PRINT April 1995

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mailman

I FIRST MET RAY JOHNSON when we coincidentally visited Andy Warhol at the same time, perhaps in late 1962. We sat on a sofa in Andy’s town house, politely commented on the new silk-screened canvases that he unrolled on the floor for our inspection, and stealthily eyed one another. I couldn’t help but notice that Ray had a mischievous glint in his eyes and a sly smile that would suddenly slide into a toothy and rather menacing grin. This somehow sparked my infatuation with him, which bloomed over the next several years.

Ray’s public persona, fabricated like Andy’s with tremendous cunning, required an absence of any useful information. When he designed a cover for the November 1947 issue of Interiors, the contributors’ page carried this editorial note: “Ray Johnson, the most modest of our cover artists, is, we guess, well under twenty. He refuses to give us any information about himself except that he is a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, mostly with Josef Albers.” (Actually he had just turned 20.) Still, Ray and I started bumming around together, prowling mostly by night through a succession of murkily illuminated scenes that ranged from seedy waterfront taverns and Village coffee houses to Judson Church dance concerts and Lower East Side walk-up apartments containing clusters of amphetamine-fueled poets. One afternoon we made a pilgrimage to Bellevue, visiting three different loonies, each in a different bin. Going out with Ray was like participating in a performance event. His visits were either preplanned and shrewdly calculated or entirely spontaneous, resulting from a fortuitous conjunction of time and neighborhood. He relished chance in all its dimensions.

Ray didn’t have gallery shows during the early ’60s, so he staged private presentations in people’s homes or offices. He would show up at the appointed time with 100 collages, all the same size (7 1/ 2 by 11 inches), wrapped in bundles of 25. He’d lay them out on tables, desks, beds, whatever, and occasionally he sold some.

Often, after spending all evening with Ray, I’d return home and find one or more letters from him in my mailbox. The contents often meshed, intriguingly, with the evening’s preceding events. Ray’s mail art in those days (ca. 1964) consisted mainly of clippings from newspapers and magazines, often Scotch-taped to Schwitters-esque ephemera and sometimes bearing instructions to forward certain items to someone else. The contents of the letters were often marvels of analogical reasoning, dwelling on formal parallels and visual puns. One of his cheekiest mailings to me consisted solely of the cardboard cylinder from a roll of toilet paper, flattened, addressed, stamped—and delivered.

When Andy was shot in 1968, I spent most of the night at the hospital awaiting news, then telephoned Ray as soon as I returned home. Although I provided reasonably up-to-the-minute information, my report had the unfortunate effect of prompting Ray to go out for a newspaper. As he hurried toward an all-night newsstand in his dismal Lower East Side neighborhood, he was set upon by a small band of delinquents, one of whom attempted to knife him in the back. He escaped and spent the rest of the night being driven around in a police squad-car looking for suspects. Ray was so spooked by the experience that within a few weeks he relocated himself and the New York Correspondence School to suburban Long Island, where he remained for his final 26 years.

Ray still visited people, of course, and his extensive network of telephone pals kept him au courant. He read books, attended movies (he was a big Jim Carrey fan), and watched TV (he was mesmerized by the PBS dramatization of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, with its arch allusions to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). But undoubtedly there were moments when he felt underappreciated. In 1980, around the time of his 53rd birthday, he took an ad in the art section of the New York Times to announce: “Ray Johnson/nothing/no gallery.”

In recent years Ray occasionally left a falsetto message on my answering machine: “Hi, David. This is Andy. I’m up here in heaven and it’s so-o-o-o beautiful.” I believed he was joking but now I’m having second thoughts. After all, Ray trained his friends to examine ambiguities, search for double meanings, scrutinize coincidences, and be on the lookout for subterfuges. He surely knew that his abrupt, unexpected departure from this world would leave us sifting clues for a long time.

David Bourdon is a writer who lives in New York. He is the author of Warhol (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), and his next book, Designing the Earth, will be published this fall, also by Abrams.