Ray Johnson

Big Artist Image: 

Ray

Johnson

Detroit, Michigan
<p>Image: © OpenStreetMap contributors</p>

Ray Johnson was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan. As a junior high school student, he took classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and in high school, he enrolled in an advertising art program, which instilled in him a long-lasting interest in pop icons and symbols.

Image: © OpenStreetMap contributors

Saugatuck, Michigan
<p>Image: Ray Johnson at Ox-Bow, a summer art program affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1944. © Ray Johnson Estate</p>

In the summer of 1945, Johnson was accepted into a summer art program at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan, an affiliate of the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met and befriended artist Elaine Schmitt Urbain, who told him about Black Mountain College.

Image: Ray Johnson at Ox-Bow, a summer art program affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1944. © Ray Johnson Estate

Asheville, North Carolina: BMC
<p>Image: Ray Johnson in one of Josef Albers’ classes. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.</p>

At age eighteen, Johnson was awarded scholarships to the Art Students League in New York and to Black Mountain College. He attended Black Mountain College, arriving in the summer of 1945 to study color and design with Josef Albers. Recognized as a diligent and talented student, he became a close friend of Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Willem de Kooning.

Image: Ray Johnson in one of Josef Albers’ classes. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.

New York, New York
<p>Image: Ray Johnson with Suzi Gablik as they set up a moticos installation, autumn 1955. © Elisabeth Novick / ArenaPAL</p>

Between his summer sessions at Black Mountain College, Ray Johnson attended classes at the Art Students League in New York and worked at the New York Public Library. In 1949, he settled in New York with Richard Lippold, whom he had met at Black Mountain. Johnson’s early geometric works of this period show Josef Albers’s influence.

Image: Ray Johnson with Suzi Gablik as they set up a moticos installation, autumn 1955. © Elisabeth Novick / ArenaPAL

New York, New York (cont.)
<p>Image: Collaborative mail art piece by Ray Johnson and others, c. 1980s Photo: Silhouette University. July 22, 1976. ©Ray Johnson Estate</p>

While living in New York City, Ray Johnson began to create his early “moticos,” a term he used to describe small scale collages in which he incorporated imagery from popular culture. In the mid-1950s, Johnson carried his moticos around the city, sharing them with random strangers. By the end the ‘50s, his name was part of the pop art lexicon, though he himself preferred the term “chop art” to describe his practice. Johnson went on to become an active member of the downtown New York art scene, participating in performances, creating collages and tiny mixed media compositions that incorporated his moticos, and inventing “mail art”, in which he used the United States Postal Service as a medium. He lived in New York City and Long Island until his death in 1995.

Image: Collaborative mail art piece by Ray Johnson and others, c. 1980s Photo: Silhouette University. July 22, 1976. ©Ray Johnson Estate