A new exhibition, PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs, explores the unknown camera work of Ray Johnson (1927–95), the Pop art pioneer and inventor of correspondence art who left downtown Manhattan for Long Island in the last decades of his life. Johnson’s photographs — color drugstore prints made over a three-year period with 137 disposable point-and-shoot cameras — extend the allusive, playful, often sardonic manner of his collage work into the realm of “real life.”
At his death in January 1995, the vast archive of art Johnson left behind in his house included over 5,000 color photographs, still in the envelopes from the developer’s shop. Though discovered along with his other work, they remained virtually unexamined until now. When seen alongside Johnson’s work from the early 1950s onward, these enigmatic and often comical images may look like the last act in a 40-year romance with photography.
The photographs exhibit a collagist’s instinct for juxtaposition and layering: Johnson’s camera is usually centered on a flat object that interrupts the view. In a complement to his photographic activity, he began creating tall, freestanding rectangular collages on cardboard; he called them “Movie Stars.” They are the ensemble play-actors in photographs made in otherwise ordinary locations within a short drive of his house: beaches, parks, cemeteries, greenhouses, main streets, fields, and parking lots. Ever elusive, Johnson always photographed alone and did not reveal just why he turned to a new medium in the final chapter of his life. The answer, if any, is in the pictures.
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