New York’s most famous unknown artist

"His stuff looks like something I could make," remarked a young man in a sarcastic tone to his friends as they were exiting the Ray Johnson exhibit currently on display at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

James Dean/Rimbaud, ca. 1956-58, collage on cardboard, private collection.

Now, in my opinion, dismissing a Ray Johnson exhibit with such a comment is something like dismissing the relevance of prehistoric cave paintings because they're not painted with enough realism.

That's the art snob in me talking. On another level I can see where this guy is coming from. Having been granted the title, "Grand Dean of Dada and Postal Art," Johnson was a collage artist who employed everyday materials and commercial lingo into his work. His mail art used the simplest of devices — letters — ornamented with drawings and words. Examining the time and place at which they were created, and the motivations behind the work, however, brings this exhibit into a whole new light.

Sebastian Matthews, a literature instructor at Warren Wilson College, curated From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson (1943-1967). Matthews has selected artwork from Johnson's years at BMC and two decades thereafter to demonstrate how Johnson's early education influenced the work for which he would later become "known." Quotations around that word, because Johnson has also been called "New York's most famous unknown artist." The collection at BMCM + AC represents just a small portion of his life's work, but is a great leaping-off point in understanding this invaluable artist whose influence on the Pop Art Movement and contemporary art cannot be ignored.

Johnson first enrolled at Black Mountain College in 1945 when he was 17. He spent three years at the school and was largely influenced by Josef Albers. Photographs by Hazel Larsen Archer show a gangly Johnson clad in the classic white T-shirt of that era. One photo shows him bent over his notebook in a class led by Albers. The work from Tutelary Years of this stage in Johnson's life is mostly of geometric abstract paintings that easily demonstrate the base of Johnson's aesthetic viewpoint.

Also on display are collages created in the '50s and '60s, which Johnson referred to as "moticos." They examine Johnson's love of words and puns, and thoughtful composition. He often reworked his collages after exhibiting them, and would sometimes cut them up for use in new collages. Over time, his work became increasingly self-referential, as he would collage advertisements and images of popular figures into earlier drawings. Much of the work has an irreverent tone, such as Action Jackson that references Jackson Pollock, the well-known abstract artist described in the media at that time as an "action painter."

I heard a viewer say, "This looks like a Warhol," upon glancing at the piece, JamesDean/Rimbaud, which shows both men with bold stripes of pink rendered in marker across their faces. Considering that the piece was made in 1956-58 and predates Warhol's iconic pop paintings by half a decade, it is certain that Johnson influenced his friend's popular artwork, as artists who run in similar circles tend to do.

Much of the work should be regarded as physical relics of actual art pieces. Johnson's postal performances, for example, had a lot to do with the actual mailing and receiving of letters and envelopes he created. With that action removed, the letters are now what remain of the original art piece. There are several on hand to check out in this exhibit, and even some that Johnson had created in 1943 — two years before he attended Black Mountain College.

There are so many facets to Johnson as an artist, and his personal life in many ways was also an art piece. The documentary How to Draw a Bunny puts forth the belief that Johnson regarded his suicide in 1995 as his final "happening." (He actually referred to his conceptual performances as "nothings.") The movie will be screened in conjunction to this exhibit on April 8 at the Fine Arts Theatre. In the meantime, I recommend checking out The Tutelary Years. To see a collection of this importance in such an intimate setting is a privilege indeed.

who: Ray Johnson
what: From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson (1943-1967)
where: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
when: Through June 12. Info on special events and programs at

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One thought on “New York’s most famous unknown artist

  1. Arts Consumer

    A nice article about an artist I knew little about. Makes me want to see the show.

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