Tables of Contents: Ray Johnson Bob Box Archive

Untitled (Please Send to May)

Arcadia University Art Gallery

By Daniel Gerwin

On October 1, 2-5 PM, Robert Warner will offer a tour of the exhibit and demonstrate some related artistic processes. Howard Hussey, Joseph Cornell’s studio assistant from 1966-72 will also be present to discuss Cornell’s influence on Johnson’s work.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, but it is. This month Philadelphia hosts three different exhibits in which an artist’s studio is reproduced to a greater or lesser degree. The Institute of Contemporary Art has temporarily installed the studio of sculptor Bill Walton, who died in 2010. Jolie Laide presents the collages of artist James Gallagher along with a version of his studio, which happens to be his dining room table. Completing the triangle is Arcadia University, with a show of the utterly unique Ray Johnson: the gallery is full of tables covered with the raw material of Johnson’s art.

Johnson worked with pretty much anything you can think of, though his materials were generally small in scale: found beach glass, corks, matchbooks, dice, playing cards, ties, mannequin feet, posters, ads, book pages. Johnson was constantly assembling objects into wonderful jokes and enigmas, but this was only one aspect of his artistic output. Johnson is the great master of mail-art, arguably its creator, and it reached its apotheosis in his hands. Twelve hours a day, every day, he slipped his inventive drawings and wordplays into envelopes and mailed them to countless correspondents. His letters often contained instructions to modify or add to the contents and send them to a third party. People followed his directives, and they wrote back, keeping the game alive. This activity became known as the New York Correspondence School, and it generated an enormous accretion of material, which brings us to the reason there is a Ray Johnson show at Arcadia this month.

If you corresponded faithfully with Johnson, there was a remote chance he would suddenly show up with a dozen cardboard boxes of his work for you to store. This happened one day in 1990 to collage artist Robert Warner, who dutifully preserved his trove of thirteen boxes. Even after Johnson died in 1995 Warner never opened them. This past summer Warner unpacked the boxes and cataloged their contents at theEsopus Foundation’s gallery in New York’s West Village. It is Philadelphia’s great fortune to have this archive available at Arcadia, along with a selection of Johnson’s masterful collages lent by his Estate. Because Johnson eschewed art world norms, exhibits of his work are hard to come by, making Arcadia’s exhibit an especially valuable opportunity. Moving through the show’s idiosyncratic drawings and objects, I felt warmed by Johnson’s particular engagement with the world; it runs through his work like an underground stream.

I want to argue that Johnson’s artistic practice can be understood, at least in part, in terms of a gift economy. The Gift, Lewis Hyde’s important investigation of creativity and gift exchange, offers numerous examples of gift economies that bear similarities to the way Johnson involved others in his art. Lewis describes the Kula, a ceremonial gift system of the Massim, who populate the islands off the eastern tip of New Guinea. Two different types of gift objects, armshells and necklaces, are continuously transferred from person to person through the islands in an infinite ring. One does not give a gift to the person from whom a gift was received, but rather to someone else, on the next island along the chain. A household may retain a gift for a period of time, even a full year, but ultimately the gifts remain in circulation.

Lewis characterizes the circuit of the Kula as necessitating three points (because two points merely make a line), but three points also describe a triangle. The triangle figures prominently as a motif in Johnson’s drawings, and it’s also key to the operation of his mail-art. Warner likes to imagine Johnson’s method as a three-sided ping-pong table in which each player hits the ball to their neighbor, rather than only two people playing back and forth. Johnson would mail an item to Warner with instructions such as “bring this to Chuck Close,” or “slip this under Jasper Johns’ door.” Inevitably, a letter including the directive “please send to” would rope a third person into Johnson’s machinations.

Lewis points out that as with the Kula, “most of the stories of gift exchange have a minimum of three people.” A third person enlarges gift-giving beyond the confines of binary reciprocity. This expanded dynamic avoids a quid pro quo and thus stands in stark contrast to the movement of commodities, which change hands only to generate a calculated profit. Johnson’s art incorporated all sorts of objects he found washed up on the beach, gifts from the tides that in fact started out in someone else’s hands. The ocean, with its vast generosity and scale, provides a useful metaphor for Johnson’s practice. Henry Martin, in his introduction to an interview he conducted with Johnson in 1984, describes the New York Correspondence School as “a vast sea of objects, images and information.” In 1995, Johnson drowned himself in the Atlantic, completing the circle of his own life and leaving the rest of us to marvel at all he has given.

   Daniel Gerwin is an artist living in Philadelphia. He holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and is a lecturer at the University of the Arts. Daniel is a regular contributor to Machete.