People / Ray Johnson

Artist. Ray Johnson was born in Detroit on October 16, 1927. He attended Black Mountain College (1945-1948), studying painting under Josef and Anni Albers and studying with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Richard Lippold. Subsequently, Johnson moved to New York City and quickly became an active member of the downtown art scene that included artists such as Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. By 1954, he had abandoned painting and began cutting up his canvases to make collages. Shortly thereafter, he cut up these collages and combined the fragments with images from popular culture. A prolific artist, Johnson began to explore the possibilities of mail art. He steadily built up a network of participants exchanging art and ideas through the New York Correspondance [sic] School. The same day that Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, Johnson was violently mugged. He subsequently left New York City for Long Island where he continued to make work, though he was increasingly reclusive. He traveled outside of the United States only twice, the first time to attend the opening reception of Concrete Poetry (1969), an exhibition at the University of British Columbia Fine Arts Gallery.

Johnson’s influence upon the Vancouver’s art scene is significant. He contacted Michael Morris by mail after seeing Morris’ painting, The Problem of Nothing (1966), in Artforum magazine in 1968. Participation in the New York Correspondance School was important for Vancover’s fledgling art scene, creating a sense of connection to a global art community and discourse. Further, the New York Correspondance School offered an example of a mode of working contrary to traditional landscape painting or modernist abstraction, one that responded and was responsive to new social movements, independent of traditional institutions. His influence is most evident in Glenn Lewis’ New York Corres Sponge Dance School and the Morris/Trasov Image Bank. Johnson was also an early performance artist, organizing “nothings” in response to Allan Kaprow’s happenings. He continually staged “nothings” throughout his life. Indeed, some speculate that his suicide by drowning on Friday, January 13, 1995 was his final “nothing”. His work was the subject of a retrospective organized by the Wexler Center for the Arts entitled Correspondences (1999), which later traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Additional information and materials about Ray Johnson are available on request in Art, Architecture and Planning at the University of British Columbia Library.

  1. 03. Ray Johnson portfolio from Concrete Poetry Catalogue
    Alvin Balkind, Ray Johnson, and Michael Morris (Book)