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During the formative years of his artistic education, in the late '40s, Ray Johnson attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina. While he was there, Johnson studied design, colour and painting under the former Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albers. Others on faculty included John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller, and when Johnson moved to New York he would maintain many of these same contacts. Throughout his life, Johnson's work continued to reflect the particular and relatively unified aesthetic orientation which had emerged at Black Mountain. This post-war ecological orientation - whose central tenets were popularized by the youth counter-culture of the late 1960s - continues to be influential in contemporary cultural politics.

During the 1960s, for Johnson, mail art would gradually become the most suitable form in which to express the aesthetic position that he had acquired at Black Mountain. Certain characteristics - talk of emptiness, commitment to process and movement, use of disjunctive association and collage, resistance to an explicitly political stance, and an interconnected collaborative practice - express the formation of that era.

In 1968 when Johnson saw a painting entitled The Problem of Nothing made by a young Canadian artist named Michael Morris reproduced in Artforum, he responded immediately with a letter explaining his engagement with nothing. In response to the Happenings of the 60s, Johnson had advocated 'Nothings.' This was the beginning of a connection which would continue until the end of his life. In an interview from the late '60s Johnson explains why he kept the walls of his apartment blank, saying "I think the void is very - well, I think one must face the void or live in it to feel free." A recurrent paradox surfaces in the work: although spontaneous experience may with great effort be reduced to an awareness of 'nothing', it will never precisely cease to exist.