He was overshadowed by those like Warhol who manipulated that world in a very different and successful manner. He has been called - in fact, called himself - New York's most famous unknown artist, but one who challenged the commercial and critical establishment. His life art, life and death were deliberate puzzles and the extent of his influence has only become apparent posthumously.
Warner received hundreds of pieces of mail, collages, objects and once, a piece of driftwood. They met seldom, rarely spoke except by telephone so all this was conducted via US mail, an organization for which Johnson had the highest respect.
At one of their rare personal meetings (they only met in person seven times), Johnson gave Warner thirteen cardboard boxes, tied with string and labeled "Bob Box One, "Bob Box Two," and so on. The boxes were packed with letters, drawings, photocopies and found objects - the stuff of Johnson's art.
Now, more than 15 years after Mr. Johnson’s death, he is unpacking them, one box at a time, and cataloging their contents.
The "Bob Boxes Tables of Content" displays all thirteen boxes and their contents for the first time on the West Coast, with letters, collages and mail art displayed on the walls and the objects on tables in the center of the room.
Warner has described the "contents as a window into the world of Ray Johnson in the 70's and 80's; everything from signed-and-dated empty toilet paper tubes, tea bags, broken fragments to a box that contained nothing but hundred of envelopes that were addressed by never mailed.
So, who was Ray Johnson? He called himself "the most famous unknown artist in America." But he was the founder of Pop Art, probably the first Pop artist. According to Henry Geldzahler, "Ray's collages, 'Elvis Presley No, 1' and 'James Dean' stand as the Plymouth Rock of the Pop movement (Geldzahler, Henry in Pop Art: 1955-1970 catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1986. Quoted in Wikipedia.)
He pioneered the use of "found images" and was among the first to use mechanical reproduction, hand created typographic alphabets and Xeroxes. He created the first happening, founded the mail art, which is still around.
He gave new meaning to working "outside the box."
Andy Warhol collage
While Ray exhibited occasionally, notably in 1984, 'Works by Ray Johnson' at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts on Long Island, and 'More Works by Ray Johnson.' 1951-1990 at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, he repeatedly shunned the art world. He often refused to exhibit and/or threatened to cancel exhibitions. When Johnson did show his artwork, he was represented by the dealer Richard Feigen, with whom he battled over the nature of the art market
The work presented is obscure, arcane, and surrealist beyond Surrealism, hermetic, a body of work that is self-reflective and so interior and personal as to make little sense to an outsider. Warner likes to image Johnson's method as a three sided (or even a multi-person) game in which person hits the ball to their neighbor so that the ball goes around and around, instead of back and forth. Each time, the ball (i.e. mail art, letters, rubber stamped collages, etc) would accumulate more items, more instructions, more people roped into Johnson's machinations.
The typographical pieces on the wall, in Johnson's intentionally childlike lettering, are quirky with a deliberate play of verbal with visual puns. His letters are full of non-sequitur sentences, rubber stamp images, Xeroxes of the famous and the not-so-famous. One of the pieces proclaims "Dear Bob. Yesterday I peed your name in a blue bottle." Another is an altered image of the French poet Rimbaud, covered with whimsical rubber stamps.
None of it is logical but one suspects that, like Duchamp whom he admired, he didn't care if his work lent itself to rational explanation. That may, in fact, have been the point.
Johnson was born in Detroit in 1927 and started out as an abstract artist, studying with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940's. He moved to New York City in 1949, following other Black Mountain alumni such as Cage and Cunningham. Within a few years, he was part of one of the most influential art circles in America, painting geometric abstractions that reflected the influence of Albers.
Ray Johnson:Untitled valise from Bob Box Archive, 1988–95; mixed media; dimensions variable. Photo: Tod Lippy, from Esopus 16 (Spring 2011).
By 1953, he began to make collages, which soon became the precursors of pop art, incorporating cigarette logos, images from fan magazines. He coined a phrase for them - "moticos" - and carried them around New York, showing them to strangers in public places and asking for their reactions and recording them (most of this work has been destroyed or recycled).
Then, he began mailing collages to friends and strangers, arranging the first informal happenings. He met and made friends with Andy Warhol, participated in performance art events (1957-1963), staging events, which he called "Nothings."
His first known piece of mail directing a recipient to "please send to..." dates from 1958. The mail art became more systematic with the foundation of the "New York Correspondence School," increasingly using the US mail for his wittily typed and hand lettered cryptic texts and drawings.
A series of catastrophic events in 1968 (Andy Warhol being shot by Valerie Solanas, followed by Johnson being mugged, then two days later Robert Kennedy was shot) led Johnson to leave NY and live in increasing seclusion.
On January 13, 1995, Johnson committed suicide by diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Even that act seemed to have planned for it's numerological meaning was as Jan. 13, 1995, at age 67 (adds up to 13).
Berkeley Art Museum. through May 20, 2012
Netflix: How to draw a bunny. (documentary about Ray and his world)