ABCNEWS ON TV
By Mark Bloch
While most artists spend their lives battling this unfortunate
cliche, the late Ray Johnson embraced it, even planned it this way.
Johnson’s mysterious death in 1995 was the masterpiece
that has earned him the recognition he couldn't bear during his lifetime.
Four years after his suicide, a major exhibition of his work opened at
New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the country’s standard
bearer of contemporary art.
Who was Ray Johnson, why did he kill himself, and what has happened to his artistic reputation since his death?
The Big Day
This agile 67-year-old man, who had jokingly announced
his own demise many times as part of his art, jumped from a bridge on
Friday the 13th in January 1995 and drowned.
Early in January, he told several people he was in the
process of creating his “greatest work” to date. A week later,
he was gone.
“He looked peaceful” says Joe Ialacchi, chief of the Sag Harbor police.
Journalists interviewed his far-flung correspondents,
sifting through old letters for clues to explain this complex man and
his enigmatic endgame, while art dealers researched auction prices, scrambling
to represent his estate.
In life, when a critic referred to him as “New York’s most famous unknown artist,” Johnson gladly recycled the comment into his work. Now his premeditated death has prompted a much-deserved rescue mission from artistic obscurity.
Take My Art, Please
But it wasn’t always possible. In the early ’60s,
Johnson turned his back on convention and gave his art away to anyone
who interested him, via something he called the New York Correspondence
School. He set up the tongue-in-cheek institution, infuriating dealers
and delighting the friends and acquaintances who received the works. By
sending his pieces through the mail, he created an international network
of collectors and shattered boundaries in the art world, meanwhile remaining
its best-kept secret.
“Johnson formed a complex, ‘pre-digital’
creative network,” notes Donna De Salvo, curator for the Whitney
show and curator at large at the Wexner Arts Center at Ohio State University.
Indeed, before there was an Internet, there was “Mail art, ”
an unorthodox movement, currently in its fourth decade, that hails Johnson
as its “Grand-dada.”
“Johnson’s mail-away art can’t be bought or sold but only received,” the late critic David Bourdon once remarked.
Retreat to Long Island
The hermit-like Johnson worked quietly on his “school”
and his collages from his home in a western Long Island town. The Detroit
native attended experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina
in the 1940s, then befriended a who’s who of art stars-to-be in
New York City.
Then, on the same day in 1968 that his good friend Andy Warhol was shot, Johnson was mugged at knifepoint in downtown Manhattan. In reaction, he relocated to conservative Locust Valley, Long Island, reducing most socializing to phone and mail. Rare appearances at New York events became legendary, always including a touch of the absurd. He’d arrive for a meeting swinging a long rope as a prop or visit a wealthy collector carrying dozens of collages in a cardboard box.
Pop Goes the Easel
“He’d begin with one set of rules and then
change them in the middle of the game,” explains William S. Wilson,
a major Johnson collector. This “strategy” often put exhibitions
in peril before they began.
Sherri Geldin, director of the Wexner Center for the
Arts, which will exhibit Correspondences later this year, describes
Johnson as “important, though deliberately elusive.”
His cultivated knack for subverting norms made life difficult
for those who wanted to show his work, and kept him out of the public
eye. With his oddly well-planned death, Johnson seems to have removed
the final obstruction to a mass appreciation of his unique genius.
At long last, Ray Johnson is ready for his close-up.
S U M M A R Y|
It's a cliche that became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Ray Johnson was an artist who avoided recognition in life, but has it in death.