Image: Oedipus (Elvis Presley #1), 1956–58, Ray Johnson. Promised gift of The William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson
“New York’s most famous unknown artist”—this was the moniker given to Ray Johnson in 1965. More than 50 years later, he is equally remembered for his meticulous collages, his foundational role in the development of mail art, and his early proximity to movements such as Pop, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art. But what are we to make of this powerfully elusive figure?
This exhibition, Ray Johnson ℅, is guided by the belief that this fugitive and ever-evolving artist comes into view most clearly when seen against the backdrop of his collaborations. The featured works are drawn almost exclusively from the Art Institute’s recently acquired William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson—the original archives of the international mail art network known as the New York Correspondence School (NYCS). Underscoring collaborative authorship as Johnson’s most consistent means of self-reinvention, this exhibition is the first to offer a comparative assessment of his significant interactions with friends and correspondents such as archivist Bill Wilson (1932–2016), publisher Dick Higgins (1938–1998), computer scientist Toby Spiselman (1934–2018), as well as artists Karl Wirsum (b. 1939), and Robert Warner (b. 1956).
Featuring radically experimental projects such as the open-ended mailer A Book About Death (1963–65), as well as the fictional “Robin Gallery,” and Johnson’s most iconoclastic performative endeavors, known as “Nothings,” Ray Johnson ℅ reexamines interdisciplinary bodies of work that have traditionally been seen as peripheral to his studio practice. Simultaneously, the exhibition offers a more historically nuanced lens on Johnson’s collages by re-animating his earliest cardboard constructions, or “moticos,” and presenting these hybrid objects on the wall and in the round, where they shift fluidly between fixed artworks, performance props, and pieces deeply connected to epistolary exchange.
The most exhaustive exhibition of the artist’s work in more than two decades, Ray Johnson ℅ is curated by Caitlin Haskell, Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, with Jordan Carter, associate curator, Modern and Contemporary Art. It is presented exclusively at the Art Institute of Chicago and accompanied by a major scholarly catalogue designed by Irma Boom. A companion project, ℅ Tender Buttons,organized by Jennifer Cohen, assistant research curator, will be presented in tandem with the exhibition at the Art Institute.