Considered both a Pop artist and an exemplar of the multi-disciplinary, anti-intellectual Fluxus movement, Ray Johnson has been labeled an enigmatic prankster and a pioneering genius. His origins and childhood in working-class Detroit, Michigan, were ordinary enough. He attended an occupational high school where he focused on commercial art, took classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and spent a summer at the Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Michigan. In the summer of 1945, he headed east to study at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he spent the next three years (with the exception of spring 1946 when he was in New York studying at the Art Students League). Among his instructors at the experimental college was Josef Albers whose courses on art materials proved highly influential. In addition, Johnson befriended many avant-garde artists, including fellow student Robert Rauschenberg, and teachers Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, all of whom emphasized various forms of improvisation.
In early 1949, Johnson moved to New York. There, he joined the American Abstract Artists group and painted geometric abstractions that reflect the teachings of Albers and Ilya Bolotowosky, another faculty member at Black Mountain. Four years later, however, Johnson abandoned this direction and took up collage, building layered compositions from fragments of popular culture such as celebrity photos and cigarette packaging. He coined the term “moticos” (the anagram for osmotic) for his small collages, which he mailed to friends with the instructions to “please add to and send to” additional recipients. He also displayed his work on the streets of New York, trying to engage puzzled passersby. When one client asked for a twenty-five percent discount, Johnson obliged and delivered the piece with a quarter cut off. Between 1957 and 1963, Johnson participated in various performance events, often titled “Nothings.”
Unnerved after being mugged at knifepoint and shaken by the death of Robert Kennedy, in 1968 Johnson moved to Glen Cove on Long Island and began a reclusive existence. Though physically removed from the modern art scene, he maintained personal and cultural connections through his mail art, over one hundred examples of which were featured in a 1970 exhibition, The New York Correspondance [sic] School, at the Whitney Museum of Art. Johnson’s suicide at age sixty-seven—he dove off a bridge in Sag Harbor into frigid waters—has been interpreted as his last piece of performance art. Johnson’s work is represented in leading museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art.