A widely connected pioneer of Pop and mail art, Ray Johnson was described as ‘New York’s most famous unknown artist.’ Best known for his dense, allusive collages, he stopped exhibiting in 1991, but his output did not diminish. Between 1992 and 1994, using 137 disposable cameras, he created a large body of work that is only now coming to light. Staging his artworks in settings near his home in Locust Valley, Long Island — parking lots, sidewalks, beaches, cemeteries — Johnson made photographs that make the world of everyday ‘real life’ a part of his art. Within a few months, he devised a large new freestanding format for the simplified collages he began calling the ‘movie stars’ of his camera tableaux.
When he swam to his death at sea on 13 January 1995, Johnson left behind a vast archive that included over three thousand of the late photographs. What he called his ‘new career as a photographer,’ which makes its debut in print here, marked the close of a romance with the camera that had spanned four decades of the relentless invention.
The book accompanies an exhibition running 17 June – 2 October 2022 at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, and includes an essay by the curator, Joel Smith.
About the Author
Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson (October 16, 1927 – January 13, 1995) was an American artist. Known primarily as a collagist and correspondence artist, he was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop art and was described as “New York’s most famous unknown artist”.
Johnson also staged and participated in early performance art events as the founder of a far-ranging mail art network which picked up momentum in the 1960s and is still active today: he was a pioneer in the now worldwide “Mail Art” or “Correspondence Art” movement where works are literally sent through the postal service, expanding visual culture beyond the commercial sphere and promoting a system of equal exchange between artists.
Known for his innovative multimedia collages, multifaceted artist Ray Johnson merged appropriated mass media content with his own painted forms, creating larger silhouetted images both surreal and yet recognizable for their component parts. After graduating high school in 1945, Johnson studied for three years at the historic Black Mountain College under such influential artists as Josef Albers and Robert Motherwell and befriended such art luminaries as John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
He then moved to New York in 1949, enmeshing himself in the artistic community that gave rise to Pop Art. He is occasionally associated with members of the Fluxus movement but was never a member. He lived in New York City from 1949 to 1968, when he moved to a small town in Long Island and remained there until his suicide.
PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs
June 17 through October 2, 2022
Morgan Library & Museum – New York