Ray Johnson collage named Untitled (65 02 1513), created around 1965. A black and white photo of a blonde boy with drawn-on rose colored sunglasses, the words I didn't do it are written next to his head
Ray Johnson. Untitled (65 02 15:13), about 1965. Gift of the William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. © Ray Johnson Estate Credit: Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

Have you ever felt like a thing was made especially for you at just the right time? This was my overwhelming impression as soon as I walked into the Art Institute’s Ray Johnson show. I didn’t know much about Johnson prior to a deep dive I took, prompted by this exhibition’s sprawling collection of his endeavors. In my experience, Ray Johnson’s reputation has been more often name-checked than explained. The mystery and misdirection, it turns out, were by design. Johnson was an artist obsessed with communication, but was loath to reveal much about himself. 27 years after his death by suicide, his fragmentary, hard-to-pin-down approach to reflecting his world and the human relationships within it, speaks loud and clear to our own crumbling, centerless mode of being.

Born in Detroit in 1927, Johnson studied with Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other cutting-edge artists at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, then migrated—like so many other unclassifiable talents—to New York City in the 1950s. The work he produced over the remaining 40 years of his life included collage, painting, performance, as well as several modes he either popularized or outright invented. The term “moticos” (which he coined to describe his early collages) is slippery in that he uses it in the singular and plural, and not only to describe the physical piece of art, but also the spatial or atmospheric phenomena that inspired it. Throughout the exhibition, there are several attempts via wall text, manifesto, and handwritten notes, to pin down what this fugitive thing truly is. As with everything else Johnson involved himself in, the target remains elusive and open to endless reinterpretation. The mutability was the point—Johnson was an artist who refused to be pinned down.

Ray Johnson. Untitled (undated binder 1, 2L), undated. Gift of the William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. © Ray Johnson Estate Credit: Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

Cocurator Caitlin Haskell writes in the excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition, “Double-speak, paradox, and self-contradiction were just a few of Johnson’s strategies for directing attention away from himself, allowing his name to circulate like a rumor.” Johnson’s primary activity was sending letters and art through the mail. Unlike most visual art, his creations had a specific and particular audience; a “to” and a “from.” He’s said to have sent upwards of 200 pieces of mail a day. Such an extreme compulsion belies a desperate need to communicate and connect, but it’s coupled with an equally insistent desire to remain hidden. As Henry Martin (one of Johnson’s correspondents) noted in an audio interview on the Art Institute website, “Everybody’s Ray Johnson is a different Ray Johnson.” 

“Ray Johnson c/o”
Through 3/21: Thu-Mon 11 AM-5 PM, The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, artic.edu, general admission $14-$35 (see website for free days, discounts, and a breakdown of admission fees)

Johnson’s fondness for clashing, playful typography recalls the work of Saul Steinberg—an illustrator and artist who made a career of visual wordplay and liked to call himself a writer who draws, which isn’t a bad description of Johnson’s enterprise as well. His reworking of pop icons like Elvis Presley anticipates pop art. He beat Warhol to that punch. Yet Johnson stubbornly refused to be pegged to any one impulse, philosophy, or movement. In this, he comes off as utterly contemporary. Confronted with a nonstop glut of information—be it printed paper for him, pixels and data for us—sometimes the only viable coping mechanism is to jumble things up and spit them back out as absurdist poetry. What every scrap of painted cardboard, defaced newsprint, and flamboyantly addressed envelope on show relates is a sincere desire to make sense of the profoundly senseless. Johnson took it all in and responded the only way he knew how. 

Ray Johnson. Untitled (65 10 05), 1965. Gift of the William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. Credit: Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

My favorite part of the show might be a set of moticos displayed in the middle of the first gallery. Shown on a platform and protected by plexiglass, this grouping of little cardboard constructions is not unlike an old-fashioned city diorama. Each individual piece was once mailed to a particular person, but has now come to rest among its cohort for a time to sing in polyphony to passersby.

Every artist needs a collector and archivist in order not to be lost to time, and in this aspect Johnson hit the jackpot with William Wilson. Wilson, along with a few assistants and friends, saved and organized every piece Johnson sent him. In this way, he, along with everyone else who ever got something from the artist, became his collaborator. Comprising 173 three-ring binders and around 100 framed pieces, Wilson’s archive was acquired by the Art Institute in 2018. This show and catalog is but the start of a project to study and understand one of the more unique talents of the 20th century. There is some irony of course in the idea of a cultural institution dedicated by definition to the preservation of timeless masterworks taking on an artist whose modus operandi revolved around ephemera and impermanence. Johnson wasn’t at all sure his work should ever be framed or displayed. To him, this killed off the possibility of its morphing further into yet-unknown states.

Ray Johnson. Rimbaud, 1957–60 Promised gift of The William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. © Ray Johnson Estate Credit: Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

When our plague lockdown began nearly two years ago, I was forced to pivot my mode of art-making inward. Rather than drawing people on the bus or playing music in small clubs, I began to dig through old sketchbooks, homework assignments, letters, and other flotsam for inspiration and points of departure. I inadvertently stumbled into an intuitive mode of collage-making that I now know jibes with Johnson’s efforts from decades back. It’s like having a talk with an old friend I’ve never met.