November 24th, 2013  |  Published in November 2013


By Cynthia  Kukla


“I study cancellations, the manner in which the stamp is placed, the way the address is done…. It’s a marvelous art form, the letter – full of wonder and surprise.” Ray Johnson (1965)

Mail Art and Ray Johnson remain vivid and remembered, owing to the Krannert Art Museum’s hip and smart exhibition, which opened in late August and runs through January 5, 2014. With a vast younger generation digitally in touch with a global community, it is fruitful to examine how one man engaged and created his global community one collage at a time, sent through the U. S. Postal system one at a time.

This Oh-so-60’s-art-form-cum-U.S.postal-happening originated by the master collagist Ray Johnson.  Two marvelous companion exhibitions at the Krannert Art Museum, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, highlight the man, the art and the era: first, “Return to Sender: Ray Johnson, Robert Warner and the New York School of Correspondence,” which features the Bob Box Collection, Johnson’s masterful collages and the seminal ‘mail art’ exhibition of 1974 hosted by Western Illinois University. Miriam Kienle is guest curator of this main Johnson show. We exchanged a lively conversation about her research for this exhibition which added so much to my appreciation of this exhibition.

Second, “Correspondents of Ray Johnson” (not correspondence), this is a smart pairing of art work from the Krannert’s permanent collection of the very artists who corresponded with Johnson; luminaries like John Baldessari, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Yoko Ono, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, William Wiley and Karl Wirsum.  This is a Who’s Who of the Pop Era. Katherine Polite is curator for this companion exhibit.

New York-based artist Ray Johnson (1927–1995) initiated a new form of artistic practice called “mail art” in the mid-1950s, envisioning the U. S. postal system as an alternative site for the distribution of art. Yes! A gallery in a mailbag!

“Provoking “wonder and surprise” in the banal business of sending and receiving mail, Johnson developed a cult following that prompted a New York Times critic to call him: “New York’s most famous unknown artist.” Johnson is considered the originator of the mail art movement  because his practice placed special emphasis on the structure of the postal system and the interconnections it enabled. In particular, Johnson is known for a strategy called “on-sending,” in which participants received a letter or object in the post, added to or subtracted from that item, and then mailed it onward to another participant or returned it to Johnson. Through this process, Johnson forged an underground network of collaborators that came to be called the “New York Correspondence School,” and later the “New York Correspondance [sic] School” (NYCS). ”(1)

It is curious to us now, in our inflated, post studio era of glamorous, young, famous artists jetting from one international biennale to another – taking for granted that if you are among a chosen elite, fame and money flows – to contemplate that someone as gifted with art making as Ray Johnson was, purposely turned his back on the system. With the exception of exhibiting his masterful collages at Richard Feigen in New York occasionally, Johnson mostly refused gallery representation and promotion, selling his work only when absolutely necessary.

Who was Ray Johnson?  Johnson was a Motor City native; he took weekly classes at the Detroit Art Institute and spent a summer drawing at Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan, which was affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1945 Johnson attend the radically progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he stayed for the next three years. Some of the top artist/educators were in residence as faculty during Johnson’s years there: Joseph and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feininger, Robert Motherwell, Paul Rand, Ilya Bolotowski, Jacob Lawrence and Beaumont Newhall. Visiting faculty included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, and Richard Lippold. Johnson got his first exposure to “mixed media” by participating in “The Ruse of Medusa” – the culmination of Merce Cunningham’s Satie Festival – with Cage, Cunningham, Fuller, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Lippold, Ruth Asawa, Arthur Penn, and others in the cast and crew.

Johnson moved to New York and he apparently shifted from painting to collage by the early 1950’s incorporating fragments from popular culture, most notably the Lucky Strikes logo and images from fan magazines of such movie stars as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley Temple. In 1955, he coined a term for these small collages: “moticos.” He carried boxes of moticos around, showing them on sidewalks, at cafes, in Grand Central Station and other public places; he asked passersby what they thought of them, and recorded some of their responses.

Johnson began mailing collages to friends and strangers, along with a series of manifestos, mimeographed for distribution, including “What is a Moticos?,” excerpts of which were published in an article by John Wilcock in the inaugural issue of the Village Voice.  New Yorker Henry Geldzahler – the important modernist art historian and curator – called Ray Johnson’s collages ‘Elvis Presley No. 1’ and ‘James Dean’ the Plymouth Rock of the Pop movement.”

Guest curator Miriam Kienle states: “ Johnson attempted to avoid the codification of his artistic persona and the commodification of his work. Instead he emphasized the dispersion of both author and object by generating collaboratively produced collages, continually altered and circulated through the post. Rather than making autonomous works of art to be labeled and hung on art gallery walls, Johnson and his correspondents unworked the image of the individual artist, sometimes literally, as in the portrait of Johnson with inclusions by the artist James Rosenquist, the critic John Perreault, and at least one other unidentified contributor. This dispersal of authority also functioned systemically–destabilizing the singularity of subjects and institutions that postal conventions such as addresses, letterhead, and stamps reinforced. As one NYCS participant observed: “On Christmas Eve I received an envelope from the Museum of Modern Art containing nothing at all, and I found myself wondering whether MoMA had joined the NYCS. In fact, I was no longer sure what was and wasn’t communication from the NYCS – it might be one of their objectives to surround all mail with mystery.” (2.)

Looking back on this art phenomena which I became aware of as a young artist, I conclude that Johnson’s “mail art” phenomena was a clear metaphor for the 1970’s and 80’s gay lifestyle (before AIDS.) The New York Correspondence School (NYCS) threw into question origins and aims of all other mail, (read parallels to gender issues and identity) and this art practice emphasized that identity does not function as a self-enclosed entity, as an envelope and its contents are concealed/revealed, but as something more flexible, as sexual identity and lifestyle were becoming.  After all, Johnson would fire off a collage to a friend or stranger inviting him to add or subtract, change it and mail in on to the next recipient.  Lots of hands touched and changed the original piece of art. Of course, the Dada and Surrealists’ ‘exquisite corpse” consisted of an artist working on a drawing, folding the part he had worked on and passing it blind to the next artist who added his drawing, folded it again and passed it on to the next artist.  Once unfolded, everyone could see the whole – thus revealed for the first time to all, but made by numerous hands. Ray Johnson built on this, speaking for his times, requesting his recipients to add to the art work and mail it on, building community, dialog (usually very leftist) and making complex, seemingly authorless artwork.

Miriam Kienle pointed to “the anonymity, heterogeneity, and promiscuity of the modern post – through which any two people may be brought into contact” and this observation led me to see the parallel between what Johnson invented and this telling action that mirrored the gay community of the time.

In 1974 in the Midwest, art professor Daniel Wells of Western Illinois University (Macomb, Il.) invited Johnson to exhibit, and what resulted was his “Correspondence Show.” Johnson used the queer art zine FILE (a play on the mainstream magazine LIFE) to spread the word and rally correspondents, sent out a mass mailing to members of the NYCS and students at WIU. The correspondence show was a gigantic success owing to the rich network of artists and non-artists who participated. Several hundred people mailed in works, each sent in a standard envelope. How powerful, to have a drop-dead-wonderful show in western Illinois for the price of a first class stamp! (10 cents in 1974.)

Western Illinois University’s “Correspondence Show”

Western Illinois University’s “Correspondence Show”

Western Illinois University’s “Correspondence Show”


After the exhibition, Johnson collected the art work to reuse and recirculate. Some of the WIU exhibition materials were saved in Box #13 and given to Robert (Bob) Warner, an active participant in mail art.  All in all, Ray Johnson mailed Warner thirteen “BOB BOX(es),” in 1988, but Johnson died in 1995, leaving much of the boxes’ contents undistributed. Warner has creating art installations out of the BOB BOXES. These boxes  contain mail art works by the various members of the NYCS as well as objects that speak to Johnson’s signature iconography (e.g. bunnies, cupids, snakes, postage stamps, etc.) The Bob Box ensemble is a cabinet of curiosities, revealing a richer understanding of Ray Johnson; all these humble objects categorized and saved by him. In viewing the Bob Box section of the exhibition, one comes away aware of how very politically anti-gallery, anti-commercial Johnson was.  I am reminded of Claes Oldenberg’s early large-scale cardboard figures and of his 1961-64 “Store,” which I saw at the MCA, Chicago as a student and it was on view earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Though Oldenberg went on to make monumental and pricey public commissions, he shared with Johnson an early love of the simple gesture, simple form and humble materials.

Bob Boxes exhibition

Some of the Bob Boxes

Bob Box Thirteen


One of the richest and most surprising parts of the exhibition is the twenty-five framed collages that Johnson made for commercial gallery exhibitions. Spare with color and rich with political and gay iconography, these collages are tender, carefully constructed, delicate and masterful.  They are akin to Joseph Cornell’s constructions. These particular collages of Johnson portray prominent artists, curators, and critics of the New York art world Johnson knew and corresponded with.  For example, Johnson used a black and white magazine photograph of Ed Ruscha for one of his collages, a profile of Jasper Johns or portrait of Lisa Minelli in others.  These portraits benefit from multiple hands like mail art does.  Johnson’s deft hand is evident in each one, yet he invited other creative hands and minds to assist in the final collage, an orchestrated collaboration in a time long ago, and far away, before the internet.

Ray Johnson’s collages

Ray Johnson’s collages

Ray Johnson’s collages


1.  Miriam Kienle, “Return to Sender exhibition brochure, Krannert Art Museum.

2.  Ibid.


Photo credits: Cynthia Kukla

Cynthia Kukla is an artist who lives in Illinois.  Inspired by Johnson, she devised a mail art exhibition at Northern Kentucky University in 1986 when she was a new professor there. This exhibit, “Myths and Images of Kentucky,” had art mailed in from as far away as California and Florida.

















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