The first full-career survey of the idiosyncratic life and work of Ray Johnson, a collagist, performance artist, and pioneer of mail art.
Ray Johnson (1927-1995), a.k.a. “New York's most famous unknown artist,” was notorious for the elaborate games he played with the institutions of the art world, soliciting their attention even as he rejected their invitations. In A Book about Ray, Ellen Levy offers a comprehensive study of the artist who turned the business of career-making into a tongue-in-cheek performance, tracing his artistic development from his arrival at Black Mountain College in 1945 to his death in 1995. Levy describes Johnson's practice as one that was constantly shifting—whether in tone, in its address to potential audiences, or among three primary artistic modes: collage, performance, and correspondence art.
A Book about Ray takes an elliptical path, circling around rather than trying to arrest in flight the elusive artist and his purposefully ephemeral art. By crafting the book in this way, Levy evokes Ray Johnson's art in the moment of its making and draws readers into the artist's world, while making them feel, from the beginning, that they somehow already know their way around that world. In exploring Johnson's scene, readers will also encounter the artists who influenced him, like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, and his friends and peers like Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. The work of such figures will look forever different in light of Johnson's subversive take on their shared aesthetic.
Suitable for readers both new to Ray Johnson and those already familiar with his work, A Book about Ray is a complete and vital portrait of an American original.
Ellen Levy is the author of Criminal Ingenuity: Moore, Cornell, Ashbery, and the Struggle Between the Arts as well as essays on poetry, visual art, theater, and film. Currently a Visiting Associate Professor at Pratt Institute, she has also taught at Vanderbilt University and the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“To survey the densely entangled life and work of Ray Johnson, one needs an agile and surefooted guide like Ellen Levy. Building in new directions on the unfinished work of scholar and archivist Bill Wilson, Levy has coaxed out of letters, mailers, and collages a cohesive Ray—an artist as profound, prolific, and slippery as they come. Her book is an achievement of the first order and a fabulous read.”
Caitlin Haskell, Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Director of Ray Johnson Collection and Research, The Art Institute of Chicago
“I was a bit player in Ray Johnson's world of enigma and constant surprises for three decades but only now, reading Ellen Levy's masterful exegesis of both his public and private life do I feel I know him. She seamlessly connects his life performance to the web of allusions in his work and reveals the full scope of his germinating influence on pop art as well as being the genius who turned the US Postal Service into an art medium. Though he was famously unknown in his lifetime because he defied the art 'market,' Levy's A Book about Ray ensures he is now both famous and fully known. Brava!”