New York

Ray Johnson

Ray Johnson, collagist, has let the public in on his private pun and continuous happening, the New York Correspondence School, via a small show in the main floor gallery of the Whitney Museum. Johnson’s meticulous, nostalgic collages have been seen in galleries since the mid ’60s. Although his collages are minor, his Correspondence School is a novel inspiration that has entertained its members for a decade or more. Johnson has been fascinated by the way objects move through the mails since he sent for his first cereal box premiums as a child. He began by mailing select detritus to a few friends and now the endeavor has expanded to the extent that he keeps files and “archives” on Correspondence School members and activities.

Johnson is a highly self-conscious artist whose work is filled with visual and written references to art history and his personal life. He loves puns and his collages and correspondence form a continuum of interlocking cross-references. The NYCS is actually a do-it-yourself collage with initial materials provided by Ray Johnson It gives him the opportunity to attach his name by way of rubber stamp, typewritten or printed message, or special insignia––bunnies, ducks, elephants––to an extensive body of matter in constant motion through the U.S. Mail.

The Whitney show brings together such disparate elements as a collage by Les Levine made from Johnson-alia in the Johnson manner (one-upmanship is part of the game), an animal hoof, the “Northwest Mounted Valise,” old postcards, grocery ads, balloons––all interconnected by a lattice of visual and verbal congruences often based on personal idiosyncrasies of Correspondence School members. It’s an image-word ragout that’s best enjoyed and not analyzed. Although it is interesting to note that the NYCS involves issues of time, chance, and dissemination of information––many of the ideas are involved in a more sober way in current conceptual art efforts. Johnson is concerned with loosely structured interactions, but not as a conceptual artist. Instead, he is more a solicitous host who likes to provide the opportunity for people to meet, by mail or in person at one of the NYCS meetings, and to watch what happens. The only sad note about Johnson’s Whitney diversion is it seems a shame to catch a living thing in flight, to pin it down and make a museum display of it.

––Kasha Linville