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Ray Johnson


Ray Johnson. Elvis Presley #1 (Oedipus), 1956–58. Promised gift of The William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson.

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Once described as New York’s “most famous unknown artist,” Ray Johnson was a renowned maker of meticulous collages and a pioneering figure in the worlds of Pop, Fluxus, Conceptual Art, and performance in the 1960s. From live events to exchanges via the postal service, Johnson treated social interactions as a type of artistic endeavor. He was the founder and impresario of the first international mail art network, the New York Correspondence School (NYCS), established in 1962. 

After studying at Black Mountain College, an experimental institution in western North Carolina, from 1945 through 1948, Johnson settled in New York City. There, he established himself as a painter of geometric abstractions while also pursuing a career in graphic design. By the mid-1950s he had destroyed much of his early work and was producing a type of collage he called “moticos” (a nonsensical anagram of the word “osmotic”), which could be hung on the wall, mailed in envelopes, or featured in impromptu performances. As the collages evolved and began to incorporate images of celebrities, including Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Shirley Temple, Johnson found himself at the forefront of what would become known as Pop Art. Later, by organizing and choreographing the activities of the NYCS, he participated in the burgeoning Fluxus movement whose interdisciplinary activities blurred the boundaries between art and everyday life. For the remainder of his career until his death in 1995, Johnson cultivated a position for himself that would be both inside and outside the art world: extraordinarily well-networked but critically savvy and always resistant to the structures and constraints of traditional art spaces.

The Art Institute of Chicago, steward since 2018–19 of the William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson—a vast trove of letters, artworks, and ephemera that was once the official archive of the NYCS—is home to one of the world’s most complete and diverse collections of Johnson’s art, with special strengths in early works from the 1950s to 1960s. This collection is the basis for one of the most exhaustive exhibitions dedicated to the artist, Ray Johnson ℅, opening at the Art Institute in 2021.

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