RAYSEARCHING RAY IN THE ARCHIVES
by Christine Wallace, March 1998
This essay, drawing on the resources of the Morris/Trasov Archive housed at the Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery, was written for an art history course at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
In 1965, Dick Higgins published some of his mail in a book titled The Paper Snake. The "letters" consisted of strange stories, cryptic messages, lists of things or words or questions, funny little sketches and clippings from any sort of printed media (including what looked like pieces of original artwork). The sender was Ray Johnson1, a New York artist who primarily worked with collage, and is compared to another artist of this medium : "Ray Johnson is to the letter what Cornell is to the box...Johnson's original letters often consist of several loose bits and pieces. In collages, including Johnson's own, these are pasted down onto a single plane, but in their envelopes the pieces are discrete, sorted but not joined."2 Ray had been sending samples of his work through the mail to friends since the 40s; the term "mail art" began to be applied to the letters as they became part of the process / the concept / the game that Ray seemed to be playing with (or against) the artworld through the postal system. The New York Correspondence School was founded with Ray as its head, and he operated it according to his rules and not those of the "New York School" of art. Other artists were inspired and founded their own mail art institutes that would consist of a networking / collaborating / receiving and sending / re-receiving and re-sending of mailable art forms. 3
More than thirty years later, the amount of mail originating with Ray is inconceivable. This creates an obvious obstacle for the ray-searcher who would attempt to discover his philosophy of the mail art process; however it is in the nature of correspondence that only one side of the visual conversation is available for study at a time...if at all. This is evidenced in The Paper Snake as one of the earliest public exhibits of his mail art. The difficulty of a close reading of this work is explained in a forward by Rays close friend William Wilson : "Since a change in style is a change in meaning [as the layout was determined by Higgins], this book is a translation of Ray Johnson into Dick Higgins; reading these is like reading over Higgins shoulder, or hearing him read them aloud."4 The further implication is that the manner in which the mail art is preserved can tamper with the intended meaning of the sender. The raysearcher, in order to decipher the complexities of this medium, must rely on personal recollections of the participants as well as their collections of letters. Wilson includes a disclaimer in the most comprehensive book on this artist to date, With Ray : The Art of Friendship : "...not even my own archives are completely catalogued, [and so] any interpretations of his life and work are tentative."5
The practice of mail art is inextricably bound to the practice of filing systems, not only in its documentation but to its very process. Ray became involved in mailing and filing things at an early age. It is ray-counted how he discovered that sending a certain number of cereal box tops through the mail would result in getting something in return.6 At the same time, he would have discovered the need to keep these box tops together somewhere, and perhaps differentiate between different cereals to receive different prizes. He would later develop personal connections to friends, and affiliations to institutions, that would require correspondence; he would need to keep 'files' on different people, of interests or idiosyncracies that would maintain a connection. "This process [of correspondence] begins with a fondness for filing things, so he sends horses to Billy Linich, lobsters to Henry Martin, balloons to Karl Wirsum. He files a person under something in his mind, and then sends along through the mails whatever he feels belongs in the same file."7
This is Ray being discussed as the eternal "collagist", of having an ability to view his world in terms of how it can be dissassembled and put together again in an even more interesting way. It is this type of mystery which defines Rays special brand of mail art, a mystery that is meant for the personal contemplation of the receiver. But without proper documentation (and who footnotes their own correspondence?), these are mysteries that will confound the raysearcher. The confounded must begin to cultivate the skills of the collage-ist. Assuming that Ray has his reasons to file a person with lobsters (or vice versa, and unfortunately Rays files seemed to be mostly conceptual, and will therefore provide little assistance), the lobster-man must now be studied for clues. Fortunately Martin provides the answer in a personal recollection of the shared evening of lobster-eating on the very night that they met; "Ray has been sending me references to lobsters ever since."8
In certain instances this clever intimacy was to facilitate a conversation that would defeat the distance and lag-time of the mail, but Ray also utilized other forms of communication such as the telephone or impromptu personal visits. There remains no evidence of such things to be carefully archived; it is hoped that many more personal recollections will be compiled to preserve the spirit and memory of the artist who died in January of 1995.
It was the mail, however, that held a particular fascination for artists at this time: "Now that data can be communicated electronically, the old fashioned mails begin to yield aesthetic possibilities. At just about the time that mailboxes ceased to be painted drab green, as nature intended them, and became red, white and blue, like US hybrid petunias, Ray Johnson founded the NYCS." 9 It is interesting to think that while the United States Postal Service was perhaps attempting a patriotic appeal to preserve the post, artists like Ray were successfully subverting the system. It has been observed that "the [correspondence] artist performs within a system that is repressive from the start and highly representative of the laws of our civilization." 10 True...but if conventions require that there be a return address on a letter, then in artistic subconvention there could be more than one and possibly fictitious ones at that; if an item needs an official stamped message on its surface to instruct the next postal action, then the non-postal player would invent new and more creative rubber stamps to suit an individual desire; if postage must be paid to ensure delivery, then the artist would use as many stamps as would be aesthetically pleasing and thereby force someone to hand-cancel each one. It is also remembered that "some artists took pride and even a perverse pleasure in sending one another the most outlandish and possibly unmailable objects or series of projects they could conceive...the challenge was to mail them unwrapped and visible, persuading postal clerks to accept the items as falling within regulations." 11
As long as the mail is mail-able, the next step in the process is done by the receiver. If Ray sends X amount of mail, surely he will receive X minus the uninterested/unitiated but plus the hopeful/seeking. Ray on rayception of mail : "Methodically every day I open my mail...I have a whole process...its a ritual for me, a ceremony...Its like archeology. Its like if you discovered a tomb and you have your little brushes and you brush away the dust of years and you dont want to destroy an urn handle so to speak...."12 Ray treated his incoming mail with the same care that he put into preparing the outgoing, even when the medium began to change from mini-art pieces to a reliance on kwik-copy technology (around the late 60s). That he recognizes the ritual in the opening of mail emphasizes the nature of process involved; he continued to explain the careful sorting that would then ensue, between mail that he would respond to, that which he would send on to others, and the other less interesting items (rejects and bills). But did Ray ever throw anything out? "Oh yeah, Ive had to; yes, for survival. And it all becomes an art work, at one point I created about a dozen large green garbage bags, big garbage bags full of correspondence..."13
Obviously Ray was not simply uninterested to archive each piece of mail that came his way, but was quite unable. Ray once received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant to document his mailing activities. "...I had declared my house and studio a twenty-five year accumulation Archive of papers which is in cardboard boxes, no very clear filing system at all. Its a repository of materials which I recirculate, recycle, send on to other people, add to, go through; its a kind of archeological situation in papers and rearrangement of papers."14 He was aware of the arcane-ness of archives to the extent that he knew that light could damage works, but was not so restricted to such rules and regulations that he wouldn't mail "a dead insect, a piece of bread or an envelope with sand in it."15 Defying archival standards seems contradictory to the methodical nature of how he ran his "School", and kept track of its members (adding to when discovering a potential interesting new player, or dropping when someone had failed to participate properly) and organized its various meetings (Shelley Duvall Fan Club meetings, A Stilt Walk meeting, etc), and yet it must be observed that any such files that may have existed were to add to an artistic process--not to record it.
This emulates the transitory nature of a conversation, that some things are worth remembering, and others are not. But this is not the conventional way to deal with the tangible items such as letters, and Ray was not only subverting the postal system but also undermining the importance of the players. Wilson raymembers : "...I felt a slight frustration that my statements or messages weren't getting through in the condition or with the meanings I intended. I kept letters from friends, without having thought about why, but he cut up my letters and postcards and glued down fragments which he sent back to me as collages..."16 Fortunately for Wilson, he soon figured out the rules of this game and understood that intentions were not that mattered, that Ray was interested in the collaborated process of creativity that had the potential to occur.
Ray seemed equally unconcerned about how his own mail-outs fared. A sociological comment on art : "...an object which is not designated or recognized as aesthetic cannot be observed as such..." 17 How much NYCS mail was tossed aside as mistaken for mere junk mail? This was all part of the game of mail-chance. A case study of the recipients of Ray's experimentation in process is provided by Michael Morris, a Vancouver artist who happily preserved all correspondence (the aesthetic was ray-cognized).
The very first Ray-letter sent to Michael is now carefully framed for future reference and contemplation. The hand-written, rather formal and brief letter serves to introduce himself, and explains why he would write: "Find your problem of nothing very interesting since I have performed "Nothings" during the years of "Happenings" and now am concerned with "Meetings" of NYCS letter-writers. The word missal was written in Red Magic Marker in space to left of 1966 Problem Page 70 Artforum"18 To those not in the know, the "problem" being referred to is a painting of the Vancouver artist titled The Problem of Nothing that was reproduced in the magazine Artforum. But for those who would know more, the original point of reference is not so easily found as "1966 Problem Page 70" is not exactly a citation. Persevering19 however, the raysearcher would determine that Michael's painting would be of interest to Ray since it is collage-like, with a striped square seemingly placed on a black square, on top which is a three-dimensional type rectangular column that has a cartoon-like bubble emanating from it, exclaiming a contrasting series of stripes from the background square. The author of the article is Alvin Balkind, and he wrote of the painting that "it is a riddle wrapped in an enigma"--which is a perfectly apt description of a letter from Ray Johnson, come to think of it.
Undoubtably Michael would have known of the Father of Mail Art20, and would have understood the significance of finding the enigmalope in his mailbox. This is also preserved in the frame. It is recycled, and bears the return address of a business which has been crossed out and underneath is found the stamp of Ray Johnson's name and address. The letter had even had a previous addressee, which not only has been crossed out, but marked across in such a way as to resemble...a car...maybe...yes, four small circles have been cut out in a row, which suggests wheels. Across the whole front is the additional rubber stamped message "COLLAGE BY RAY JOHNSON". On the back is the ubiquitous Ray bunny-head that appears in so many different versions to represent so many different people, with the invitation "Please write back to us". This is a typical of Ray's way, to write a letter cold to an otherwise complete stranger. It was a method to increase the NYCS' membership.
Having described an exemplary work of mail art--all parts operating together to form the whole package--additional observations indicate further postal-etic license. The letter is addressed to Michael Morris, c/o The Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. That's it. The article in Artforum stated that the Problem painting was owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Ray would have assumed that the Gallery would necessarily have their own filing system on local artists (especially of those whose artworks they owned). And he knew generally where Vancouver was. So he sent a letter. This in itself is so contrary to expected norms of letter-writing as to define the difference between a regular letter-writer and one who would do so as a practice. The regular Joe would have first of all never really thought of contacting another on so tenuous a basis. If Joe had wanted to, however, he would have thought that he needed at least a street name, and maybe the thought would never have been acted upon. But the "contrary"21 Johnson simply wrote the letter and sent it. (He did write the address in the same way twice on the front and once more on the back. Perhaps this does emphasize a sincere hope that it would 'get there', but more likely it was aesthetically pleasing to do so.) An experiment, perhaps, but all part of the game.
According to an essay by Michael22, he responded to the "mysterious letter" in a way to ensure Ray's continued interest, "enclosing a small print based on the painting, reproduced some photos clipped from a contact sheet, a page from a traveller's guide book, and a note telling of my intention to visit New York in May". As others had by now found out, "With Ray, one either was spontaneous or one was not going to hold his interest for very long."23 But this is the last detailed account of what was sent in return to the New York artist, and the raysearcher is left to ponder the ensuing conversation by studying the half that Michael has in his possession still.
The correspondence is carefully preserved in the Morris/Trasov Archive being kept at The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Originally, this was known as the Image Bank, and was began in 1968 by both Michael and Vincent Trasov.24 While the NYCS provided a model for organizing mail art activities, this Vancouver project was declared as having a different purpose: "While the [other] groups specialize in the production and generation, as well as the exchange of correspondence materials, Image Bank is one of several organizations that function primarily in a brokerage or curatorial capacity, major coordinating links in the communication systems."25 The name could be taken almost literally: the artists created Request Lists that were first circulated among selected interested artists, and later appeared in File Megazine26 as an open invitation to all interested: "Please send images of the earth from outer space to Box Arnold, Winlaw, B.C....pictures of beavers to Coach House Press, 401 (rear) Huron St., Toronto, 181, Ontario; ... borderline cases and sweeping generalities to General Idea, 87 Younge St., Toronto, Ontario."27 But to reduce the Image Bank in terms of a grand organizational filing system for other artists would be to misunderstand the point.
It is about process, just like Ray's work, but more of a collaborative effort than a mediated project of one persons whim. "Image Bank implies the mechanics of a collective creative consciousness...The works presented here are a reflection of responses, attitudes and positions that have been part of the constant redefining of the creative process in our time."28 The politics involved about rejecting the gallery, and the authoritative centre of New York, in such an endeavor, are shared with Ray and other artists--but these issues are dealt with at length elsewhere.29 But even to briefly mention how mail art was utilized by WestCoast artists to become involved in a new and boundary-less art movement, albeit 'underground' (or 'in flight'), is to emphasize the importance of documentation for Vancouver's own art history.
But the original nature of the Morris/Trasov Archive should not be forgotten; "The Archive, in a certain sense, is meant to be considered as a work of art, or perhaps more accurately, as a vehicle for artistic research, as a working model for research as art, art as research."30 The difficulties encountered by the archivist in converting a work-of-art-pretending-to-be-an-archive to an actual working archive are numerous, primarily as certain rules of documentation were not adhered to at the time (such as newspaper articles were clipped not necessarily for their content but for their use in collage activities); and there are ironies encountered by the researcher in how to handle such original works (in that gloves are needed for handling mail art items that were meant to be handled and altered by as many people as possible).
Rays mail has also undergone quite a transformation. Letters have been taken from their envelopes, carefully hole-punched and encased in a plastic sheath to be filed in binders; accompanying materials were at times placed together with the letter, but not always. leaving messages such as "NYCS mailings enclosed" (...but where?). Ephemeral items given an 'art' designation are catalogued in acid-free envelopes and stored in other boxes without much indication of which letter they belong to. The envelopes are kept together but distinctly separated from the letters, which makes accurate dating difficult. All this separation by type of material might have made sense for organizational purposes, but defies the referential aesthetic intent. The contextual problem is compounded as Image Bank stored objects that belonged to, and were used by, many different artists. This creates a difficulty in determining specific relations among these artists within the mail art network.
Perusal of the "Ray Johnson Correspondence" binders can be circuitous and confusing, but interesting observations on the nature of his work can be made. He wrote often, sometimes several times in one week, and would always be sure to include a personal message in addition to ray-lating his own activities. The recycled nature of Ray's methods is in evidence as he typed directly onto other letters that he himself had received; this was not indiscriminately practiced, as the method was used to create a double-entendre from the double-decked message. Ray often sent along items to then be sent on to others, and the binders include work which was sent to Michael via someone else (who would then mark their conspiratorial role with a personalized rubber stamp).31 But there are also those works which were meant to be sent on through Michael...which are right there in the binders...
Even this brief list of his methods serves to define Ray as more than a mere stuffer of envelopes... How many messages never reached their mark, either having been tossed aside by the uninitiated and unimaginative, or filed away in a personal system knowing that this was a privileged moment whenever an enigma was found in the mailbox? "Some alter, some add, some subtract, some detract, some discard, some hoard, and others conscientiously forward the materials on their appointed rounds."32 It is proven that many artists have personal archives in which they keep such mail, as several mail art exhibits dedicated solely to Ray's output have been made possible by the generous loans of former members of the NYCS.33 Exhibits such as these have served to bestow credibility on mail art as a valid art form, and have also incited interest on the part of the visitors to continue the practice.
In short, Ray Johnson has not acted like an archivist, but as an artist. In contrast, Michael has reacted as a collector of artifacts / documenter of the times, in addition to being an artist. Neither has behaved within the normal conventions of letter-writing. But their works and efforts at preserving the spirit behind the works still exist in various 'archives'; the difficulty is in the decoding...however, if this is the only goal of the researcher, then the point has been missed. "The point, when references are clearly references, but the point of the reference is unclear, is that reference is a quality in our experience. We do not live as individuals among meaningless isolated facts; we live in the midst of references, of correspondences, that carry us toward other people...as part of the fabric of experience."34