Varèse’s translations for transforming Rimbaud from an obscure French figure into a proto-punk-romantic-hero for disaffected American artists, musicians and writers. The Doors’ songwriter Jim Morrison was said to have carried a copy of that edition in his back pocket. At sixteen, Patti Smith saw that cover of Illuminations in a Philadelphia bookstall and stole the book, deciding the poet would become her muse and her “secret lover.” And Ray’s iconic jacket design surely influenced artist David Wojnarowicz when, in the late 1970s, he photographed his fellow outcasts and nomads throughout New York City wearing Rimbaud masks based on that famous image.

In Ray’s characteristically destabilizing fashion, many years after the publication of his New Directions cover art, he reimagined it. Through his “Rimbaud Project,” Ray reproduced the Carjat photo in the November 1971 edition of American Arts magazine, where he instructed readers to tear out the image, alter it and mail it back to him. In the process, he netted about 100 responses, including some fascinating mail art from figures like Robert Delford Brown, Ken Friedman, Buster Cleveland, Bern Porter, Lil Picard, and Eric W. Metcalfe aka Dr. Brute.

Mail Art in response to Ray Johnson’s “Rimbaud Project” (c. 1971) (courtesy The Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co)

Efficiently laid out in the Feigen Gallery’s vitrines and grouped according to themes rather than by chronology,  the examples of collaborative mail art manage  to impose some order on Ray’s ever-changing premises and myriad correspondents. These mail art prompts were templates that borrowed references from high culture and lowbrow sources.

Ray’s template featuring an outline of Andy Warhol’s hand resulted in a mailed response in which the hand is colored red and gold, radiating blue and black lines, and retitled with pasted-on taglines as “Andy Warhol’s Petting Zoo.” An abstract drawing of what Ray entitled “Bill de Kooning’s bicycle seat” brought back responses that turned the seat’s shape into a backdrop for experiments in coloration and multimedia textures. Ray even got Cher in on the act with his template called “Add Hair to Cher,” which garnered mail art responses that look like first-rate surrealist collages, including Ray’s own “Cher Chair.” Some of Ray’s prompts resulted in wildly altered covers of popular magazines. One correspondent altered Ray’s own profile template, transforming him into an ornately adorned Egyptian sphinx.

These sly and exuberant collaborations are counterbalanced by ten compactly layered collages which originated as mail art but are here framed as discrete works of art in their own right, gracing the gallery walls. And these are the exhibition’s most absorbing pieces.

The collages are in part testimonials to Ray’s calendar-defying method of revisiting and adding words, dates, salutations and pictures to individual works over long periods, an approach which posed frequent challenges for the Ray Johnson Estate. Explaining how the works were catalogued, archivist Diana Bowers told me, “the dates associated with the collages are transcriptions of what Ray himself wrote on the collages, unless there is a ‘circa,’ which indicates that the Estate estimated the date based on style. The plus sign after a date (+) indicates that the Estate believes there is material [added to the collage] from dates other than those noted by Ray himself.”

There are some common features to these timeless collages. Most center around particular famous artists. They subversively dislodge respective artists from their well-established rankings in art history and re-situate them in the funhouse of Ray’s consciousness. Arranged words, numbers, and small illustrations are held together by his exacting geometrics, supple configurations and irregular outlines. They form a species unto themselves and are many genres at once — evocative experiments in nonfigurative portraiture;  hermetic, coded diary entries; dense fields of visual-textual punning and double entendre; and pictographic letters, the semantic content of which unfold by nearly opaque free-association.

“Untitled (Fred Astaire Cornell’s Daffodils)” (1972-1991+) conjures the actor-dancer and the reclusive collagist. It is laid out in a top-to-bottom vertical pattern on parallel panels. The left panel demonstrates Ray’s nimble choreography of dissimilar images – a comic-book bird in mid-flight;  an elegant cutout from a botanical text under a handwritten reference to the critic Irving Sandler;  a drawing of an antique potato masher inlaid with Chinese characters;  and a sideways airmail envelope stamped with diagonal lines and featuring handwritten references to the mother of Fred Astaire and to daffodils stolen from Cornell’s grave. The smaller adjacent panel is a forbidding counterpoint, consisting of a chalky black-and-white illustration in the shape of a meat cleaver, the upper edges of which nearly eclipse Ray’s drawing of a spinning circle.

“Untitled (Hockney and Duchamp Profiles with Puck Drawing)” (1977) is another inspired homage to fellow artists. Here Ray references two quite different European-born figures whose respective legacies have had abiding impacts on American art. David Hockney’s profile is rendered as a perfectly executed perimeter that barely encloses the collage’s inner components. One internal element is Marcel Duchamp’s profile, darkly colored and decorated with star-like figures, as if to map an inner universe. The famous Dadaist’s profile is in turn set off by Ray’s distinctly American images – a Puck drawing; a cartoon can of peaches; a postmarked Moby-Dick postage stamp; and handwritten instructions to the Whitney Museum’s resident art historian and curator Barbara Haskell, directing her to forward the collage to designated addressees for their creative alterations to it.

The collage “Untitled” (Please Add to…Bill de Kooning with Skull)” (9.5.92) contains a meticulous x-ray-like portrait-in-profile of the Abstract Expressionist. De Kooning’s silhouetted likeness is overlain with neat drawings that look like fabric patterns or nerve nets. Created in the twilight of de Kooning’s long life, the collage seems to express Ray’s often overlooked affinity with de Kooning, dating back to their overlapping residencies at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, where an artist’s individually-honed craftsmanship was directed toward unprecedented risk-taking.

“Max Ernst with Toothbrush” (1974-1992) is a mail-art collage that approximates self-portraiture. Its various penciled notations indicate it was last worked on in late 1992,  a little more than two years before Ray’s apparent suicide. It is tempting to read it retrospectively as a melancholy farewell, but its allusions to French deconstruction suggest it could have been part of the beginning of a new phase of mail art, possibly inspired by Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card (1980/1987), one of many titles by that philosopher found in Ray’s personal library.

Ray Johnson, “Untitled (Max Ernst with Toothbrush)” (1974-92), collage on cardboard panel 9 9/16 by 8 1/2 inches (© The Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co)

Deploying a silhouette of Ray’s head and a severe green and black palette, it is dominated by two photographs of an elderly, animated and professorial-looking Max Ernst. Between  these two images, an anonymous red and black full-body profile of a man faces the right frame, in the opposite direction of Ray’s left-facing silhouette.

Within and around the collage are neatly crossed-out cartoons and addresses.  Initially captioned “Dear Jacques Derrida,” the philosopher’s name is crossed out by Ray and replaced by “Dear Diary.”

Ray’s proliferating dates and multiple addressees imply that a message directed to another person — Max Ernst or Jacques Derrida — is intrinsically a message to himself. It’s as if a postcard or message to another person reflects our secret desire to communicate with some hidden part of oneself, but only by imagining that part as outside of our own foreclosed singularity.

It’s clear from this inviting exhibition that Ray Johnson grasped how graphic epistles and mailed images, as creative projections of the self, double as dream-like snapshots into the psyche. One of his favorite words — “moticos,” a neologism he created from ”osmotic” — conjures the interpenetration of the addresser and the addressee. Consciousness-raising as consciousness-sharing.

And so any correspondent’s given reply can be imaginatively understood as an unforeseen, encrypted message from the self. But it must be a special self, one that is visible in a particular kind of art, a self beyond all that “I” had imperfectly assumed it exclusively possessed.

Books in Ray Johnson’s personal collection, 2015 (photo by Diana Bowers, courtesy of The Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co)

Please Return to: Mail Art from the Ray Johnson Archive continues at Richard L. Feigen & Co. (34 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 25.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe Brainard's Art (University of Edinburgh...