In memory of William S. Wilson
This text is abridged version of my master’s thesis which I presented at the ReViewing Black Mountain College Conference in September, 2017
Ray Johnson is most recognized as the founder of the New York Correspondence School, an international network of mail artists. Despite Johnson’s prolific output of mailings, relatively less attention has been given to his “moticos,” the small uniquely shaped collages he began making in the early 1950s. This paper examines the transformations between Johnson’s varied deployments of moticos in temporary urban installations, as elements in performances, and as works distributed through the postal system. I also discuss how Johnson’s incorporation of imagery from popular culture anticipated characteristics of later pop art. The small intimate scale of Johnson’s collages and the widely accessible locations where he displayed them, however, differentiate these works from other manifestations of pop art, which were typically large paintings seen only by elite audiences.
Johnson’s studies at Black Mountain College from 1945 to 1948 provided a foundation for his design sensibility, keen attention to materials and form, and the experimental nature of his performance-based deployments of moticos. Though outside the scope of this paper, Johnson formed lasting friendships with many faculty and students at Black Mountain including John Cage, Anni Albers, Richard Lippold, Alvin Lustig, Ruth Asawa and others. While Johnson encountered numerous distinguished teachers and experimental pedagogies at Black Mountain, Josef Albers’s explorations of optical and physical perception relate most directly to Johnson’s later conception of moticos.
A defining exercise in Albers’s Design Course, the matière study, involved taking found materials out of their original contexts and combining them in tableaux that obscured the original materials’ specific identities. In one of his matière studies for Albers’s course, Johnson placed tent caterpillar nests on textured paper highlighting the delicate and unique architecture of each miniature silk dwelling. Johnson later translated Albers’s optical and material theories into to the medium of collage. His moticos display astute visual relationships between shapes, images, and text, and transformed in relation to the different sites and constellations in which Johnson exhibited them. The importance of the experimental pedagogies at Black Mountain to Johnson’s practice is perhaps best summarized by Albers’s assertion that “art is not an object but an experience.” In a 1956 letter to Jiro Yoshihara, one of the founders of the Japanese Gutai Group, Johnson explained, “[moticos] cannot be exhibited in the usual way, because they continually change, like the news in the paper or the images on a movie screen.”
In one of his earliest installations of moticos from 1955, Johnson positioned a large cohort of the collages in tight rows, standing erect like small sculptures emerging from the floorboards of an unidentified studio or warehouse. Approaching the figures from above, inquisitive viewers likely would have investigated the arrangement from multiple vantage points, crouching down and walking to the left and right along the procession of moticos. Elisabeth Novick’s photographs of the ensemble simulate the shifting interplay of concealed and revealed shapes, images, and negative spaces—like a cubo-futurist composition embodied in three dimensions. Movie stars, product logos, abstract shapes, pin ups, and historic figures overlap and mingle in the diverse yet egalitarian array. From most angles, it is difficult to determine where one collage ends and another begins. Though physically separate and unique entities, the dense cluster of shapes and human figures coalesce into a collective body. Emphasized by the evenly distributed arrangement, there is a sense of equality among the moticos, as no singular collage, element, or image dominates attention.
Johnson extended this egalitarian sensibility to the particular locations he chose to exhibit his moticos. During the 1950s he avoided showing his collages in commercial galleries and in 1958 he even turned down the renowned art dealer Leo Castelli’s offer to exhibit his work. Though Johnson occasionally exhibited in commercial galleries later in his life, he preferred to show his moticos to a wider audience on the streets, sidewalks, and in transit stations of New York City.
In one such public exhibition, Johnson placed his moticos on a dilapidated freight pallet on a sidewalk in lower Manhattan. The broken and stained shipping pallet, retired from its original, weight-bearing function, seems like an adverse place for Johnson to display his delicate paper collages. But, like an Albersian matière study, the wooden beams’ undisguised state of decay contrasts and enhances the novelty of the moticos’ unique geometric forms and the imagery gleaned from glossy magazines. The unplanned, scattered arrangement and intimate scale of Johnson’s moticos might have made the works seem more approachable to an ordinary passerby than an exhibition in an austere gallery. As curator and art historian Donna De Salvo observed, “If Rauschenberg introduced life into art, Johnson introduced art into life. … [His] radical contribution was to expand the compositional network beyond the confines of a single collage and to take it to the world.” By exhibiting his moticos on the streets, Johnson positioned his works in a compatible relationship with the contingent features of the city, its refuse, decay, and unpredictability. The moticos, constructed from salvaged fragments of culture, here have returned to one of their places of origin, the panorama of signs and images on metropolitan streets.
During these brief public exhibitions, Johnson discussed his collages with passersby and perhaps invited them to examine certain moticos individually or to modify the collective arrangement. An article in the inaugural issue of the Village Voice from October 1955 offers a glimpse into such interactions. “Anybody know what a moticos is?,” reporter John Wilcock asked. The answer: “Ray Johnson, 27, invented it and he doesn’t know either.” Wilcock then described how, “one lunchtime after finishing work at the Orientalia Bookstore, Johnson walked up to 34th Street [Penn Station] to ask a few people.” Johnson explained, “‘I intended to ask a hundred people but I got kinda discouraged after the first sixteen,’ … ‘Most of them replied, “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry…. Gee, I wish to hell I knew.”’  Johnson’s mock-frustration at his interlocutors’ perplexed reactions magnifies the curiosity and intrigue that he cultivated surrounding his work. In this light, Wilcock introduced readers to the artist’s burgeoning mail art practice and mentioned Johnson’s humorous and occasional use of a fake address.
Regarding his moticos and mailing lists, Johnson paradoxically quipped, “I send lists either to people I think would be interested or to people I think won’t be interested.” The publication of an article about Johnson’s work attests to the positive attention he was receiving at the time and highlights the ways in which Johnson harnessed public means of communication—the postal system, newspapers, other printed media like flyers and posters—to reach a wider audience. It is impossible to know how many people of the era received Johnson’s mailings or paused to look at his moticos installations, however, Johnson’s use of such common means of communication and accessible public locations significantly increased the possibility that people of many social backgrounds would encounter his work.
In the book Pop Art Redefined, which art critic Suzi Gablik co-authored with John Russel in 1969, Gablik emphasizes the importance of the public locations such as Grand Central Station and Penn Station that Johnson chose for his performances and exhibitions. Sites of mass transit such as these were ideal contexts for Johnson’s moticos because they generated more of the chance encounters and odd connections on which his work depended. Though not mentioned in her book, Gablik herself participated in at least one such performance with Johnson in the autumn of 1955.
Photographs of their Manhattan excursion depict Gablik, the moticos, and Johnson all as active agents generating and reacting to each other’s movements: from subtle adjustments of moticos on her body, to larger movements between positions and throughout the city. The moticos did not have a specific predetermined function or intended use. Instead, they performed multiple improvised roles and functioned as mobile instruments of activation: from partial masks and elements of costume, to objects cherished and scattered haphazardly.
Throughout the performance, Johnson and Gablik placed moticos on her face and torso and positioned their fingers through some of the openings in the collages. These holes, like pores or apertures, incorporated parts of their bodies and aspects of the surrounding environment as components in the moticos’ changing compositions. More than props or accessories, Johnson used the moticos to playfully transform ordinary people, images, and sites into art, a shift in perspective that could thereafter be repeated without the moticos themselves or Johnson present as initiators. Johnson’s improvised performances preceded by a few years the more well-known instances of early performance art in New York such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings of 1959, the early 1960s Fluxus event scores by artists like Alison Knowles and George Brecht, and Claes Oldenburg’s performances in the environment he constructed called “The Street” at Judson Theater.
One of Johnson’s first ventures in experimental theater had been at Black Mountain College when he designed a prop telephone for John Cage’s production of Eric Satie’s comedic play The Ruse of Medusa during the summer of 1948. Johnson continued his involvement in avant-garde performance throughout the 1950s and designed several posters for plays and events at the Living Theater in New York.  He also created backdrop panels for a dance entitled Duettino by his friend, the avant-garde choreographer James Waring.
The only available documentation of Duettino is a single photograph of the dancers posed in front of two tall panels covered in hundreds of Johnson’s moticos. In addition to providing a new context for his collages, the moticos screens physically illustrate the prolific scope of Johnson’s production. James Waring employed a collage-like aesthetic in his choreography, which combined the elegance of ballet with disconnected structures, humor, and parody, an amalgam of sources compatible with Johnson’s collage sensibility.  The dense expanse of interlocking edges and fragmentary images on Johnson’s screens would have enhanced the dancers’ movements, whether as a visual counterpoint to slow undulations or as a suitable context for sporadic angular gestures. Here the moticos occupy the negative space behind and surrounding the dancers, the inverse of the relationship between bodies and moticos presented in Johnson’s performance with Gablik during which the collages were on and in front of their bodies. The two performances illustrate the changing nature of the moticos’ functions and compositions as the collages shifted from outdoors to indoors, from foreground to background, and from scattered expanse to dense cluster to individual forms. Unlike most collages intended for static display on a wall, Johnson’s deployments of moticos in such varied contexts highlight the mobility, adaptability, and transience of the collages, like dancers moving through space and time.
In addition to these performances, Johnson also converted the moticos into a collection of glyph-like shapes on one of the numerous promotional flyers he designed and mailed to his correspondents and potential clients. Similar to the vertical composition of the panels, Johnson covered the rectangular area of this flyer with an even distribution of moticos, which he transformed from unique three-dimensional, colorful objects into tiny two-dimensional black silhouettes. In contrast to the legible characters of flag semaphore that spell out “Ray Johnson Drawings” in another of his flyers, the graphic inventory of moticos evokes hieroglyphs or pictograms but without directly translatable meanings. The silhouettes are like blind spots, untranslatable, empty signs that do not refer to anything other than themselves.
Johnson then began to incorporate the silhouettes of old moticos into his new collages, most notably in his proto-pop icons of Elvis Presley and James Dean. In these works like Oedipus (Elvis #1) Johnson applied an uneven wash of red paint to a magazine photograph, thereby eliminating the seductive glossiness of the page. He gave each work a unique topography of marks, drips, and striations, like personalized formations of wrinkles and fingerprints. To these bases Johnson added groupings of moticos silhouettes that partially obstruct Dean’s face and emerge from Elvis’s mouth. In contrast to the instantly recognizable celebrities of the era, the abstract screens of moticos are mysteriously open-ended. They look almost like identifiable signs or symbols but instead register as unknowns. The moticos here signify the limitations and fallibility of language and interpersonal communication.
Johnson’s preoccupation with death, a theme also evident in these 1950s icons, likewise relates to the limits of written and spoken expression. Regarding Oedipus (Elvis #1) Johnson stated, “I’m the only painter in New York whose drips mean anything” likely referring to the legacy of Jackson Pollock whose death in 1956 must have been on his mind when Johnson made this elegiac work that same year. Like Pollock, James Dean also died prematurely in a car accident and the photographs Johnson used of the star were from the production of Dean’s last film, Giant, released posthumously in 1956. Johnson’s sanguine applications of paint and layers of untranslatable moticos, humanize both Dean and Elvis. Rather than elevating, glamorizing, or satirizing these celebrities, Johnson’s icons serve as reminders of their lives, mortality, and complicated existence as individuals.
Though his use of celebrity images, advertisements, and other vernacular imagery situates Johnson’s moticos as a key precedent to the pop art that would emerge in the 1960s, it is important to recognize the differences between Johnson’s practice and what later became known as Pop Art. These differences become evident through comparative examination of work by Johnson and his friend James Rosenquist, who both constructed bizarre juxtapositions that foreground unexpected, often humorous likenesses between common images.
The ostensibly mismatched components in Rosenquist’s I Love You With My Ford—the chrome bumper, tender embrace, and glistening tract of spaghetti—all relate to distinct, primal sensory experiences, of power, speed, affection, touch, and sustenance. The paradox of the spaghetti’s bodily sliminess is its incongruous hilarity and morbid evocation of disemboweled intestines. In James Dean, Lucky Strike, Johnson’s vigorous markings are a passionately sadistic yet affectionate defilement of Dean’s faraway gaze. The result is a similar primal correspondence between sexuality, touch, and death. Like the spaghetti, the Lucky Strike logo and slogan “it’s toasted” are rendered unexpectedly ominous and ironically lighthearted in this context resembling Mickey Mouse ears. Though both artists skillfully united profound and comedic extremes, Rosenquist’s wall-sized canvases are so massive they seem almost to envelop viewers, whereas Johnson’s envelope-sized moticos directly inhabited the space of viewers who received them in the mail or saw them in one of his unostentatious public performances.
In his eulogy for Johnson, Rosenquist remarked, “Ray’s work has a different kind of feeling than, say, Roy Lichtenstein’s or Andy Warhol’s or mine, it was a much more personal, private experience, a discovery kind of thing, not smack dab in your face.” Johnson’s work is significant precisely for the reasons it has been overlooked. Rather than exhibit in commercial galleries like his contemporaries, Johnson made his collages available to a wider audience in public locations like the streets, transit stations, and in the mail. One of the defining gestures associated with American Pop Art is the elevation of material from popular and folk culture to the stature of “high” art, a move often credited with disrupting the hierarchies between “high” and “low” cultures, and between commercial design and fine art. Johnson’s tactics, however, disrupted cultural hierarchies more successfully than most pop artists credited with this gesture. He reversed the modes of production that typically define pop art in favor of more egalitarian principles.
The distinct, portable scale of Johnson’s moticos allowed for an expanded field of dispersal, but also necessitated more personal experiences as viewers could directly handle these collages during their daily commutes and in their own homes. Rather than convert vernacular materials into elite status symbols like most other pop artists, Johnson transformed ordinary locations into sites for aesthetic consideration and revealed the capacity of commonplace images to have significant personal effects. These processes utilized the whole field of human experience and emphasized the constantly evolving relationships between signs, pictures, and people, all of which Johnson incorporated as material in and around his collages. Johnson’s tactics of transformation and dispersal disrupted conventional hierarchies of art and culture more successfully than most pop artists credited with this gesture, but the radically intimate and widely accessible aspects of Johnson’s practice are paradoxically the reasons he has been historically overlooked and why his work merits sustained attention.
 Eva Diaz, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015) 6.
 This letter and some of Johnson’s other designs were published in the magazine Gutai no. 6 in 1956. Images are available on the website for the exhibition, “Ray Johnson Designs,” 2014, curated by David Senior at The Museum of Modern Art Library. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2014/rayjohnson/
 Wilson remembered: “In the art world, fame and money distorted all those relations. I was with him in 1958 when Leo Castelli said, ‘When are you going to let me show your collages?’ and Ray turned on his heel. One by one, as the artists he knew became rich and famous, Ray satirized them or tweaked them.” Quoted in Amei Wallach et al., “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One,” New York Times, February 28, 1999, accessed April 14, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/28/arts/art-architecture-dear-friends-of-ray-and-audiences-of-one.html.
 Donna de Salvo, “Correspondences.” In Correspondences, eds. Donna de Salvo and Catherine Gudis (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 1999) 19.
 John Wilcock, “The Village Square,” Village Voice, October 26, 1955.
 See Forde, “Plus or Minus 1961,” for a thorough chronology of Johnson’s involvement in performance and his other collaborations with James Waring. In ± 1961:Founding The Expanded Arts. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2013.
 Gerard Forde, “Poet’s Vaudeville: The Collages of James Waring,” (Paris: Galerie 1900-2000, 2013).
 Suzi Gablik and John Russel, Pop Art Redefined (New York: Praeger, 1969) 17.
 Amei Wallach et al., “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One.”
 My discussion of Johnson’s reversals of the traditional practices and canonical movements of art is deeply indebted to the published and unpublished scholarship of William S. Wilson in addition to our conversations and correspondence. The breadth of his thinking with reversals extended from playfully minute alphabetic reversals, such as between the letters b, d, and p, to profound conceptual and experiential reversals. I hope that my adaptation of the idea is a sufficiently new development and that it that is a compatible tribute to his thinking. “Thus he attempted to discover reversals within his experiences in life and to invent reversals within his visual and verbal arts, feeling free and autonomous because no one could give him rules or instructions for when or where to reverse anything. His characteristic move in art was to discover or to invent a reversal within the irreversible flow of events. Reversal was one of his ideas of order in chaos.” Wilson, Challenging Rectangles, 2.