While walking through Ray Johnson: Correspondences at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I heard a man say with an outsize sneer, “Talk about minor.” The judgment was right, the inflection wrong. Johnson (1927-95) was not a man who believed in a world of weights and rulers. He became an artist of consequence precisely because, during a period of overweening scale, he recognized, asserted, insisted upon, and gloried in what many call “the minor.” His tossed-off work looked as casual as an errand. It was never meant to awe or impress. It didn’t even seem necessary. Yet his oeuvre of “mail art,” collages, small curiosities, and doodads – here organized by Donna De Salvo of the Wexner Center for the Arts – developed an unexpected power over the years. Johnson was always entirely himself. An original.
Johnson came of age in the late forties and early fifties, when the major Abstract Expressionists dominated the art world. Like many others in his generation, he did not wish to copy their work and looked instead to the subversive street spirit of Dada and the often comic absurdities of pop for inspiration. His main instrument was collage, in which he juxtaposed words and images taken from the kaleidoscopic culture around him. He would make use of whatever emerged – from high or low culture, from past or present – to clarify his mood of the moment. It could be Elvis, a swan, Duchamp, the Buddha, the Lucky Strike logo. His approach was similar to the present-tense style of the Beats or the wide-eyed poetry of Frank O’Hara. He was funny, too, with a gift for campy satire. If American culture wanted to peek into every important person’s closet, well, he would face the facts and make a series called “Everybody’s Underwear.”
For Johnson, collage represented more than a technique. He turned its principle of the fresh or unexpected “correspondence” – of the union of the torn-apart – into the presiding theme of his life. A man for whom art and life were truly indistinguishable, Johnson made collages not only of images but of actual people, using the Post Office to draw together his wide net of friends and acquaintances into a charmed circle. He spent his days sending people letters and postcards that contained bits of wit, little drawings, and cut-up images; he liked the idea of messages being passed from hand to hand. He placed this activity under the auspices of a faux institution called the New York Correspondence School – a name that, among other things, took a comic poke at the grandly named “New York School” of the art-history books. Johnson also loved to found quixotic clubs, creating, for example, the Brown Eyes Club of the New York Correspondence School so that such people wouldn’t feel excluded from the Blue Eyes Club.
Obviously, Johnson is a special taste. To respond to his work, you must enjoy his brand of fey, eccentric humor. You must also think there is more to the world than standing back and admiring a grand view: Rummaging about in drawers and reading old letters is also important. (The Whitney show requires much peering at small collections of interesting ephemera.) Most of all, you must take a skeptical view of what contemporary American culture values. Johnson is a radical – of the playful Zen variety – who challenges his culture in a more fundamental way than the conventional shock jocks. He makes a point of creating art that costs nothing. He neither attacks nor celebrates pop culture, preferring to tease, play with, and humanize its enthusiasms. And while his art is self-involved, it is not self-centered. His “correspondences” create an implied community that transcends the endless whine of me-me-me in modern culture.