Ray Johnson mail art collection
Held at: University of Delaware Library Special Collections [Contact Us]181 South College Avenue, Newark, DE 19717-5267
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Delaware Library Special Collections. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was instrumental to the development of the mail art movement. Over the length of his career, he established the New York Correspondance [sic] School and sent countless artistic letters, postcards, collages and other small objects to friends and collaborators. His work in this area stems from a foundation in fine arts and design while embedded in the extensive creative milieu anchored in New York City around notable such notable figures as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).
Ray Johnson's early artistic development began with design classes in high school. After he graduated, Johnson left his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he experimented with abstract expressionist painting. In 1949, he moved to New York City where his work took on elements of collage in a style that heralded Pop Art. Johnson developed his collage technique into a personal style that he termed "moticos," an anagram of "osmotic." The theatrical element of his paintings anticipated his participation in early forms of performance art with members of the Fluxus movement. He produced compositions that were performed by The Living Theatre and held interactive events called Nothings, which echoed the growing trend of Happenings pioneered by Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow (1927-2006). Johnson said that Nothings were an "attitude more than a happening": Nothings were events in which people gathered specifically for nothing to happen; once something did happen, the Nothing was over.
Johnson's interest in public art culminated in his mail art, which allowed him to synthesize his skills as a collagist with social, participatory art. As a practice, Johnson's mail art consisted of a variety of stickers, drawings, and collages sent through the mail, often with a note to the receiver “please add to this.” Beginning in 1968, he organized meetings for the New York Correspondance [sic] School that advanced the phenomenon of mail art and produced a network of artists working in this field. Johnson purposely replaced the "e" in correspondence with an "a" to "suggest movement and play." That year, he was mugged coincidentally on the same day as his friend Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas. This experience acted as the catalyst for his departure from New York, and he spent the remaining years of his life in Locust Valley. Despite the inherent sociality of his art, Johnson grew increasingly reclusive over the next decade, eventually ceasing to exhibit his work in the 1980s.
Johnson is believed to have committed suicide on January 13, 1995: on that day, he was reported to have been seen diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and swimming out to sea. The documentaryHow to Draw a Bunny on Johnson's life and work was released in 2003.
"Ray Johnson." Contemporary Artists Gale, 2001. Biography in Context. (GALE K1636001203). Ray Johnson Estate. "Ray Johnson Biography." Accessed August 5, 2015. http://www.rayjohnsonestate.com/biography/.
This collection comprises American mail artist Ray Johnson's (1927-1995) letters, collages, and artwork sent to his friend and artist Phyllis Floyd. Also included in the collection are newspaper clippings about Johnson and promotional material for retrospectives of his career.
Johnson regularly sent his work to Floyd in reused business envelopes and included found items such as advertisements and articles in his correspondence. Specimens of his mail art in the collection are composed from fragments of magazines, stickers, collages, and drawings. In addition to sharing his own work, he included letters and drawings intended as collaborations. There are examples of collaborations with Phyllis Floyd as well as artwork Johnson made with her daughter Zoe.
In addition to mail art, the collection assembles promotional material and other ephemera that advertised events related to Ray Johnson's work. Johnson sent Floyd invitations to his New York Correspondence School meetings and posters and fliers for his exhibitions. Several fliers and catalogs from retrospective shows and the documentaryHow to Draw a Bunny are also included.
- Box 1: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
- Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS mapcases
Purchase, April 2014
Processed and encoded by Sean Lovitt, May 2015.
- University of Delaware Library Special Collections
- Finding Aid Author
- University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
- Finding Aid Date
- 2015 May 4
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.
- Use Restrictions
Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library, https://library.udel.edu/static/purl.php?askspec
Brief narrative by Floyd describing her relationship to Ray Johnson.
Handwritten note on the verso of a Sentry hardware card with a photocopy of Ray Johnson's 1951 painting "Calm Center." Items are believed to have been sent in envelope addressed to "Phyllis Floyd/Quilts."
Carbon of Ray Johnson letter toThe New York Times art critic with handwritten note: "please send to Phyllis Floyd."
Green card with writing on recto and verso, denoting correspondence between Johnson and Floyd.
A drawing labelled "Broken Cup" stamped with the title "Only Me University." With an envelope postmarked June 23, 1980.
Copy of display art gallery advertisements from what appears to beThe New York Times with Ray Johnson's handwritten addition.
Invitation to Ray Johnson's 60th birthday party.
These envelopes were from businesses that Ray Johnson has crossed out the business name and return address and rubberstamped his own.Physical Description
Prepaid U.S. Postal Service card with bunny drawings.
On lined paper with reversible drawings of bunnies, one in crayon by Zoe Floyd and the other in pen by Johnson.
Two rubberstamped envelopes.Physical Description
Promotional material related to artist-run, all-women cooperative gallery in Port Washington, New York. Phyllis Floyd was one of its founding members.
Announcement with "Howe to Draw a Daisy" on recto, and aNewsday article on the verso.
An advertisement illustrated with Johnson's drawings.
An advertisement for an event featuring Carol Berge, Ray Johnson, and Bob McKaskell.
A poster for an exhibit of silhouette portraits of Easthampton artists and writers.
A list of people who have posed for silhouettes, including William Burroughs and Phyllis Floyd.
Copy of letter thanking Johnson for list of people who sat for his silhouette project. Includes a list of particpants from 1976-1979.
Advertisement for the exhibition that includes a list of models for Johnson's silhouettes.
René Block Gallery.
Photocopy with a drawing of a snake. The accompanying envelope is postmarked September 9, 1974. Handwriting on the fron the of the envelop does not appear to be in the hand of Johnson.
A Photocopy of SoHo Weekly News review of Ray Johnson mail event.
Announcement for a New York Correspondence School meeting.
Photocopy ofNewsday article with an envelope addressed to Phyllis Floyd and rubberstamped return address.
Photocopy of article illustrated with "How to Draw a Rabbit."
Rows of bunny drawings labeled Colette and Jessica with the message: "Please add to this page and send to the all-silly New York Correspondence School."
An invitation with a stamped envelope.
Announcement with drawings labeled Shelley Duvall.
Written in large font without any images.
Drawing of a woman's head with instructions "please add to & return to Ray Johnson."
Photocopy of a collage.
A drawing with the instructions "please color and return to Ray Johnson."
A collage with a cartoon character and "How to Draw a Tender Button" drawing.
A drawing with the message "send for a free copy."
Collaged card with Johnson's name rubberstamp and handwriting: "Please send to Will Farrington…"
A photocopy of two collages from the Aztec Underwear series. May have been photocopied by Phyllis Floyd.
Printed collaged photo of young Ray Johnson.
Includes a letter from Louise Kramer, which mentions Johnson, and two envelopes and a poem from Benson Woodroofe.