Collages in Motion: The Transformations and Dispersal of Ray Johnson’s Moticos

Installation of Moticos by Ray Johnson, 1955
Installation of Moticos by Ray Johnson, 1955

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

            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.[3] 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.”[4]  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.”’ [5] 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.”[6] 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.[6] 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. [7]  He also created backdrop panels for a dance entitled Duettino by his friend, the avant-garde choreographer James Waring.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 8.11.12 PM

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. [8] 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.

Ray Johnson, Elvis

            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.

Ray Johnson, James Dean

            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”[9] 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.

Johnson, Lichtenstein, Warhol

            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.”[10] 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.

Ray Johnson moticos SK conclusion

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.[11]

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[1] Eva Diaz, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015) 6.

[2] 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.

[3] 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,

[4] 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.

[5] John Wilcock, “The Village Square,” Village Voice, October 26, 1955.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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.

[8] Gerard Forde, “Poet’s Vaudeville: The Collages of James Waring,” (Paris: Galerie 1900-2000, 2013).

[9] Suzi Gablik and John Russel, Pop Art Redefined (New York: Praeger, 1969) 17.

[10] Amei Wallach et al., “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One.”

[11] 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.


The Open Curriculum of the New York Correspondence School: Ray Johnson’s Pedagogical Mail Art

The New York Correspondence School is an alternative social network formed by the artist Ray Johnson who encouraged artists, friends, acquaintances, and strangers to share their art through the postal system. Johnson began sending aestheticized mail to his friends as a teenager in the 1940s, a practice he continued to develop while studying at Black Mountain College, and by the 1950s, these mailings, often called “mail art,” had become a major aspect of Johnson’s work as an artist. In 1962, Ed Plunkett, one of Johnson’s correspondents, named the international network of participants “The New York Correspondence School” (NYCS)[1], a play on “The New York School” of abstract expressionist painters. Johnson’s mailings to the NYCS turned forms of communication and education into artistic media in personal letters, mass-produced flyers, absurd packages, and everything in between. While a multiplicity of reoccurring images and references appear in Johnson’s work, from animals such as his trademark bunny head, to pop stars and pop artists, the educational themes are crucial to understanding the NYCS as a network critical of the larger commercialized art world. Johnson reeducated his correspondents with mailings such as his “brief histories” and “how to draw” instructions, which destabilized traditional definitions of art and education. By encouraging collaboration and participation, these pedagogical mailings undermined notions of individual authorship and created a new model for network-based art experiences. The curriculum of the NYCS existed in constant flux; Johnson’s lessons were open to the indeterminacies, chance encounters, and free-associations inherent to both aesthetic and interpersonal experiences.

ray johnson history of video art and history of correspondence
Figure 1(left). Ray Johnson, A Brief History of Correspondence. Figure 2 (right). Ray Johnson, History of Video Art

A clear history of the NYCS is impossible to establish since it involves the collective activities of a shifting group of people and because Johnson enhanced factual uncertainties by including unreliable statements and incorrect dates in his work. “The New York Correspondence School has no history—only a present,”[2] as Johnson often wrote. William S. Wilson, a scholar and friend of Ray Johnson, explained, “no one learns the whole story from Ray.”[3] Johnson’s nonlinear and indeterminate version of history is one of the subjects of his pedagogical mailings as seen in his History of Video Art (fig.2), and A Brief History of Correspondence (fig. 1)In the latter, named and unnamed bunny heads dictate a fragmented narrative of Johnson’s involvement with the NYCS as follows: “(I created the New York Correspondence School in 1929.) (I has had considerable influence in spreading mail art activity, mostly in South America) (I is an energetic and prolific mail artist) (I am active in N.Y. art circles) (I claim to have been doing it all his life)”and the story continues. Though written by Johnson, his attribution of these statements to many different speakers, and the fragmentation of the ambiguous chronicle, reveal the subjectivity and incompleteness inherent to history in general. In A History of Correspondence, the speech bubbles are both open and closed, like history in which events occurred in the past but are open to reinterpretation and have continuing effects in the present, as exemplified by Johnson’s combination of grammatical tenses. In A History of Video Art (fig. 2), rather than constructing a story, Johnson labeled some of the heads with names of video artists such as Joan Jonas, Nam June Paik, and Jonas Mekas, but he also included names of people who are not directly related to video art, like James Joyce and William Carlos Williams. Johnson’s histories reveal the porous and fragmented nature of history, which is filled with innumerable relationships, disjointed information, and incomplete narratives leading to multiple interpretations in constantly shifting contexts. In an interview with Henry Martin in 1982, Johnson remarked, “history is a very loose subject in which anybody can declare that anything happened at any time at all; and maybe that will be accurate information and maybe it won’t be, and maybe that won’t make any difference.”[4] Both history and the NYCS are indeterminate networks, the full scope of which cannot be comprehended or charted by a single person. Rather than aiming for an impossible goal of completeness or a linear progression, Johnson’s mailings illustrate that history has potential to be an open and creative field in which new connections can be discovered and constructed.

Figure 3. Ray Johnson, “How to Draw” mailings
Figure 3. Ray Johnson, “How to Draw” mailings

Just as he reeducated his correspondents about the composition of history with mass-produced mailings, Johnson distributed numerous “how to draw” instructions (fig. 3), which explore the relationship between language and images and reveal contradictions in the values perpetuated by the art market and commodity culture. By mimicking the methodical and generic aspects of beginner’s step-by-step art instructions, Johnson’s drawing lessons question the definition of art and paradoxically suggest that the process of making art both can and cannot be reduced to simple repeatable steps. Further complicating notions of being, definitions, and meaning, these drawings also explore relations between literal and figurative uses of language and images. “How to Draw a Daisy” is not an illustration of the flower, and “How to Draw a Knuckle Sandwich” renders the subject literally rather than the common figurative connotation of a punch to the mouth. “How to Draw a Tender Button” twists the figurative and literal in a pun on a literary subject, the title of Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection of poems, Tender Buttons. In addition to playing with the relation between language and images, these ostensibly simple drawing instructions destabilize the opposition between the unique production of an original work of art and the reproduction of multiple copies by conflating seemingly opposed methods of production: they were both drawn by hand and mass-produced with a photocopier. Johnson’s drawing lessons illustrate their own production and reproduction. They were made for repeatability and produce difference in each instance of their reproduction since Johnson and other mail artists often reused the copies in collages and other new contexts. By drawing attention to systems of production and reproduction, Johnson rendered the original sources of these drawing lessons to be less significant than the abundance of new art that the copies potentially inspired.

Figure 4 (left). Ray Johnson, Follow Instructions Below, 1971 Figure 5 (right). Ray Johnson, Follow Instructions Below (page 2), 1971
Figure 4 (left). Ray Johnson, Follow Instructions Below, 1971
Figure 5 (right). Ray Johnson, Follow Instructions Below (page 2), 1971

Active participation and collaboration between correspondents were crucial to maintaining the interconnected network of the New York Correspondence School. In addition to his “how to draw” mailings, Johnson encouraged contributions from new correspondents by printing these images alongside a photograph of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Arts Magazine in 1971 (fig. 4, fig. 5). Johnson prompted readers to modify or add to the photograph of Rimbaud with humorous open-ended suggestions and illustrations such as, “(color face if you wish) (or add a mustache) (or write a letter on the face) (or add a Chinese fortune cookie fortune) (or a fact).” Unlike traditional school assignments, these suggestions were not mandatory. Participation, however, was an integral part of the NYCS, since the network would dissolve without correspondents continuing to circulate mail.

Figure 6. Ray Johnson and unidentified mail artists, Please Add & Return to Ray Johnson
Figure 6. Ray Johnson and unidentified mail artists, Please Add & Return to Ray Johnson

Johnson prompted responses with open-ended “Please Add and Return” mailings, which like his “how to draw” instructions, he mass-produced and distributed to his correspondents. Included on this slide (see fig. 6) are a few examples of other mail artists’ modifications and of Johnson’s own reuse of one of his templates, a silhouette of his head. These “Please Add and Return” mailings could be compared to fill in the blank worksheets or homework assignments, but rather than inducing conformity or having a correct answer, these templates use sameness to stimulate diversity.

Figure 7 (left). Ray Johnson, Detach Here Figure 8 (right). Ray Johnson, Detachment as Composition
Figure 7 (left). Ray Johnson, Detach Here
Figure 8 (right). Ray Johnson, Detachment as Composition

Another way in which Johnson encouraged participation was by suggesting that his correspondents disperse his work is by detaching parts and sending them to other people (fig.7, fig. 8). These instructions prompt his correspondents to relinquish the desire to preserve Johnson’s mailings and their own work. Through cutting up one work of mail art, the participant would construct new connections by sending the pieces to other people exemplifying the notion “detachment as composition” which Johnson wrote near the center of the image on the right (fig. 8). It is unknown to what extent his correspondents actually followed the instructions to cut up his mailings, since there are more intact than dismembered surviving examples. Nonetheless, the invitation to destroy his work in order to distribute it to a wider audience paired with the request that correspondents “add and return” some of their work are lessons that direct participants to accept the ephemerality of mail and art and to be more open to chance and change. As Johnson explained in a 1968 interview, “I never used to believe in a work of art being bought. I thought it should just be made and not cherished or sold.”[5] The contingency and immediacy inherent to both making art and interpersonal communication are the links connecting members of the NYCS.

Figure 9 (left). Ray Johnson, A Mysterious New York Correspondance School Meeting, 1968 Figure 10 (right). Ray Johnson, Meeting Seating, 1968
Figure 9 (left). Ray Johnson, A Mysterious New York Correspondance School Meeting, 1968
Figure 10 (right). Ray Johnson, Meeting Seating, 1968

In addition to circulating mail, Ray Johnson organized in person meetings for members of the New York Correspondence School. He often invited participants to these meetings with gridded lists and seating charts as seen in the invitation (fig. 9) and meeting seating from 1968 (fig. 10). Some of the New York Correspondence School meetings were for themed events such as the Stilt Walk or for one of Johnson’s numerous special interest fan clubs such as the Marcel Duchamp Fan Club, the Shelley Duval Fan Club, and the Paloma Picasso Fan Club, to name only a few. Remembering a meeting of the Paloma Picasso Fan Club, Johnson noted, “lots of glamorous people came…. They wanted to know why they were there. I told people I was trying to create a room with a certain number of people. But magically the right number of people did not come.”[6] The reoccurring structures of grids and lists in Johnson’s mailings create illusions of order, but the meetings were often absurd, unorganized, or haphazard events. Unlike traditional class meetings in which an instructor is prepared with a lesson plan and clear objectives, the NYCS meetings generally lacked such goal-oriented agendas and Johnson allowed events to unfold spontaneously. Describing his performances and meetings Johnson explained, “I begin with no plan. I face the void…I play…I do nothing.”[7] He showed that free play and chance could disrupt the rigidity of ordered systems, and that coherence and completeness should not be goals of endeavors related to education or art.

Figure 11 (left). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 1, 1963 Figure 12 (middle). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 3, 1963 Figure 13 (right). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 8, 1964
Figure 11 (left). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 1, 1963
Figure 12 (middle). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 3, 1963
Figure 13 (right). Ray Johnson, A Book About Death, page 8, 1964

Some of Johnson’s mailings took the form of books, a medium he used from the 1950s, when he made editions of small self-promotional pamphlets, to the 1990s, during which he made several unique books, some of which he sent to Clive Phillpot, the librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, in order to bypass the museum’s accessions process but still be included in the collection. One of Johnson’s most significant books, A Book about Death, consists of 13 unbound pages (fig. 11, 12, 13), which he printed and mailed out at random between 1963 and 1965. No one was supposed to receive a complete edition so the book would remain open, unstructured, and incomplete. While two of the pages include text related to the tragic death of a child, the larger collection of images and themes, from postage stamps, snakes, and cigar bands, to scissors, binoculars, and mickey mouse, do not cohere into a clear or single statement about death. The images prompt reexamination and contemplation about the various indirect and abstract possible ways in which the themes can be read in relation to death. Each new interpretation is just as probable and improbable as another. The incompleteness of every reading is built into the physically unbound structure of the book. William S. Wilson, one of Johnson’s closest friends, wrote, “For Ray, The Book about Death must remain an open work, lest an event of dying close a book on life. A closed book is death, or is an image of death, while The Book about Death is an open book. One theme of this unfinished Boom[k] about Death is that death does not close, death opens.”[8] Johnson took his own life in 1995 at age 67, and the prevalence of references to death in his work suggests that he frequently contemplated connections between his art, life, and death. Perhaps the network of mail artists with whom he corresponded acted as a support providing Johnson with a constant flow of new art bound with new ways of understanding life.

Figure 14. Ray Johnson, 1973
Figure 14. Ray Johnson, 1973

The New York Correspondence School lives on (fig. 14), as old and new mail artists continue to use the postal system, and now email, message boards, blogs, and the array of social media available on the internet, as both accessible methods of circulation and as an alternative to institutional exhibition spaces. Johnson’s mailings prompted participation and collaboration to form a community in which people share open-ended art that advances a different kind of being together, being together through being apart, whether in different neighborhoods or different countries. The random associations and enigmatic references in his messages are often difficult to decode, which renders his work indeterminate and open to numerous readings and re-readings. His pedagogical mailings destabilize conventional notions of art, art history, and socialization to cultivate more open modes of thought and free flowing experience. Adapting the format of a multiple-choice quiz (fig. 15), Johnson simultaneously questioned and answered, “mail art is not a square, a rectangle, or a photo, or a book, or a slide. It is a river.”

Figure 15. Ray Johnson, Mail Art is a River, 1984
Figure 15. Ray Johnson, Mail Art is a River, 1984

Sofia Kofodimos


all images (c)The Ray Johnson Estate

recording of the presentation :

[1] New York Correspondence School is abbreviated NYCS throughout, and sometimes spelled alternatively as New York Correspondance School, how Johnson often spelled it.

[2] Ray Johnson letter to David Bourdon December 25, 1975 found in Donna M., De Salvo, and Catherine Gudis, eds., Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 81.

[3] William S. Wilson, interview with author, March 14, 2013.

[4] Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences, eds. Donna De Salvo, and Catherine Gudis, (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 190.

[5] Gosse, “From Art to Experience: The Porous Philosophy of Ray Johnson”

[6] Lucy R. Lippard, “Special Deliverance,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences, eds. Donna De Salvo, and Catherine Gudis, (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 145.

[7] Ibid, 148.

[8] William S. Wilson, A Book About a Book about Death, 55.

Unfurling Sari Dienes

(This article was originally published on November 28, 2014 on the ifacontemporary blog)

The exhibition of Sari Dienes’s work at The Drawing Center (on view October 8 to November 16, 2014) highlighted the artist’s innovative and experimental approaches to mark making in her large-scale rubbings of New York City streets from the 1950s. On November 13, the curators of the exhibition (and current PhD candidates at the IFA), Alexis Lowry Murray and Delia Solomons, led a public tour that introduced Dienes’s work by examining the dynamic interplays of processes and textures in her drawings. During the tour, Solomons and Lowry Murray gave context to Dienes’s practice by underscoring her creative exchanges with contemporaries such as Jasper Johns and John Cage. Following the tour, artists Alison Knowles and Gillian Jagger talked with NYU’s Julia Robinson about their mutual interests in using found forms and textures from natural and urban landscapes in their work.

Peter Moore, photograph of Sari Dienes demonstrating the street rubbing process, 1970. Gelatin silver print, 6.5 x 9.75 in.
Peter Moore, photograph of Sari Dienes demonstrating the street rubbing process, 1970. Gelatin silver print, 6.5 x 9.75 in.

Sari Dienes (1898—1992) was born in Hungary and was a student of Purists Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. By 1936, she was Assistant Director of Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts in London. She moved to New York City in 1939 where she soon befriended artists both established (Mark Rothko) and emerging (Johns and Cage, as well as Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, and others), many of whose names are listed in pages from the guest book from her studio. On Thursday night, Lowry Murray and Solomons emphasized Dienes’s willingness to experiment with found materials and new processes, and her subversive recoding of established notions of the authorial gesture, qualities that are as important today as they were to Dienes and her contemporaries as seen, for example, in the work of Ray Johnson, Rachel Whiteread, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

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Sari Dienes, Woodblock VI (Artist’s proof Yaddo), 1953. Ink on rice paper, 19 x 18 in. Image courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Pomona, NY.

Solomons drew attention to the commingling of natural and carved textures in blue and red scratch marks printed atop visible wood grain in Dienes’s Woodblock VI (Artist’s proof Yaddo) (1953). The delicacy of the rice paper and small scale of the piece create a sense of intimate immediacy enhanced by the subtle edges of the overlapping planes of color. Expanding the scale of these dynamic surfaces, Dienes’s larger drawings such as Grateand Soho Sidewalk (ca. 1953—1955) present long vertical panels of webril fabric onto which the artist directly transferred textures of the streets of New York City using an ink brayer. While her process derived from the Surrealist frottage technique, Solomons was clear to distinguish that Dienes did not transform recorded textures into dream-like figures, as was common practice for the Surrealists. Her ostensibly abstract drawings are revealed to be direct representations of preexisting forms: triangular latticework of subway grates, interlocking hatch marks impressed on metal doors, meandering cracks of aging sidewalks. Dienes’s rubbings render traces of her body’s movement spatially and temporally, as each push and pull of the ink brayer across the rough surfaces of the street both indexed the topography of the place and gradually depleted the artist’s medium. As Lowry Murray explained, rather than assert her authorial dominance, Dienes privileged quotidian forms, drawing attention to the shifting collages of abstract patterns that often pass unnoticed beneath thousands of feet on city streets. The curators evoked Dienes’s social and artistic milieu in a city full of aesthetic possibility by including archival material on their tour: photographs of Dienes making rubbings in the streets, hand-painted exhibition invitations, pages from her guestbook, and photographs of her diverse installation techniques.

Extending themes examined in the tour, Professor Robinson spoke with Gillian Jagger and Alison Knowles about their experimental artistic practices and uses of found objects akin to the trajectory of Dienes’s artworks. In some of her early work, Jagger, too, examined the textures and shadows in New York City streets and both she and Dienes incorporated three-dimensional casts of manhole covers into artworks to be hung on the wall, as in Jagger’s Yellow Line and Time (1963) and Traffic Impressions (1964), and Dienes’s Storm Sewer (ca. 1950s). Jagger explained that she became disengaged with the city and, in 1978, moved to a rural area where she could explore connections between nature and the human body more directly. She spoke of her interests in notions of time, memory, and history conjured by recurring natural motifs in old trees, rock formations, and animal tracks. Such forms amplify the temporal nature of Jagger’s indexical transfers by bridging the primordial and the contemporary: these patterns were observed by ancient people and can still be observed today.

Sari Dienes, Grate, ca. 1953-1955. Ink on webril, 75 x 33 in. Image courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Pomona, NY.
Sari Dienes, Grate, ca. 1953-1955. Ink on webril, 75 x 33 in. Image courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Pomona, NY.

Conceptually similar but materially different from Dienes’s and Jagger’s artistic production, Alison Knowles’s Fluxus event scores reframe ordinary activities and objects as worthy of aesthetic consideration. In her score Make a Salad (1962), cooking becomes a dynamic, aural and visual performance prompting the audience to attune their senses to the sounds and motions of chopping, peeling, arranging—even masticating—for the indeterminate duration of the event. Knowles cited additional examples of how she used unconventional sounds, ranging from the crinkling of flax paper – which she previously incorporated into a performance by making a full-body suit of the material – to the clatter of falling beans in her Giant Bean Turner (2000). The street acted as a locus for art making for Fluxus artists just as it did for Dienes and Jagger; as Knowles explained, she felt she could do something there. Inspired by Cagian notions of chance and indeterminacy, Knowles and her Fluxus collaborators sought out and drew upon the potential energy and freedom of the street in the events of Fluxus Street Theater (1964) and in Knowles’s Street Piece (1962), which instructs: “make something in the street and give it away.”

Sari Dienes, Soho Sidewalk, ca. 1953-1955. Ink on webril, 75 x 33 in. Image courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Pomona, NY.
Sari Dienes, Soho Sidewalk, ca. 1953-1955. Ink on webril, 75 x 33 in. Image courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation, Pomona, NY.

Dienes, Knowles, and Jagger questioned and expanded notions of what art can be by experimenting with processes and materials in ways that prompt viewers to aesthetically reconsider commonplace forms and activities. Just as Dienes was sentient to the intricate relations between numerous patterns and textures unfurling everyday on city streets, Solomons and Lowry Murray’s tour directed close attention to the complex tensions between representation and abstraction in Dienes’s rubbings from the 1950s, which have often been overlooked. As Dienes explained, “if you’re concentrated on looking for something, then you miss all the things you’re not looking for.” Jagger’s and Knowles’s insights amplified the relevance of Dienes’s open mode of thinking by demonstrating other ways aspects of daily life and nature can be reexamined within new frameworks to yield artworks that speak to the profound importance of constant exploration and experimental questioning.

(To see more of Dienes’s work, the exhibition Sari Dienes: the Spirit Lives in Everything is on view November 20 to December 20, 2014 at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, 531 West 26thStreet, New York, NY)