What Makes it Art? or: Why Keep a Letter? 

By Anne Evenhaugen

December 11, 2018

Ray Johnson mail art received by Samuel Wagstaff Verso of Ray Johnson mail art received by Samuel Wagstaff
Ray Johnson mail art to Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1962. Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1932-1985. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When the artist Ray Johnson sent a letter to Walter Hopps, former curator of the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), requesting that he sit for a portrait, the letter and its accompanying drawings were saved in Art and Artist Files in the museum’s library. In fact, Johnson’s letter to Hopps had explicit instructions to “Please add to & return,” but the museum staff chose to hold on to it, like an artifact. In the art world of the 1960s–80s, if Ray Johnson sent you something in the mail, you probably kept it, even if it were unsolicited. You kept it because it was a little odd, or maybe because you’d heard of him. This wasn’t your everyday correspondence; it was something different.

Letter to Arthur C. Danto from Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson letter to Arthur Coleman Danto, 1985 March 24. Arthur Coleman Danto papers, 1979-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. © The Ray Johnson Estate at Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Ray Johnson (1927–1995) studied art at the esteemed Black Mountain College during its heyday in the 1940s, reciting poetry in John Cage’s plays and working alongside Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, Robert Motherwell, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning among others. By 1950, Johnson moved to New York City where he actively engaged in the burgeoning world of abstract expressionism, Fluxus and conceptual art in the 1950s and 60s, and then spent many years living on the North Shore of Long Island until his mysterious death in 1995. Despite his relative seclusion during the last twenty-five years of his life, Johnson’s network was rich and wide through his prolific practice of mailing his art. Mail art, which gained traction with Ray Johnson, consists of illustrated letters, postcards, collages, envelopes, and Xeroxed flyers mailed between correspondents to add to and reply, or send on. Johnson would send his sketches, collages, and ruminations to almost anyone in the art world for whom he could find an address.

And Ray Johnson’s mailed drawings and collages are all over the Smithsonian, with artworks in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and their libraries. As evidence of just how expansive Johnson’s correspondence network was, the Archives of American Art has examples of Johnson’s letters, art, and ephemera scattered among roughly forty collections, from Sam Wagstaff to Lucy Lippard, several of which are currently on view in the exhibition Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art.

One such item among those many collections is a letter Johnson wrote to Arthur Danto in 1985, found in the latter’s papers. Danto was a noted philosopher turned art critic, and in that year, he wrote about a three-holed wooden toilet seat slated for auction in 1985 after Elaine de Kooning authenticated the piece as being painted by her husband. The toilet seat in question was painted on by a young Willem de Kooning in the 1950s before he was a marketable artist. Danto probed whether it was a work of art, like a Duchamp ready-made, but decidedly pointed to the toilet seat being too far out of de Kooning’s normal mode of practice to be intended as art by the artist himself.

Page from Ray Johnson article in Art in America
[Ray Johnson's "Willem de Kooning: A Cart."] Johnson, Ray. "Abandoned Chickens." Art in America. Nov-Dec 1974, p. 108. American Art & Portrait Gallery Library, Smithsonian Institution.

In his letter to Danto, Johnson referenced his own 1974 article, "Abandoned Chickens," from Art in America, in which he asked artists about their favorite childhood toys. Willem de Kooning’s cherished toy was a wooden cart, which he sketched with his eyes closed during the interview. In his note to Danto, Johnson pointed out the similarity in this work to that of de Kooning’s toilet seat—he said that it is a “...work that fits into a funny category – it is a drawing completely in an area by itself.” In the Art in America article, Johnson included a reproduction of de Kooning’s original little cart drawing, alongside collages that Johnson himself made with photocopies of de Kooning’s cart. In taking the appropriated cart drawing, he used de Kooning’s art work and made Ray Johnsons out of it.

Johnson then invited the critic to join his New York Correspondence School, requesting his mailing address, which he presumably already had having mailed him the letter in the first place. Though Johnson asked for Danto’s opinion, we don’t know whether he weighed in on de Kooning’s little cart as a work of art. The three-holed toilet seat ultimately failed to reach its reserve price at auction and remained unsold, so it may be that the art world agreed with Danto's assessment after all.

Perhaps Danto recognized that Johnson was including him in his mail art, suggesting a more explicit and intentional act of art creation than the de Kooning piece Danto had written about, as if to say, “You mean like this?” Perhaps Johnson was playfully prodding the critic to further fathom the extent of the boundaries of art and intention. If they did come to an understanding of the meaning of the cart or their correspondence it has been lost, but Danto kept the letter. After all, it was from Ray Johnson.

 

The exhibition Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art is on view through January 4, 2019 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, DC). Admission is free.

Anne Evenhaugen is the head librarian at the American Art & Portrait Gallery Library.

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