Widely lauded as the father of the mail art, Ray Johnson’s deadpan irreverence is celebrated in a January, 1968 letter to Grace Glueck of The New York Times. The entreaty simply describes the activities of May Wilson, mother of close friend and frequent collaborator Bill Wilson. Shortly following this letter, traumatic events—including the shooting of Andy Warhol by Valerie Solanis, whose handgun was stored under May Wilson’s bed—spurred Johnson to flee New York City permanently for Locust Valley, New York.
In February, 1980, Johnson initiated a series of programs at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts. Unwavering in his devotion to the conceptual, Johnson noted, “I try to accentuate the magic of everyday events.” The centerpiece was a magazine titled “Smile,” inspired by replies to letters mailed by Johnson the previous month. Glueck was among featured correspondents.
On February 10, 1980, Helen Harrison profiled Johnson in the New York Times in an article titled, “Smile, You’re a Work of Art,” and mentioned Nothings, Johnson’s responses to the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and Fluxus artists. Harrison’s article, in turn, generated more correspondence for Johnson, including with a Long Island University biology professor interesting in addressing “nothingness” in his teaching.
Today the Ray Johnson archives are housed, organized and maintained by Richard L. Feigen and Company, where they serve both as a primary research resource on the artist and a work of conceptual art in aggregate form. The Johnson archives are made available to qualified scholars by appointment.
Verbatim is sponsored by The Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.