The inaugural exhibition at Raven Row is long overdue. Postmarked 14 years after his death, ‘Please Add To and Return’ is the first substantial solo show in Britain by Ray Johnson, once referred to as New York’s most famous unknown artist. In fact, although an enigmatic figure, and a virtual recluse for much of his later life, Johnson did not set out to pursue anonymity. A gifted student at Black Mountain College, his talent for abstract painting was encouraged by the Bauhaus professor Josef Albers, and by 1948 his circle in New York included John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, in whose fire-place Johnson reputedly burnt much of his early work. In 1968 following a violent mugging the same year that Andy Warhol was shot, he moved to Long Island. Here he became extremely well-known to the U.S. Postal Service, which was soon delivering several thousand pieces of mail to him each year.
From a nondescript, split-level house in the small town of Locust Valley, Johnson initiated a flow of correspondence which, together with fake openings, photocopy-machine art and surreal performances, became the most ambitious project of his life. Much of the material he received, exchanged and passed on is displayed at Raven Row. Some was unsolicited, much of it was junk, all of it was meticulously sorted, recycled and reintegrated into collages which were themselves carved up or added to until they were thick with texture and meaning. Here, too, are the annotated notices he circulated to friends, acquaintances and other artists featuring his doodles, poems and motifs of tadpoles, snakes and bunnies, often accompanied with the request: ‘Please Add To and Return to Ray Johnson’. Out of self-imposed exile came art that was dependent on human connection and revelled in making links between people, things, words and images. On show are the captivating results of this eccentric, illogical and sometimes unfathomable game; one with no end and with rules that were sometimes clear only to Johnson himself.
The airy grace of the new gallery is a long way from the cluttered suburban home at the centre of Johnson’s mail art endeavour, and yet it seems a fitting location for his work. The building has been converted, damaged and repaired over two and a half centuries; Raven Row was created from two newly renovated 18th-century silk merchants’ shops and a 1970s’ office building. Just as Johnson’s continual revisions kept his creations in a state of perpetual flux, so the gallery with its rough concrete floor and baroque cornicing is a work in progress. A superb range of material is collected here over several rooms devoted to the different periods of Johnson’s career; everything from a 1955 flyer for his commercial design practice (his tools laid out as hieroglyphic silhouettes), to the complex grid-based collages which became physical accretions of memory and which rarely left his possession. It was these works which were found neatly arranged in his home after Johnson’s final performance – his suicide by drowning in 1995.
Propped on a ledge in one room are a series of the earliest collages, made from the pieces of cardboard around which laundries fold shirts. These ‘moticos’ – a neologism Johnson coined to mean something fleeting and fragmented – are sites where fantasy and the everyday intersect. Hovering within pencil lines is a just-recognizable wraith – Shirley Temple, radiating neon streaks of paint; nearby a crimson-faced Elvis is decorated with ink daubs and torn magazine squares that have been rubbed away until they begin to disintegrate. Unlike Warhol’s glossy icons, Johnson’s stars are fragile, their images defaced and rearranged into a vernacular of Lucky Strike packets, fake eyelashes, safety-pins, buttons, doorknobs, combs, dollar bills and neckties. By contrast Untitled (Moticos with white paper, holes, and thread) of 1954–60 is an elegantly simple composition that might be a shrinky-dink Clyfford Still. Gossamer-thin paper shapes pasted onto corrugated board have been pierced with silk and very faintly printed with type, perhaps by a newspaper resting on the work. The deliberate imperfections in these works, the traces of their production, are what give them such energy.
Upstairs, old plaster swathes of grapes, peaches and bows unfurl across the gallery walls like extravagant graffiti. Beneath these are more mailings, reports of telephone conversations, cryptic jokes and rebuttals of the art establishment (‘Dear Whitney Museum, I hate you, love Ray Johnson’). On one scrap of paper is a hasty sketch addressed to a friend: ‘Bill, I have sat on this toilet every morning for the last twenty years looking down at the floor and it was just today that I noticed this line between the linoleum from the base of the toilet to the wall baseboard, which I measured, it being exactly 38".’ There is something touching about this note; the insight it offers into a daily routine, its suggestion of both intimacy and isolation, and of course its wit: ‘Please send to Barnett Newman’ Johnson instructs. This fragment is a reminder that inspiration may be found in the most unexpected of places, in the incidental and the overlooked; it is proof of how uniquely Johnson used art to tackle the seriously absurd problem of life.