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Ray Johnson
January/February
1966
Painted wood and paper on board

30 x 30 inches
Founders Society Purchase, Elinor Kushner Memorial Fund, Courtesy of the Estate of Ray Johnson @ Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Excerpt from the Ray Johnson Estate:

Ray Johnson, American (1927-1995)
Biography

“Make room for Ray Johnson whose place in history has been only vaguely defined. Johnson’s beguiling, challenging art has an exquisite clarity and emotional intensity that makes it much more than simply a remarkable mirror of its time, although it is that, too.”
–Roberta Smith, The New York Times (1995)

Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was a seminal Pop Art figure in the 1950s, an early conceptualist, and a pioneer of mail art. His preferred medium was collage, that quintessentially twentieth-century art form that reflects the increased (as the century wore on) collision of disparate visual and verbal information that bombards modern man. Integrating texts and images drawn from a multiplicity of sources — from mass media to telephone conversations — Johnson’s innovativeness spread beyond the confines of the purely visual. He staged what Suzi Gablik described in Pop Art Redefined as perhaps the “first informal happening” and moved into mail art, artist books, graphic design, and sculpture, working in all modes simultaneously. Johnson not only operated in what Rauschenberg famously called "the gap between art and life," but he also erased the distinction between them. His entire being – a reflection of his obsessively creative mind – was actually one continuous "work of art." His works reflect his encyclopedic erudition, his promiscuous range of interests, and an uncanny proto-Google ability to discover connections between a myriad of images, facts and people.

Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 16, 1927, Johnson grew up in a working class neighborhood and attended an occupational high school where he enrolled in an advertising art program. He studied at the Detroit Art Institute and spent a summer in a drawing program at Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan, an affiliate of the Art Institute of Chicago. Leaving Detroit in the summer of 1945, he matriculated at the progressive Black Mountain College, where he spent the next three years with the exception of the spring of 1946. He studied painting with former Bauhaus faculty Josef Albers and Lyonel Feininger, as well as Robert Motherwell. By the summer of 1948, Johnson had befriended summer visiting lecturers John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, and Richard Lippold and fellow student Ruth Asawa. He participated in “The Ruse of Medusa,” the culmination of Cage’s Satie Festival (characterized by scholar Martin Duberman as “a watershed event in the history of ‘mixed-media’”) with Cage, Cunningham, Fuller, the de Koonings, and Ruth Asawa, among others.

In early 1949, Johnson moved to New York City and became an active participant in the downtown art scene. Alongside the American Abstract Artists group, Johnson painted geometric abstractions heavily influenced by the imagery of his former professor, Josef Albers. Johnson later destroyed most of this work, having turned to collage.

By 1954, Johnson was making irregularly shaped "moticos,” his name for small-scale collages upon which he pasted images from popular culture such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple, and department store models. Johnson’s 1950s moticos anticipated Warhols 1960s Pop imagery. However, his attitude towards fame remained the antithesis of Warhol’s. He continually dodged it and was dubbed “the most famous unknown artist” by Grace Glueck in a 1965 New York Times article in which she discussed his deliberate elusiveness. Johnson carried boxes of moticos around New York, sharing them with strangers on sidewalks, in cafes, and even in Grand Central Station. He solicited and even occasionally recorded the public’s response to his intricate creations. After a number of performance-like installations of these works in 1954-55, Johnson claimed to have burned a plethora of them in Cy Twombly’s fireplace, a gesture that John Baldessari later replicated in his “Cremation.”

From the early 1960s onwards, Johnson would reuse his “moticos,” cutting them up to create tiny compositions that he glued onto small blocks of layered cardboard. He would then ink, paint, and sand these “tiles” or “tesserae,” using them in his extremely complex collages whose underlying structural emphasis on repetition and variations of semi-geometric forms relate to the eccentric minimalism of fellow artists Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. These collages reveal his profound understanding of cubism and his intent to explore it in different forms. Johnson incorporated meaningful texts into his work beginning in the 1950s – letters or fragments of words, names of celebrities, literary figures, and art-world denizens, both historical and current. He pointed his viewers towards marvelous connections between them and a world of metamorphosing glyphs that became part of Johnsons’s ever-expanding lexicon of text and forms. An artistic alchemist, Johnson could turn the detritus of ordinary life into proverbial art “gold.” In his typically self-deprecating way, Johnson would say that he did not make Pop Art, he made “Chop Art”.

In 1958, Johnson was already recognized as part of the nascent Pop generation. In a review of a Jasper Johns’ exhibition, a critic for ARTnews stated: “Johns’ first one-man show (...) places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” Around 1959, Johnson met Billy Linich (later known as Billy Name) at New York’s Serendipity, and in 1963 Johnson introduced him to Warhol. Billy Name became a key figure at Warhol’s Factory, responsible for covering the Factory walls with silver, which resulted from Johnson bringing Warhol to Names similarly silver-covered apartment.

Johnson was one of the first conceptualists, an heir to Marcel Duchamp whom he may have met in 1961. Johnson shared his enthusiasm for the elder Frenchman’s work with many of his contemporaries. In Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Michael Taylor notes, “The public display of Johnson’s work helped to situate him as a crucial figure in the post-World War II dissemination of Duchamp’s art and ideas, alongside cultural luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns.” Johnson was one of the key artists to incorporate exhortations to the observer to participate actively in the work of art itself. His interest in codes, poetics, and semiotic systems looked back to Duchamp, while anticipating the enlarging contemporary conceptual practices, and the development of appropriation in particular, during the early second half of the 20th century.

Ray Johnson Estate, Biography, Continued >>


_____________________________________

Raymond Edward "Ray" Johnson, American, (1927-1995)
b. October 16, 1927, Detroit, MI
d. 1995


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