Johnson's use of the mail as an
art form developed during the 1950s and he used the New York Correspondance
School [NYCS] as a label for his activities for about a decade, from 1963
to 1973. As the concept of correspondence art was enacted across distance
and other people got involved with Johnson's practice the NYCS became a
concrete reference for a new type of work. As Michael Crane points out,
"The NYCS is Johnson's most important contribution to mail art.... The name,
and the concept of correspondence art that it stood for, caught on and spread,
until eventually the NYCS became synonymous with Ray Johnson through use
and popular consensus."
The New York Correspondence School, emerging in the early 1960s, was informed
by the widespread anti-formalist aesthetics of the New York underground
including Fluxus, performance art, Happenings, improvisational dance and
Living Theatre. The effort to organize collaborative projects outside traditional
art spaces, such as the interaction sustained by the correspondence network,
calls to mind the Happenings of Allan Kaprow or the experimental dance performances
of Merce Cunningham. In that Johnson's anti-institutional
position was configured through the postal network, however, his practice
remained distinct from the performative and ephemeral experimentation of
Built from the emergent sensibility
of his artistic milieu, Johnson's 'School' was an imaginative conceptual
space which welcomed strange behaviour, sexual fantasy and creative living.
The network allowed for the circulation of material that rejected the dominant
ideology of American liberal corporatism, questioning its most cherished
values -- the traditional family, patriotism and the need to be a good consumer.
In this respect the population of the NYCS perigrinates along the indefinite
borders of counter-history.
Many of those involved in the correspondence
art network recognized, and were inspired by, the role that
Hollywood film, advertising and television plays in constructing sexual
fantasy and glamorous mythologies. Johnson's network,
because many of the artists involved in it were gay men, held a range of
campy, parodic revisions of images taken from mainstream culture. During
the '60s and '70s correspondence art allowed for the construction of a fantastic parallel world, providing a forum for the imagination and display of
the gay desire not openly acknowledged in mainstream society.
As a result of his ongoing correspondence
with Michael Morris Ray Johnson was invited to participate in Concrete Poetry,
an exhibition organized under the direction of Alvin Balkind at the UBC
Fine Arts Gallery in 1969. A lively exchange of correspondence documents
the collages that Ray Johnson planned to display in the exhibition, including
24 Pork Chops and Duchamp with Star Haircut. Johnson's collages, however, were ultimately not
displayed and thus have never been seen in Vancouver. Although he flew out
for the show, Johnson ended up withdrawing the work which he had agreed
to display. Having cut his finger during the installation process, instead
he chose to make use of his immediate "concrete" experience by scrawling
(in witty homage to Cocteau) "BLOOD OF A CONCRETE POET" in the gallery space.
Many of the images circulating
on the network made reference to metamorphosis, mutability and flow through
images of water (including ice or evaporations, or bodily fluids such as urine, blood or
spit. Johnson frequently evoked a concrete and
material emphasis on the bawdy or banal aspects of the body by depicting
various body parts such as fingernails, eyelashes
or urinating penises. While these images intentionally
take a humourous and irreverent tone, an allusion to the preciousness and ephemerality of living things is also operative.
In 1970 the Whitney Musuem hosted
Ray Johnson: New York Correspondence School (September 2 - October 6, 1970).
The exhibition was a collaborative effort between Ray Johnson, the Whitney
and the mail art network. The exhibition consisted of a varied assortment
of collages, letters, post cards and objects from various artists including
James Rosenquist, Yoko Ono, Les Levine, May Wilson and Michael Morris. The exhibition, because it was displayed in a prominent and
publically sanctioned institution of American art, marked a crucial turning
point both in terms of Ray Johnson's own practice and in terms of the status
correspondence art acquired within the general arena of the avant-garde.