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William S. Wilson died on February 1, 2016. My personal memorial to him is here. Tributes can be posted on the NYT Legacy page here. His comments on the soul and Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself (Sailboats) are here.
The following article on Ray Johnson first appeared in the April 1966 issue of Art and Artists (Vol. 1, No. 1), edited by Mario Amaya. It is accompanied by a new introduction written for this site in February 2004 by the author of the original article, William S. Wilson, whose essays on Ray also appear in Ray Johnson: Correspondences and Black Mountain College Dossiers No 4: Ray Johnson.
By 1966, I had been in correspondence with Ray Johnson for ten years.
When asked by Mario Amaya to write an essay about Ray for the first issue
of Art and Artists, I faced at least three problems: 1) Ray mostly
disdained academic writing, so he would not like whatever I wrote. 2)
Ray did not answer questions when I tried to interview him with a tape-recorder:
he said that my questions were the wrong kind of questions. He did
not inquire about my mode of questioning, which was not to get factual answers,
but to get examples of methods of verbal thinking, with the hope that his
propositional logic might illuminate his visual logic. In ordinary
events, Ray occasionally answered a question with a verifiable fact,
but more often he twisted a question toward his kind of poetry. If
he got the poetry right, facts would take care of themselves. I
necessarily played Ray's games, in effect taking his side against me in
order to draw him out. 3) I knew that Ray would approve only
of writing which was to me as his writing was to him - spontaneous, with few
revisions or second thoughts. He could make an error which could
be a troublesome set-back for me work in his favor. There are no conventions
or rules for how to respond to an error. Ray's response to his own
mistake could not be rehearsed, so he was in the freshest possible
moment, out on a limb beyond the rules, improvising. Sometimes
he made corrections following conventional rules (he caught both Marianne
Moore and May Wilson in spelling errors), yet often he made up his rules
as he went along. Of course he did enforce the rules of zip-codes,
and reprimanded people (me) for misaddressing an envelope.
Ray's address on an envelope had no necessary relation to the contents of the envelope, since he sometimes gave people empty envelopes addressed to other people. In mail-art as a relay, the object he handed off to another person might not be identical to the object that person handed off to another. I made an error in justice when I wrote about a woman who was alarmed because she received an envelope of photographs with Ray's return address. She called the police, unless it was the postal police. A Lieutenant Johnston questioned Ray, but did not arrest him (the lieutenant would get "a day in the field"). Unfortunately I wrote, "Even apart from hysterical females afraid of photographs," not yet aware that "hysterical" implies a pathological womb. The governing thought of American political correctness, so misunderstood in some English periodicals, is that no person should be humiliated or pained for a quality which is not their responsibility, that is, for which they are not to blame because they have no control over it. Aristotle wrote as much: "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type - not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain."
While Ray was alive, I thought that he was bored, and probably impatient, when I explained something over the telephone, quoting writers like Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida. Only after his drowning have I learned that he was using my information like another improbable art-supply. I wish I had known that he had been listening, but that was in the past, and I can't now do things differently there.
William S. Wilson
27 February 2004
The New York Correspondance School is an art of witty resemblances; it originates with Ray Johnson, but any number can play. It takes the "New York school" of painters, an invention of careless art historians, and schools of art by correspondence in which famous artists teach commercial art through the mails, and it combines them into a satiric portmaneau that carries still other meanings.
Correspondence is spelled correspondance, not in the French manner, but because a Ukrainian poster from the Lower East side of Manhattan announces a dance in the word that looks like 3AbaBy (three-a-baby). This poster (dance, 3AbaBy) became an image after Ann Wilson gave birth to twins and M.T. became pregnant; three-a-baby seemed a sign of the times.
In the same spirit Ray Johnson invented the Robin Gallery as an answer to the Batman Gallery in San Francisco (Robin was Batman's youthful companion in the comic as we now all know). The Robin Gallery not only held 'robbin' events (in October,1963, Ray Johnson and Sari Dienes stole a painting back from friends at Haverstraw), it also held (at least announced) an eight man show with only three artists, because 3 and its inverted reflection make an 8. Clearly the truth for Ray Johnson is not correspondence to actuality (versimilitude), but is correspondence of part to part (pregnant similarities that dance).
Now correspondence belongs in a thesaurus not only with "correlation, agreement, symmetry, and concord," but also with "epistolary intercourse, written communication, and letter writing." So the NYCS uses the US mails as part of its method or medium.
Ray Johnson first notices something about a person, an image which might be central or marginal, and then he fills an envelope with scraps of images that comment on or add to or combine with that image. This process 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.
The use of the US mails, a sanctimonious institution with pretensions to heroic purity and endurance, offers the delight of turning to aesthetic purposes a practical outfit with ethical ambitions ("Report obscene mail to your postmaster.") The slow daily post is still useful, but technologically as obsolete as the nineteenth-century middle-class family in which grandfather seems to have devoured bacon and the morning post together. 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.
With correspondence as content (similarity) and as method (epistolary intercourse), many otherwise flat details come into relief. The bombastic statue of Samuel S. Cox, "the letter carrier's friend," at Thompkin's Square off 10th Street in Manhattan, becomes a work of art when it is drawn by Karl Wirsum for page 7 of the Book About Death, a series of multilithoed sheets Ray Johnson has mailed around. An envelope becomes part of a work of art, and the typical envelope of NYCS missive has been found discarded by a commercial firm or municipal agency (in truth, some filched by friends). Envelopes carrying the crest of TIME-LIFE INC rather deflate that afflatus of editorial wind, and envelopes from IBM turn up as truants from commerce playing a part in art whose value cannot be computed. The envelope usually has a commercial history, then, but its future lies as an unsalable part of the NYCS taking its chances in the unassailable US mails.
On the envelope is usually a correct return address for Ray Johnson (176 Suffolk Street, New York City, 10002), the address of the recipient, and stamps. The picture on the stamp can correspond to something, and the position of the stamp, and of the cancellation, is important formally to the success of the envelope. Stamp and cancellation are as significant as the position of a collector's seal on an oriental painting - sort of New York Chinatown Dada. (Ray Johnson has lived at Munroe Street and Dover Street, both near New York's Chinatown and City Hall. He has collected scraps of paper, pictures, and other trash from both. Chinatown has provided words - probably the price of chop suey - which are opaque, beautiful, and unintelligible, and which easily become part of a visual language of articulate design. City Hall has provided examples of English so stupidly depleted by municipal misuse as to be ready for resurrection in art.)
Some envelopes in the NYCS contain items that are, like a poem, overheard, since they are inscribed, "Please send to John Doe, 123 4th Street, New York City 5." The envelope, having passively passed through the mails, is now at the mercy of the first recipient. Some alter, some add, some subtract, some detract, some discard, some hoard, and others conscientiously forward the materials on their appointed rounds. Ray Johnson says he doesn't care what is done, that there are no rules, but he once circulated a list of people dropped from the NYCS for various offenses.
The relationships can get rather complex, as Ray Johnson directs to someone an image which he mails to someone else first. The first recipient, the middle-man, might or might not see something in what is passing through his hands. Knowing that people have been tampering with the mails, the final recipient cannot be certain what Ray Johnson originally sent.
He was once questioned by Lieutenant Johnston of the New York City Police Department because a young woman received an envelope of indecent pictures with his return address. He explained the NYCS to the lieutenant and was not arrested. Even apart from hysterical females afraid of photographs, the possibilities are complicated, and in each case unique; what arises out of the NYCS is a curious tissue of relationships, a society of sorts, associating people who might think in images.
One of the sources of the exhilaration and liberation in this game is the lack of respect for privacy. We all came from homes in which even our sisters could be trusted not to read private letters; now letters most private get dumped into the NYCS, but these expressions of emotion are treated as abstractly as a triangle, as parts to be combined with other parts. Cries of the heart are examined for form and pattern, not sincerity. Personal letters are not sacred, because what is real is not the self or emotions (see Abstract Expressionism), but the special moments of discovery in which the apparently random forms parallels.
Ray Johnson is not accepting the lukewarm pleasures of a thermodynamic and chance distribution of junk through the mails. (Nam June Paik, a disciple of John Cage, once kept on his mantelpiece a mailing from Ray Johnson, who told him he had it wrong-side-out. For Paik, all sounds are music, but Ray Johnson turned the mailing to the significant side.) He is not shooting dice, he is creating possibilities for pattern, metaphor, and meaning.
We are familiar with metaphor that illuminates or enhances existence, but metaphor is not only a way of thinking about things, its use an be a theory of reality. Ray Johnson is a realist for whom reality is in designed or coincidental resemblances, a tissue of correspondences, a fabric of metaphors. These correspondences imply no "higher" reality. The images do not bring forward invisible worlds in the way that the Visible Church embodies the Invisible Church. The envelopes and images do not clothe an underlying ens, nor are Ray Johnson's collages a shadow of the real. The mailings and collages however deliberately the image may be veiled or obliterated, present that which is real because it is sufficient: correspondences. This real world of parallels and resemblances works with at least three principles:
Identity: Ray Johnson never read Leibnitz, but he plays with the problem of the identity of indiscernibles, renewing excitement and wonder that two things are identical, or almost so. He often uses 1c stamps so that several identical images are repeated on the envelope - George Washington George Washington George Washington George Washington George Washington - to make the 5c postage. Inside the envelope there may be two copies of the same photograph, or one photograph of James Dean in different sizes reproduced on different paper in different magazines. The photograph is the same, and yet it is other, and this fluctuation of same-and-other speaks to us of images enduring in the flux of things when they resemble other images.
Analogy: Sometimes Ray Johnson sees with a biologist's eye resemblances in form or function, but he works out his own genera and species, cutting not at the joints of scientific distinctions, but carving out his own "impertinent correspondencies" (Lamb). To him, a photograph of Buster Keaton leaning over the side of a ship belongs with a postcard of a gargoyle leaning over Notre Dame. An Indian drawing of a woman, seen sidewise, looks like a photograph of a pistol in the same envelope. The equation, woman and pistol, relates to a whole them of Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman, muff pistols, and Connie Francis in a recent movie in which she plays a female mailman with guns hanging above her mantelpiece.
Focus: A horse does not resemble, however abstracted, a cup and saucer, in the way that the Indian woman resembles the gun. But Ray Johnson can find a horse that is seen in the same way that a cup and saucer is being seen (Fernande Olivier painted by Picasso looks more like Kahnweiler painted by Picasso than like herself painted by Kees van Dongen). Ray Johnson finds resemblances between two things that are being imagined from the same point of view, or photographed from the same mental focus, and offers the resemblance as correspondence, and correspondence as meaning.
What suffices for Ray Johnson is a mind that makes metaphors and a world that yields them. He perceives identities in spite of obvious differences, and holds a tension between identity and difference in his work. The meaning of most envelopes in the NYCS is partly in the content (a picture of a horse conveys an idea), but more is in the method, the use of correspondences. These correspondences are not part of a cosmic design with metaphysical consolations. They represent a temporary balance between an unsatisfying common sense world and an imaginative mind, moments when miscellaneous items are shown to be a coherent motif: moments that rhyme.
Ray Johnson finds it sufficient to discover correspondences, and he corresponds with people by mail to convey to them images that correspond to some image they will recognize as appropriate.
His address is: 176 Suffolk Street, New York City, 10002.
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