For legendary mail and collage artist Ray Johnson (1927–1995), any ephemera of everyday material culture he encountered could potentially be art—including the bottle caps, abandoned toys, tennis balls, fragments of fractured ceramics, stickers, gloves, shells, and lost bathing suits found on his many beach walks. He made fishermen’s trolling lures, a box of neckties, and mannequin feet designed for sock displays into sources of meaning by approaching them as facts of the environment. Why did these things come into the world? Do they represent evidence of something? Can the ostensibly random encounters of life be assembled into order?
“Ray Johnson: The Bob Boxes,” on view at the College for Creative Studies’ Valade Family Gallery in Detroit through October 8, displays the contents of thirteen collections of such ephemera, assembled by Johnson and bestowed upon one of his most intensive correspondents, Robert Warner. The contents of these boxes largely consist of washed-up objects found by Johnson during his “prison walks”—his term for the daily afternoon strolls on the Long Island beach where he took breaks from the captivity of his job—mingled with overflow correspondence addressed to Johnson’s New York Correspondence School (some of which remains unopened), original artworks, and a multitude of additional objects sent to him by correspondents or sourced from unknown locations. The boxes hang on the wall, while the contents of each one are loosely arranged on plinths. Taken collectively, the boxes constitute a longstanding and intimate conversation between friends, one that reveals a fascination, even an obsession, with the accidents of objects’ travels, and the artist’s struggle to find meaning in the world.
Johnson was a notoriously enigmatic art-world character. He called himself “the most famous unknown artist,” and twenty years after his death, he remains a figure of considerable opacity, to even his closest interlocutors. Warner seems to have drawn particular inspiration and direction from Johnson. After the artist’s death, Warner left his career as an optician and sought a more meaningful path, eventually landing at the South Street Seaport Museum, New York, where he works in the letterpress print shop. During the 1980s, Warner and Johnson maintained an intensive and varied exchange in the framework of Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, a network of people who sent each other mail art in which Johnson acted as the central operator. Selections from their letters to each other make a neat line along one wall of the Valade, displaying the interpersonal lexicon that the men developed over years of conversation, with its art-world jokes and cultural references.
The complete reach of participation in the Correspondence School—which later adjusted its name, with an intentional misspelling, to the “New York Correspondance School” to underscore the back-and-forth dance of mail art communications—was perhaps only known entirely to Johnson, though among the contents of the Bob Boxes on view are dozens of contributions from NYCS members. One plinth displays a mysterious archive of envelopes that were kept in a suitcase full of Johnson’s papers that came into Warner’s possession separately from the Bob Boxes, after the artist’s death. Some of the envelopes bear full mailing addresses, while others are ambiguously labeled with major art world names, including Joseph Cornell, John Baldessari, and Now [sic] June Paik. In an interview, Warner said he thought that the envelopes were a sort of filing system that Johnson used to keep track of participants in the Correspondence School, but it is clear that he considered himself, at times, to be “in conversation” with artists regardless of whether or not they had direct communication.
Warner said that he became an enthusiastic player in the NYCS after seeing one of Johnson’s collages in 1988. Warner sent him a collage of his own—it was common practice among members of the NYCS to exchange small, spontaneous works of art—and their correspondence by mail and phone grew from there. His optometry office was at Sixty-second Street and Madison Avenue, near a number of Upper East Side galleries, and Johnson frequently dispatched him as a kind of spy, asking him to look at shows on his lunch breaks and report back. Other missions included making deliveries of NYCS packages, gathering information about celebrities like Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Mia Farrow, and tracking down obscure items made by Johnson or catalogues of shows that included his work (it seems that Johnson’s passion for amassing material culture did not always extend to maintaining his own archive). Decades after the fact, Warner breathlessly shared anecdotes with me about being sent on a trip to an obscure art bookstore in the midst of a blizzard, to make a seven-dollar investment in a 1973 publication called “Famous People’s Mother’s Potato Mashers,” a collage-art publication of Johnson’s work produced by London’s Flowers Gallery. Warner told me about an encounter with Tom Wolfe on the stairs, all dressed in white: “I held the door for him, as he was going out, and Tom Wolfe said, ‘Don’t let your face freeze.’ It was those synchronistic encounters that were the most amazing for me.”
Synchronicity is a watchword for artists like Johnson, whose accumulation of cultural materials generates patterns, themes, and coincidences. The Bob Boxes were given directly to Warner, not sent through the mail, but some of the flags, toys, notes, refuse, printed matter, and odd objects included among them were addressed and posted to Johnson without an envelope. There is real artistry on the part of Valade curator Jonathan Rajewski, also an artist, in the careful—which is not to say rigidly formal—arrangements that make these clusters of objects comprehensible. Rajewski’s attention brings out the appeal that these objects once held for Johnson, giving the viewer a sense of what inspired him to include them in his archives. Supplemental objects, such as Johnson’s Cass Tech High School yearbook, are also on display, as a reminder of the small caches of memorabilia left in the artist’s hometown of Detroit. Additionally, “The Ray Johnson Videos”—some seven hours of documentary footage that filmmaker Nick Maravell took while following Johnson in 1987 and 1988—play in a screening room adjacent to the large main gallery where the rest of the work is displayed. Maravell let the artist represent himself in his own words, and this exhibition offers a rare opportunity to watch the videos in their entirety.
Though born and raised in Detroit, Johnson is not often considered a Detroit artist. Yet the Bob Boxes capture the process of material salvage and repurposing that lies at the heart of Detroit’s mentality, a once-treasured city that was discarded by the rest of the country, leaving a dedicated minority to pick up the pieces. Not every artist from Detroit is a “Detroit artist” (nor is every artist currently living and practicing in Detroit), but this, the largest-ever exhibition of Johnson’s work in his hometown, reveals the importance of his roots here. “Ray Johnson: The Bob Boxes” captures a sense of fractured optimism and a frustrated desire to salvage meaning from chaos through connection and communication.