In pictures: A cache of 200 never-before-seen photographs of Mail Art founder Ray Johnson reveals he was even more radical than we thought

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We finally got Ray Johnson’s dispatches from the other side. Last month, the Morgan Library & Museum opened”PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE,” an exhibition unearthing 200 unpublished photos of Johnsonthe founder of the international mail art network known as the New York Correspondence School, who died in 1995.

After studying abstraction with Josef Albers at the famous Black Mountain College, Johnson left North Carolina for New York in 1948, with professors John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Richard Lippold.

Although he was created for fame as a painter, he took the advice of Albers, according to Morganand burned his early works between 1954 and 1956, to make way for the miniature mass-media collages he called “moticos,” now hailed as the forerunners of Pop art.

Hazel Larsen Archer, Ray Johnson at Black Mountain College (1948), gelatin silver print. The Morgan Library & Museum, Acquired thanks to the gift of David Dechmanand Michel Mercure, 2021.56. © Hazel Larsen Archer Estate.

Photography has always been a cornerstone of Johnson’s practice, but it wasn’t until 1992, two decades after moving from Manhattan to Long Island, that he adopted a Fujifilm QuickSnap camera and told curator Clive Phillpot: “I am continuing my career as a photographer. Johnson would go through 137 disposable cameras in December 1994.

Among his experiments with the popular medium, Johnson was hanging works in photo booths, often bringing his cut-out collages into artistic cameos. The photograph could also enrich existing works with new meaning, such as his “Movie Stars” series of large-scale collages on corrugated cardboard, which often featured famous faces. Outdoor cinema show in RJ’s backyard (June 1, 1993), for example, sees these works lined up as ready to film a scene, surrounded by the semi-autobiographical bunny character who was Johnson’s calling card.

by Ray Johnson Photo Booth Portraits (1960s). Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate. Digital image courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum. Illustration courtesy of Ray Johnson Estate. © Ray Johnson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In January 1995, Johnson committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Sag Harbor, drowning in the water below. “I think Ray will become famous after he dies, because he won’t be there to prevent his work from spreading,” said New York art dealer Richard Feigen in the New York Times obituary who followed.

Although he has bristled at institutions trying to show his work, there has been an increase in exhibitions from Johnson’s estate in the decades since his death, including exhibitions last year at the Chicago Art Institute and David Zwirner. Both focused primarily on Johnson’s collages and placed him among colleagues like John Cale and Joseph Cornell.

Over 5,000 color photographs of Johnson have survived, many hidden in envelopes. Morgan exhibit curator Joel Smith told Arnet News that Johnson’s estate donated the 200 pieces currently on display to the museum’s permanent collection in 2019, courtesy of art advisor Frances Beatty. Research on the work continued until early 2020.

Elizabeth Novick, Untitled (Ray Johnson and Suzi Gablik) (1955), gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate.

“The pandemic has caused changes in schedules that have pushed [the show] back in the summer of 2022,” Smith said. “In the meantime, we learned more about the photographs and also acquired Johnson’s 1948 photograph by Hazel Larsen Archer which became the first (and first) piece in the exhibit.”

Still, no one knows for sure what Johnson wanted to do with the whole movie he shot. “It would be trivial to search through this vast body of complex, often comical and always personal work for anything more than a rebus suicide note,” Smith wrote in the show’s catalog notes. “Ray Johnson has never made himself so easily readable.”

Immediate and intimate, Johnson’s work is about the present moment. Taking a prototype selfie in a window mirror, Johnson held up a bunny-eared collage that read, “PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE.” Maybe he meant the old New York magazine REAL LIFE. Smith hears Johnson say, “Here, Life, take this thing I made; I’m going to the other place.

“PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs,” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through October 2.

See more images from the exhibition here.

Path of headshots and step backs (spring 1992). The Morgan Library and Museum. Gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

RJ silhouette and wood, Stehli Beach (Fall 1992). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Headshot and Elvis in RJ’s car (February 1993). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the RayJohnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson / Society for Artists Rights (ARS), New York. (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol’s life dates on flowers (July 1992). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Jean (February 1993). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rabbit tree in the backyard (April 17, 1993). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rabbit Harpo Marx, portrait and phone booth (February 1994). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Shadow and manhole (spring 1992). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Four Movie Stars, Locust Valley Cemetery (March 31, 1993). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Outdoor movie about RJ’s car (February 1993). The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy of Frances Beatty. © Ray Johnson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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