Ray Johnson: Artist as Archivist

by Gillian Pistell*

It was January 13, 1995 on a cold night in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Two teenage girls on their way to the movie theater saw a man dressed in dark clothing jump from an unnamed bridge that connected Sag Harbor to North Haven, a twenty-foot drop into the sound’s icy waters. From their vantage point, it looked as if the man was calmly floating along, but deciding that the situation was too strange nonetheless, they made their way to the local police station, only to find it closed for the night. Figuring that the man did not seem to be in distress, the two proceeded to the movie as per their original plan. The next day, a body washed up on shore near the bridge. It was a bald white man wearing a navy windbreaker and carrying over $1,000 in his pocket. The man was Ray Johnson, the elusive Pop collagist and the founder of the mail art network, The New York Correspondance [sic] School, who had virtually disappeared from the art world during the last few decades—until his body turned up on the shores of this small Long Island town.[1]

Johnson left no suicide note before he jumped, and he had no will and no living relatives, so Richard L. Feigen & Co., the commercial gallery that represented Johnson, assumed control of his estate. They were shocked when they entered Johnson’s home to sort through his possessions only a few days later. There was no sign of typical living—no books strewn casually on a side table, no coffee mugs lazily left out on the kitchen counter. Instead, there were hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling throughout the house (figs. 1–3). The team’s cursory examination of their contents gave them their second shock of the day, for they were not filled with the everyday objects that were obviously missing from the house, but instead his missing art in all its guises. There were thousands of collages of all sizes and in all states of completion, countless pieces of mail art, as well as all the ephemera that he collected to create these objects ranging from magazine clippings to amputated doll limbs. The extent to which everything was stored and organized made it clear that this was not a last-minute project done before his suicide, but rather an exercise that Johnson had been practicing for years with a specific goal in mind. He was making his own archive.[2]






Figures 1-3. Photograph of the inside of Ray Johnson’s house, January 1995. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Both when he was alive and after his death, Johnson has proven difficult to examine; his oeuvre is too broad and he was too furtive to allow for any truly comprehensive study of his work—that is until now. In what follows, I intend, through the lens of archival theory, to nuance the largely misunderstood totality of Johnson’s practice. When viewed through this frame, Johnson’s work betrays a new intensification and step-by-step logic, demonstrating that he actively enlisted his art in the creation of his archive, which gives certain enigmas in his practice a newer and deeper purpose.

In recent years, scholars have increasingly acknowledged the significance of the archive as a central means through which history is collected, housed, presented, and interpreted, and in turn, artists have appropriated the archive into their postmodern explorations of culture’s past, present, and future; Ray Johnson belongs in this group. During the last years of his life, working within the confines of his home, Johnson exhibited what Hal Foster labels an “archival impulse,” which he describes as “a notion of artistic practice as an idiosyncratic probing into particular features, objects and events in modern art, philosophy and history.”[3] By transforming the totality of his life and work into an extended archival project, Johnson indulged his near-obsessive need to document and preserve not only his artwork, but also evidence of his everyday existence. Johnson did not indiscriminately hoard things; rather, he purposely weeded through what amounted to his life’s work—a vast collection of artworks and documents—and organized it with the specific intention that it would be examined and analyzed after his death.


Ray Johnson was a well-known if enigmatic figure in the New York art scene of the 1950s and 1960s.[4] His artistic background was impressive. He first embraced art at Cass Technical High School in his hometown of Detroit. He then attended an affiliate of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ox-bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan, and finally the legendary Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where he studied under Josef Albers and socialized with its many canonical faculty, students, and visitors. Johnson maintained these associations when he moved to New York City in 1949. There, everyone seemed to know him—or at least know of him; indeed, New York Times’ art critic, Grace Glueck, called him “New York’s most famous unknown artist.”[5] He counted the art world’s luminaries among his friends,[6] and always knew of their goings-on, attending their artistic events and hosting many of his own.[7] He was most commercially praised for his highly complex collages and was represented by one of the top galleries in the city, Richard L. Feigen & Co. More unconventional yet acclaimed, however, was his New York Correspondance School, the vast mail art network he founded in 1962.[8]

Johnson remained in New York until a fateful day in 1968 when he was mugged at knifepoint—coincidentally, also the day that Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. This confluence of events severely shook Johnson, so much so that he moved out of the city to the small hamlet of Glen Cove, Long Island and the next year even farther out to Locust Valley, purchasing what came to be known as the “Pink House” at 44 West 7th Street, where he would remain until the night he dove into Long Island Sound twenty-six years later (fig. 4).


Figure 4. Ray Johnson at his house in Locust Valley, NY 1972. Accompanied “Ray Johnson’s World,” Andy Warhol’s Interview, August 1972. Photo by Berry Berenson.

Johnson’s move from the cramped spaces of urban living to the spacious area of a whole house sparked many changes in his life, both emotionally and artistically. His relative isolation in the small town, physically removed from his former life and friends, provoked a similarly cloistered existence in general. Indeed, Johnson would become somewhat of a recluse, allowing very few visitors into his home.

Johnson’s practice likewise became hermetic. He continued to make collages after he moved, mounting some of his most critically and financially successful shows during the 1970s. Gradually, however, Johnson withheld these works and instead translated them into smaller collages that he dispersed via the postal system, completely bypassing the commercial art world; indeed, he refused to show in both galleries and museums beginning in 1978. Dealers at Feigen kept pestering him to put on a show and feared that he had stopped working altogether because they had not seen any new work in years. Friends knew otherwise, though, for they received his mailers on a daily basis. The New York Correspondance School was operating on epic proportions, its correspondents now numbering in the hundreds and reaching all corners of the globe. But where was all this work? The answer: packed away in Johnson’s Pink House patiently awaiting its introduction to the world.

Johnson continued to live in this manner until January 1995. He was 67 years old and had been working on his house/archive for almost half of his life. The time must have seemed perfect for him to retire and relinquish his archive to the world. Johnson was always fascinated with numerology, and in particular the number 13 with all of its karmic connotations. In keeping with this, Ray Johnson jumped off that bridge on Friday the 13th. He was 67 years old (6 + 7 = 13). Before he drove to the bridge, he checked into a motel in the room 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13). According to the two girls, he jumped from that bridge at 7:15 (7 + 1 + 5 = 13). Johnson turned his suicide into what many call his final performance, incorporating so many bizarre details into his death that it was sure to receive attention. Almost immediately, newspapers exploded with accounts of his mysterious suicide, which then prompted investigations into his similarly mysterious life and work. Once it was realized that Johnson left behind no designated arbiter of his estate, the people at Feigen agreed to take on the responsibility and travelled to Long Island to assume control of Johnson’s property, but were confronted with his archive instead.


By definition, an archive is a place where selected historical materials are housed and preserved. It is a physical place, not just a concept, and this accumulation of things—objects, documents, whatever the archive consists of—must have a place in which to exist. The archive’s physicality is what makes it a single entity, and giving the archive this space is the first step in its creation. Jacques Derrida, in his Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, recognizes this situation. He labels the process of giving an archive a physical place its “domiciliation” and argues that only after the archive is given a place to “dwell,” does it become a public entity:

It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place. The dwelling, this place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret.[9]

To support this contention, Derrida addresses the etymology of the word “archive,” tracing it back to its earliest Greek arkheion, defined as:

a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded. The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house, or employee’s house), that official documents are filed. The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians.[10]

An archive is neither a collection nor a library. An archive is a distinct entity with a conscious configuration of objects that have been purposefully chosen, preserved, and stored by an archon, a specific individual or group with omnipotent power in the archive’s determination and thus the responsibility of its guardianship.

But what drives one to create an archive? What function can this accumulation have? Charles Merewether claims that the archive is “a repository or ordered system of documents and records, both verbal and visual, that is the foundation from which history is written” but also warns that “the archive is not one and the same as forms of remembrance, or as history.”[11] Meaning, the archive is an essential tool in the creation of history, and that it is just that, a creation of history. History is a narrative written by those who are interpreting things based on what others have deemed important enough to preserve—the archon in his arkheion from Derrida’s text—and is therefore distinct from the objective concept of the past.[12] In this way, the archive governs what is recorded and unrecorded, and subsequently what is said and unsaid, about the past.[13]

Each addition to the archive is an index, a trace of the past intended to create a mark in the future.[14] The documents that record the past housed within its walls become tools to shape the future’s thinking, and those who collect them insert themselves into that record, thereby not only recording the past but also themselves. One could view this act as egocentric, but Derrida argues for a more morbid purpose, his mal d’archive; he believes the creation of an archive is driven by the Freudian death drive, an archival desire that seeks to assure a future always threatened by finitude.[15] Each document contained within the archive is like a monument, a permanent reminder of the past and those who erected it.[16]


Johnson’s archival project began concretely where Derrida began theoretically: its “domiciliation.” Johnson made his “Pink House” on West Street in Locust Valley into his archive’s domicile. Indeed, in the course of the twenty-six years in which he resided there, Johnson’s archive gradually took over the residence, replacing him as the main occupant. When asked in an interview for the Detroit Monthly in 1978 if he ever threw anything away, Johnson answered:

Oh, yea, I’ve had to: yes, for survival. And it all becomes an art work, at one point I created about a dozen large green garbage bags, big garbage bags full of correspondence and I went through and sort of tore it into pieces so it couldn’t be used by anyone and put them into bags and drove them into the city two at a time, because that’s all I could get into the back of my Volkswagen, and placed them in trash cans in some part of the city where I didn’t want scavengers finding them because I didn’t want these to be…[17]

It is clear from this statement that Johnson was equally as protective of the documents that did not make it into his archive as those that did; Johnson was the omnipotent being that determined the documents’ fate, whether it was to be filed away in his domicile/archive, or to perish in an anonymous garbage can in the hubbub of New York City where it could not be corrupted for a use of which Johnson did not approve.

Furthermore, Johnson was also his archive’s guardian, much akin to the role of the archon as described by Derrida. He was very protective of his work, to the point where he became a virtual recluse. His entire day was devoted to his archive, opening the countless pieces of mail art he received every day, as well as creating new mailers to send out to his hundreds of correspondents, an extremely time-consuming process that he described as follows:

Methodically every day I open my mail and respond to every letter and postcard. I have a whole process, of a steak knife which I use to open my letters, it’s like prayer, it’s a ritual for me, a ceremony. I’ll go out to the mail box [sic], bring the mail into my house, I have a very good mailman, he sort of piles things very neatly. I put them on my work table; I turn on the overhead light; it’s like a corpse on the table. It’s really my prayer; I start at the top, I perhaps see there is some very juicy interesting things here at the bottom. It’s like archeology.[18]


Johnson’s collages were a major element of his archive.[19] These are complex constructions consisting of many materials and layers built up from their supports with what he called “moticos.” Moticos is an anagram of the word “osmotic,” the adjectival form of osmosis. Johnson coined the term “moticos” in 1955, claiming that he and his friend, photographer Norman Solomon, chose “osmotic” at random out of a dictionary. Johnson presumably liked the term’s connotation of fluidity, however. He used it to refer to many elements of his practice, from the small tesserae-like pieces in his collages to his short, memoir-like stories and poems. He returned to his collages many times over the course of years, using these moticos and other found materials to bring together people, text, and images, positing new connections between what were often seemingly unrelated subjects. Johnson did not juxtapose these things arbitrarily: he purposefully chose and placed the elements within his compositions.

As Johnson grew increasingly protective of his artwork and his archive, he withheld his collages from the public and instead packed them into boxes. As Derrida points out, documents in an archive can also be visual, not just verbal, and visual documents can provide just as much information as written ones.[20] Below is one of those “documents,” a collage from a box in Johnson’s archive, titled Untitled (Andy with Four Buttons) (1992) (fig. 5). In what follows is an analysis of this collage in which I will focus specifically on the many personal references scattered throughout its composition. This is admittedly a sparse exploration of this highly complex collage, but such a narrowly focused exploration will most effectively illustrate how these collages act as an element in Johnson’s archive.


Figure 5. Untitled (Andy with Four Buttons), 1992. Collage on cardboard, 12 x 12.5 x .5 inches. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Andy Warhol’s silhouette is the base image in this collage. In 1976, Johnson began a portrait project that he called the “Silhouette University” which he continued well into the 1980s. He outlined the side-view of a person’s head and the final silhouette would serve as a template in his collages. Andy Warhol’s, a friend of Johnson’s, was the model for his first silhouette, done on April 20, 1976. In all, he depicted a total of 294 friends, acquaintances, and celebrities.

Built up from Warhol’s silhouette are numerous other images saturated with Johnson’s personal histories. First, there are the two “bunny heads” prominently placed at the top and another in the middle. In 1964, Ray Johnson signed a letter to his friend William (Bill) S. Wilson with a picture of a small bunny next to his name, and like real bunnies, this image rapidly proliferated, primarily becoming his signature and “self-portrait,” or portraits of others, made identifiable by their names which Johnson scrawled under them (the image itself never changed). Indeed, the bunny head is so emblematic of Johnson’s work that John Walter and Andrew Moore chose it as their title for their documentary on the artist, How to Draw a Bunny.

Running along the right side of the collage is a series of circles with faces on them. These are Johnson’s “tender buttons.” In 1964, Diana Epstein, an editor of Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, bought a closed button store and its inventory on East 77th Street in New York City on a whim. She named her new shop “Tender Buttons” after Gertrude Stein’s 1914 work, a collection of ruminations on small objects. About a week after Epstein opened the doors, Millicent Safro, an antiques restorer, stopped in to purchase a replacement for a missing button. Finding the store in shambles, she decided to help Epstein get organized and eventually became a partner. In its first year of operation, amidst boxes of buttons, the shop functioned as an artists’ space for many “Happenings,” including those organized by Ray Johnson, who must have been particularly drawn to the store’s name. Johnson was extremely interested in both Gertrude Stein’s works and persona and made many references to her in several collages. Johnson subsequently adopted the “button,” which resembles a face more than a clothes fastener, as another kind of signature and logo.

There is one more self-reference in this collage: the three “snakes” that form a sort of circle in the middle of the work. In 1965, Ray Johnson published his artist book The Paper Snake with Something Else Press, an independent publishing company that Johnson’s friend, Fluxus artist Dick Higginsfounded in 1963 to publish both his and his colleagues’ works. The Paper Snake was a compilation of mailings Johnson sent to Higgins. Afterwards, the snake became a common element in Johnson’s work, but unlike the bunny head or the tender button, the snake was more like an alter ego, another side of Johnson that slithered through his work.

This collage, with Johnson’s multiple insertions of himself into its very composition, supports Derrida’s assertion that the creation of an archive is driven by the death drive, or the need to assure that one’s presence is continued into the future. Johnson, by placing himself within the very documents of his archive, guaranteed that he would at least be thought of when “historians” decipher his archive, if not insert him into the historical narrative that they are constructing from the facts Johnson left for them. Johnson’s collages are an index, a trace of himself imprinted on the future.

And indeed, each element in this collage is a “fact” that Johnson provided the future examiners of his archive. Johnson, however, could only have control of his document’s interpretation while he was collecting them. Once he released them to the world, their interpretation was open to disparate readings, and not necessarily the one that he originally had in mind. This situation is inevitable, as Susan Hiller discusses in relation to her own archival-based art practice:

I take it that any conscious configuration of objects tells a story… If you think about the narrative that collections or assemblages of things make, the interesting thing is that there are always at least two possible stories: one is the story that the narrator, in this case the artist, thinks she’s telling – the story-teller’s story – and the other is the story that the listener is understanding, or hearing, or imagining on the basis of the same objects.[21]

Just as a painting has a life beyond the artist’s studio, Johnson’s archive is subject to multiple interpretations after he relinquished its control through his suicide. Acting as an archon, Johnson doggedly built and guarded his archive before his death, creating a highly idiosyncratic foundation from which a history was to be formed. Johnson retired his position as his archive’s archon when he jumped off the bridge in Sag Harbor and thereby assigned the responsibility of its interpretation to future examiners. Johnson recognized that his archive would be interpreted differently by different people – somewhat akin to Barthes’ claim that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”[22] – but unlike Barthes’ claim, Johnson can never be separated from his archive because it is too entwined with his persona. With the insertion of so many personal references throughout his archive’s contents, of which this one collage is an example out of thousands of others, Johnson ensured that he will be a constant in its many diverse interpretations.


[1] Guy Trebay, “Backstroking into Oblivion: The Riddle of Ray Johnson’s Suicide,” The Village Voice, January 31, 1995.

[2] Johnson never stated explicitly that he was making an archive. It is clear in retrospect, however, that he was.

[3] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Autumn, 2004): 3.

[4] The best and most comprehensive overview of Ray Johnson’s biography is the artist’s estate website, from which the above is drawn. “Biography,” Ray Johnson estate, accessed April 30, 2014, http://www.rayjohnsonestate.com/biography/.

[5] Grace Glueck, “What Happened? Nothing,” New York Times, April 11, 1965.

[6] A quick perusal of his address books is evidence of this fact, recording contact information for individuals such as John Cage and Andy Warhol.

[7] Johnson’s events often took the form of “meetings” for his New York Correspondance School (see footnote below.)

[8] Johnson often spelled the word correspondence “correspondance” so as to underscore his school’s playful nature. He used the postal system as a vehicle for artistic exchange, sending collages and other mailers to his correspondents, oftentimes prompting them to send altered versions either back to him or on to another network member.

[9] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Presnowitz, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 2-3.

[10] Derrida, Archive Fever, 2.

[11] Charles Merewether, “Introduction: Art and the Archive,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 10.

[12] Postmodern philosopher Hayden White argues that history is a narrative discourse closer to poetry than to science. White maintains that history’s function is not so much to explain as it is to tell through subjective reconstructions. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 1-2.

[13] Michel Foucault, L’Archéologie du savoir (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1969), passim.

[14] Paul Ricoeur, “Archives, Documents, Traces,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006): 68-9.

[15] Derrida, Archive Fever, 8-12.

[16] Ricoeur, “Archives, Documents, Traces,” 68.

[17] Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke, “Ray Johnson Interview,” Detroit Monthly, February 1978, 7.

[18] Spodarek and Delbeke, 4.

[19] Portions of this section were previously written by the author for the Ray Johnson Estate website.

[20] Derrida, Archive Fever, 2-3.

[21] Susan Hiller, “Working Through Objects” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 42.

[22] Barthes claims readers must separate the literary text from the author to free it from “interpretive tyranny.” Johnson, while acknowledging that there could be many interpretations of his archive, still actively strove to maintain his presence within those disparate interpretations. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. By Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 148.


* Gillian Pistell is a Research Assistant for the Modern and Contemporary Art Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prior to this position, she was a Researcher for the Ray Johnson Estate, represented by Richard L. Feigen & Co., and Hollis Taggart Galleries. Pistell received her BA from Colgate University in 2008, double majoring in both History and Art History, and her MA from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art in 2010. She is currently at PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY; her dissertation will identify and explore Ray Johnson as an “artist-archivist.”