Ray Johnson and the Mail Art Show

by John Held, Jr.


Making his living as a cartoonist and librarian, Marcel Duchamp was inherently wary of the art world, including the supportive avant-gardism of a Cubist faction headed by his friends Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. Duchamp had submitted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 to the 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendents, which found the work too provocative for their "reasonable Cubism." Gleizes and Metzinger dispatched the brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon to intervene with their younger sibling in compromising his submission, at the very least, in changing the provocative title of the work. Duchamp said nothing and retrieved the painting. "It was a real turning point in my life," he said at a later point. "I saw that I would never be much interested in groups after that."1

Duchamp's hopes for a democratic exhibition policy were not completely dashed. He was asked to head the Hanging Committee for the Society of Independent Artists, who were planning a major exhibition in 1917. Financially backed by the cream of New York society, including Archer M. Huntington, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, exhibition submissions were open to any American or European artist paying the Society's five dollar annual dues and a one dollar initiation fee, with a policy of "no jury, no prizes," a forerunner, minus the fee, of contemporary mail art etiquette. 

The Independents exhibition was nearly twice as large as the Armory show, attracting some 2,125 works of art by 1,200 artists. Duchamp mounted the exhibition by installing the artists alphabetically, beginning with the letter R, which was drawn out of a hat. This method of mounting the exhibition proved too much for the exhibition leadership. John Quinn, one of the leading collectors of Modern Art in America, who had donated his services as legal council to the Society, declared the Duchampian installation, "Democracy run riot."2

Robert Henri, the noted American artist and champion of Modernism, "who, more than any other, worked to undermine the artistic establishment in America in the name of freedom of expression," by mounting the first American independent art exhibition in 1908, was incensed by Duchamps' action and withdrew from the Society.

Duchamp was offering himself as an acid test for the "liberated" artists of the time, and more shocks were to follow. Two days before the opening of the exhibition, Duchamp's friend Beatrice Wood found Walter Arnesberg and the painter George Bellows arguing over the admissibility of an upturned white porcelain urinal, accompanied by an envelope bearing the name Mr. Mutt, a Philadelphia address, the six dollar membership and entry fee required for participation, and work's title: Fountain. According to Woods' account, Bellows raged:

"We can't show it, that's all there is to it."

Walter lightly touched his arm. "This is what the whole exhibit is about; an opportunity to allow the artist to send in anything he chooses, for the artist to decide what is art, not someone else."

Belows shook his arm away, protesting. "You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvas that we would have to accept it!"

"I'm afraid we would," said Walter, with a touch of undertaker's sadness.3

Fifty years later, Jean Brown ("the Denmother of Fluxus") was asked to lend a small number of works by Duchamp in honor of the artist's 1962 visit to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Driving Duchamp to his train after his engagement, Jean questioned him about the future of art with its continuing emphasis on consumer, rather than spiritual values. "What will happen to serious artists who hope to retain these qualities in their work," she asked. "They will go underground," Duchamp answered.4

That same year, E. M. Plunkett codified the expanding circle of friends that had responded to the postal activities of Ray Johnson. At Black Mountain College, Johnson had absorbed the attitudes fermented by Duchamp, brewed anew by Cage. Bypassing the museum and gallery establishment, Johnson had been distributing art and information via the mails directly to other artists and celebrated figures of popular culture. He had "gone underground," developing an alternative art network, which Plunkett immortalized as the "New York Correspondence School."

By 1970, the importance of Johnson's actions were becoming impossible to ignore. Marcia Tucker, then a curator at the Whitney Museum, offered a forum for his activities. Encouraged by his involvement the previous year in the organization of painter Joseph Raffael's show of the New York Correspondence School at Sacramento State College, California, where the former New York painter was then teaching, Johnson issued invitations to members of the New York Correspondence School to submit "letters, post cards, drawings and objects" to the Whitney, where it was hung without standard curatorial comment. 106 artists and writers participated.5 With no fee to enter, and no jury to interfere with the viewers own critical judgement, Johnson resurrected earlier attempts by artists of the late Ninetieth and early Twentieth centuries to bypass the strangelhold of the Academies.

In a 1984 interview with Henry Martin, Johnson responded to the subsequent historification of the New York Correspondence School, touching on his involvement with mail art shows.

I have simply had to accept the fact that out of a life necessity I have written a lot of letters, and given away a lot of material and information, and it has been a compulsion. And as I've done this, it has become historical. It's my resumé, it's my biography, it's my history, it's my life...Like one of the first mail art shows was in Sacramento when I went out there to lecture and did a "Raffaele" of a live duck, of a duck named Andy, which was a raffle, and they organized an exhibit and I went out there and lectured, I specified that I had to be under a pink light and I had a text that I wrote, and this was one of the beginnings of all these performances and lectures and exhibits, and then I say to my friend Toby Spiselman, "like what year was that?" It's as though people imagine that the importance of this is because it was done in that particular year since it was a year or so later that people everywhere in Universities and Colleges began getting this idea that you simply write out a lot of letters to people and you get all this stuff and you exhibit it in a gallery, which is what I did at the Whitney Museum, which was in 1970, which I think was 1970.6 

Mail art shows proliferated over the years because artists found them a useful element in the acquisition of additional correspondents, while promoting the genre before the public. They responded to the structure of the traditional standard juried show, a career path toward professional accreditation fostering competition instead of cooperation. This practice runs counter to the mail art ideal of the democratization of art and the maintenance of an open and free forum for international artistic interaction. Mail art show generally have the same guidelines established by Johnson for the Whitney exhibition: no entry fee, exhibition of all work, and documentation furnished to all participants.

The largest compilation to date of mail art show activity, International Artist Cooperation: Mail Art Shows, 1970-1985, listed some 1,200 mail art shows mounted over a fifteen year period.7 This activity has continued unabated. That mail art shows have become a fixture in the international alternative arts community cannot be disputed. But very little research has been accumulated through the investigation of the phenomena, due in part to their fugitive nature. Distribution of catalogs are usually limited to contributors. While some exhibitions attract over three-hundred participants from some thirty countries, smaller shows feature less then twenty contributors, making their documentation all but impossible to obtain. Like mail art itself, having no center, mail art show activity refuses to reveal itself in it's entirety. Examination of the full range of mail art show activity is doomed to incompleteness.

With this qualification, I have nevertheless accumulated a collection of some 800 mail art catalogs through personal participation and donation. From this foundation, I have enumerated fifty-four exhibitions in sixteen countries that Johnson participated in, ranging chronologically from the 1970 Whitney New York Correspondence School of Art exhibition to the Havana '95 International Mail Art Show, opened at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba just days after his death in January 1995.

Although most mail art catalogs simply list the names and addresses of the participants, enough of them reproduce the contributions that we can get a sense of Johnson's participation. Like Duchamp, Johnson was an iconoclast, isolating himself not only from the art "establishment," but from his admirers. In his interview with Martin, Johnson responds to the statement, "There's a whole new generation of 'mail artists' now, and they seem to think of you as their spiritual father. I wonder if you really accept that paternity."

RJ: Well, at this point, I'm just sick of hearing about it. An artist who specializes in making postage stamps recently called me up, for example, and wanted me to be in some show, and I said no; and he said would I do this or would I do that, and I said no. And then he went on about how I was this and that and I was the first and the father of mail art or something, and how important mail art is, and I said "But that's such a cliché. I'm sick of hearing that, it's just such a cliché." And then I immediately sat down and sent him a cliché collage.8

And yet, Johnson's propensity for generosity, even while offended by direct and unsubtle requests, occasioned a response. Most of his works sent to mail art shows were composed of materials previously on hand, photocopied enclosures used in regular correspondence, suited to the theme of the exhibition. His contribution to Yugoslavian Andrej Tisma's 1994 FAX HeART, curated when the country was under a United Nations cultural embargo, was a reproduction of a photograph showing a doctor holding a stethoscope to a patients heart, around which Johnson wrote RAY JOHNSON TAOIST POP HEART SCHOOL.

In the same vein, Johnson submitted a photocopy, FIRST INTERNATIONAL MAIL ART SHOW STATEN ISLAND ZOO OCTOBER 14 NOVEMBER 4, to Mike Crane's 1979 Contents: Objects, Piles and Boxes exhibition, adding the words, PILE OF S NAKE, underneath one of his coiled trademarks. That same year he contributed work to Judith A. Hoffberg's Umbrella Show, drawing an umbrella over four of his bunny figures.

More personal was his original bunny head portrait of English artist Robin Crozier for the 1975 Portrait of Robin Crozier exhibition. Johnson's bunny head also appears in his contribution for the 1973 Inch Art exhibition, curated by Terry Reid in Australia. It becomes obvious that Johnson dealt with these exhibitions on his own terms, adapting his existing trove of iconography to meet the existing situation.

While his contributions to mail art exhibitions were not numerous in comparison to active mail artists like Uruguayan Clemente Padin, who has participated in well over five hundred mail art shows throughout the world, Johnson showed a consistency of involvement from the 1970 Whitney exhibition onward. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Johnson was well aware of the high esteem in which he was regarded by the international mail art community, making a sincere effort to maintain a presence within it.   

  Ray Johnson's Chronological Participation
in Mail Art Shows.

Exhibition Title. Organizer/Curator. Venue, Location. Date. Pages. Illustration of Johnson's' contribution, if applicable. (Extraneous notes).

*New York Correspondance School of Art Exhibition. Marcia Tucker/Ray Johnson. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York. 1970. Illustrated.

*Inch Show. Terry Reid. Auckland University, New Zealand. 1973. Illustration.

Festival de la Postal Creativa. Clemente Padin. Galeria U, Montevideo, Uruguay. 1974. 

*Portrait of Robin Crozier. Robin Crozier. Sunderland Arts Centre, Sunderland, England. 1975. Illustration.

Ultima Exposicion Internatcional de Arte Correo '75 (Last International Exhibition of Mail Art '75). Edgardo-Antonio Vigo/Horace Zabala. Arte Nuevo Galeria, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 1975. 4 pages.

*Space Window. Tom Ockerse. Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island. 1977. Illustrated. (Johnson work on cover).

Lightworks Envelope Show: An Exhibition Catalog of Correspondence Art. Charlton Burch. Ann Arbor Public Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 1978.

*Mantua Mail 78. Romano Peli/Michaela Versari. Assessorato Culture Commune Di Mantova, Mantegna, Italy. 1978. 198 pages. Illustrated.

*Contents: Objects, Piles and Boxes. Mike Crane. Main Art Gallery, University of California at Sacramento. 1979. Illustration.

*The Umbrella Show. Judith Hoffberg. University Art Galleries, University of California, Riverside. 1979. 31 pages. Illustration.

*The Des Moines Festival of the Avant-Garde Invites You to Show! (Without Really Being Here). Fred Truck. Des Moines, Iowa. 1979. 10 pages. Illustrated.  (Participants were asked to submit a conceptual piece that was performed by the organizers.)

Mail, Etc. Art. University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. 1979. (Interview with Johnson. Traveling show).

National Cremation of Mail Art. Otto Tron. University of Wisconsin, River Falls, Wisconsin. 1979.

*Brain in the Mail. Istvan Kantor. Vehicule Art, Montreal, Canada. 1980. 78 pages. Illustration.

Excentric Images: An Exhibition of New Postal Works. Manuel Schmettau. Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina. 1980. 10 pages. 

*48226: A Mail Art Show. Gary Eleinko. Detroit Focus, Detroit, Michigan. 1981. 21 pages. Illustration. (Dedicated to Johnson).

Imagine: An Exhibition in Homage to John Lennon. Chuck Stake. Off Centre Centre, Calgary, Canada. 1982.

*Neo Roc. Robert Rockola. Fort Mason Armory, San Francisco, California. 1982. Illustrated.

Mail (Art) Stamps & Treated Stamps. Guy Schraenen. Musée Postal, Brussels, Belgium. 1982. Illustrated.

Salva La Campagna Romana! Mostra Internazionale di Arte Postale. Carlo Pittore. Assessorato Alla Cultura, Il Comune di Guidonia=Montecelio, Italy. 1982. Poster.

Some Amazonic Indians: Self Portraits of Mail Artists. Ruggerio Maggi. Artestudio, Ponte-Nossa, Italy. 1982.

*The 1st Seoul International Mail Art Exhibition. Baik Kum-Nam. Korea Art Center, Seoul, South Korea. 1983. Illustration.

Mail Art Campaign in Japan. Ryosuke Cohen. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, Tokyo, Japan. 1983. Poster. (Traveling exhibition to four Japanese cities in 1983/84).

Telegraphy and Mail Art. Guy Bleus. Provinciaal Museum, Hasselt, Belgium. 1983.

*Mail Art About Mail Art. John Held, Jr. Richland College, Richland Texas. 1984. 34 pages. Illustrated.

*Mail Art Then and Now. Ronny Cohen. Franklin Furnace, New York. 1984. 56 pages. Illustrated.

*October: An International Mail Art Exhibit. A.K.A. Creative Thing. Whittier Public Library, Whittier, California. 1985. Illustration.

Fears. Jeff Mullican. Los Angeles, California. 1985.

The Alternative Biennale International Correspondence Art Exhibition. Bill Chambers. Nexus Contemporary Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia. 1985.

First Vancouver International Heartbreak Hotel Valentine's Day Sweetheart Mail Art Show. Ed Varney. Museo Internacionale de Neu Art, Vancouver, Canada. 1985.

On the Road: an Atlas to the Newark Exhibit. Mark Wambling. Adelphi, Maryland. 1985. Illustrated.

S.P.E.A.T.: Society for the Preservation of Envelope Art Transactions. Miekal And/Liz Was. Madison, Wisconsin. n.d. (1985?).

A New Language for a New Earth. Bill Chambers. The Upstairs, Tyron, North Carolina. 1986.

*Halloween Show Catalog. Rocola. San Francisco, California. 1986. Illustrated.

International Artist Cooperation: Mail Art Shows, 1970-1985. John Held, Jr. Dallas Public Library, Dallas, TX. 1986. 145 pages.

Communication/Alternative Expressions. Fran Rutkovsky and Lantz Caldwell. Florida State University/Institute for Contemporary Art, Tallahassee, Florida. 1986.

Mail Art/Postage Stamps From the Collection of Jon Held, Jr. Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. 1986.

Bélyegképek: Artpool's International Collection of Artists Stamps. Gyorgy Galantai. Szépmüvészeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. 1987. Poster.

*That's What I like About the West. Deborah Jensen. Dahl Fine Arts Center, Rapid City, South Dakota. 1987. 27 pages. Illustrated.

*Mona Lisa. Ed Varney. Surrey Art Gallery, Surrey, B. C., Canada. 1988.

A World Bibliography of Mail Art. John Held, Jr. Dallas Public Library, Dallas, TX. 1989. 214 pages.

Art is Long, Experience Short, Life Deceiving. J. K. Post. Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York. 1989.

*I Muestra Internacional de Mail Art. Ibirico. Cultural Office, Alcorcón, Spain. 1990. 8 pages. Illustration.

*La Posta in Gioco: La Comunicazione Postale Come Creativita Artistica. Gianni Broi. Uffizi, Florence, Italy. 1990. 136 pages. Illustration.

Myth America. John Day. University Art Galleries, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota. 1991.

Mail Art Manual. Culturcentrum Heusden-Zolder, Hasselt, Belgium. 1991. 85 pages.

*Art is Books. Guy Bleus. Provinciale Centrale Openbare Bibliotheek, Hasselt, Belgium. 1991. 115 pages. Illustration. (Also poster listing Johnson).

La Posta in Gioco: La Comunicazione Postale Come Creativita Artistica. Gianni Broi. Galleria Comunale D'Arte, Cagliari, Italy. 1992. 136 pages. Illustration. (Second edition of traveling exhibition).

Als Kunst Bestempeld.  National Postal Museum, Den Haag, Holland. 1992. (Postcard with list of contributors, including Johnson).

*Thirty Years of Mail Art (in Omaggio a Ray Johnson). Anna Boschi/Gino Gini/Ruggero Maggi. Prima Pagina Gallery, Bologna, Italy. (Postcard with Bunny Head. Catalog with essays on Johnson. Illustrated).

*Exposicion de Arte Postal Mail Art Exibition. Pere Sousa. Sedicions, Barcelona, Spain. 1993. 53 pages. Illustrated. (Johnson work on cover. Postcard).

*Mail Art in Uppsala.  Peter R. Meyer. Uppsala, Sweden. 1994. 128 pages. Illustration. (Also ranks the "top twenty" mail artists, with Ray Johnson ranked number one. Biography of each artist. Poster listing Johnson.)).

*FAX HeART, Andrej Tisma. VLV, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. 1995. Illustrated (Two works faxed by Johnson in 1994 are reproduced.)

Networking. Clemente Padin. Galeria Cinemateca Uruguaya, Montevideo, Uruguay. 1995. 20 pages. (Works from the collection of Clemente Padin).

*Havana '95: International Mail Art Show. John Held, Jr. and Abelardo Mena. El Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba. 1995. Illustration. ("In Memory of Ray Johnson." Held one week after his death.)

*Catalogs with Johnson contribution reproduced.

                                                                                              
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