Ray Johnson’s Kaleidoscopic Interview Practice

By Megan N. LibertyOctober 4, 2018

Ray Johnson’s Kaleidoscopic Interview Practice

That Was the Answer by Julie J. Thomson

IN 1979, FOR A LECTURE at the opening of his Walker Art Center exhibition, artist Ray Johnson streaked (as in ran naked) down the aisles when he was introduced. This act was a reference to another Ray Johnson (no relation) who had recently streaked at the Vatican, causing him to be expelled from Italy back to Connecticut, where the two Johnsons met each other at the Wadsworth Atheneum. This mix of wordplay, coincidence, and absurdity characterizes Johnson’s entire body of work, which includes collage, mail art, and performance. While his art incorporates such wild, grand gestures highlighting the incongruity of daily life, it also encompasses the intimacy of writing personalized letters to strangers. Johnson’s art is layered with texts and references; his mail art project involved thousands of solicited and unsolicited letters, notes, and objects sent and received over decades. Johnson was ultimately interested in the successes and failures, the gaps, the misunderstandings and slippages in human communication.

His interview practice fits squarely within this concern. For someone whose whole life was a performance, it’s no surprise that he did not conduct traditional interviews. Always interested in the layers of communication, the possibilities of intimacy and distance, and the ability to rewrite and reconstruct history, Johnson’s every answer and pause came freighted with meaning. This is especially evident in Julie J. Thomson’s selection of interviews, That Was the Answer: Interviews with Ray Johnson. The book spans 1963 to 1987, including previously printed interviews from magazines and others transcribed from audio, never before published.

Each interview is unique and designed specifically for the interviewer. As Johnson explained to Detroit Artists Monthly creators Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke in 1977: “Everything I make is made for the person I’m writing to — there is a whole daily process of what the envelope enclosure is to be, how it is folded, what is enclosed, what the envelope is, what the style is, whether it is very casual or very formal.”

This intimacy is just as much a part of his works as the absurdity of the “Mickey Mouse” or “bunny” glyph he would stamp on them. Even in the cases where he would write to celebrities, art dealers, and other figures he’d never met, each work was crafted just for them. “[W]hat I do is made for each person,” he said. “When I’m speaking to you, I am creating this composition for you by telephone, on the spot.” This methodology extended into everything he did, even and especially his interview practice. When photographer Richard Bernstein traveled to Johnson’s Locust Valley home to cover him for Interview magazine, Johnson remarked: “Of course you’ve noticed that there’s no furniture in the house, because when people come to visit me I spend two days hiding everything and then I do these arrangements. I take what little furniture I have and make little works of art.”

For Bernstein, he made “about twenty-four separate arrangements which no one will ever see; which only I know about, and which will never be documented.” Johnson acknowledged no division between his life and his art; everything was an opportunity to perform correspondence.

cor-re-spon-dence n.
Communication by letters.
Answering to each other in fitness or mutual adaptation; congruity, harmony, agreement.

Johnson’s work makes us rethink definitions. His extensive epistolary practice, collage work, and lectures expand what it means to correspond. To the artist John Held Jr., Johnson defined his correspondence as “a giving, but it’s also a distribution and a planting and a seeding, and it takes time”; he went on to note that he has “demonically pursued the subject.” His process of working and making mailings was exhaustive. “It’s like prayer, it’s a ritual for me, a ceremony,” he explained to Spodarek and Delbeke. The ritual included gathering his mail from the mailbox, turning on the television (to listen to it, not to watch), and drinking coffee, as he “surgically insert[ed] the knife in these envelopes” and sorted through them, always working his way down from the top to the bottom of the pile.

His process was not the traditional receive-and-reply of letter-writing: his replies were often sparked by some play on words, some correspondence between things on the page or in life — like his nude homage to the other Ray Johnson. Johnson tells art critic Henry Martin why he responded to a man who sent him a book of his poems:

I’ll ping-pong back to him and do a whole Belt Club about him, because of his name, which is Beltrametti, he’ll be the Spam Beltrametti Club, just like Cavellini got into some of my caveman collages because the first four letters of his name are CAVE. There’s a reason to write to him, to thank him for his book, but also he gets involved in other things because of some combination of alphabetical letters and names.

Johnson had already created the Spam Belt Club, of which this name reminded him. His art is an art of associations, an endless linking together of words, images, and people, a chain of correspondences.

As he tells Bernstein: “My reason for being interested in people is their anagrammatic names. Since I cut everything up, they’re all people in a kaleidoscope, but one person is many-faceted, like a crossword puzzle.” Kaleidoscopes recur throughout his interviews and serve as a fitting image for his thinking: fixed objects with pieces that can be rearranged by a slight turning, like his collages that he would often revisit and rework years later. As he put it: “The Correspondence School is related to the collage work and all these images, conversations, associations, complexities of what for me I’m trying to make some meaning out of.”

com-mu-ni-ca-tion n.
The fact of having something in common with another person or thing; affinity; congruity.
Interpersonal contact, social interaction, association, intercourse.

So what is the meaning that Johnson’s correspondence attempts to communicate? His physical works and performances play on our assumptions. In the introduction to his interview included in the book, Martin recalls something Johnson once said: “[T]hese collages are really like playing cards, and everybody gets a different selection […] [T]hey’ll bring up other people and images and ideas.” Each was made for one specific person, and each person brought his or her own interpretation to the arrangement of images and words. “[T]here’s a whole history, then, of objects that have been actually mailed or presented or delivered,” Johnson tells Martin. Many of his collages include the phrase “Please send to” with the details of a future recipient he hoped the objects would reach. “[T]his is a part of what I call the Correspondence School because these objects are things that are exchanged for some reason […] [T]here was a kind of communication between these objects, a kind of communication of objets trouvés.” As the objects moved, they were transformed through contact, with each sender adding to the piece or removing from it.

Following his interest in names and people, from Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo to Gertrude Stein and Joseph Cornell, much of Johnson’s collage work takes the form of portraits. “That’s what these portraits are all about,” he explains to Spodarek and Delbeke. “They are all the interior of the head. I’m trying to depict what goes on in the interior of the head: thoughts, images, or ideas.” There is an interiority to his communication as well: it’s not just about an exchange between objects but also a communication of internal thoughts and associations, of the Freudian slips we think but try to mask. In a 1984 radio interview, Weslea Sidon raised the issue of Freudian slips and purposeful slippage, “to catch an unconscious process and make a decision to do it, to use it.” “Well maybe that’s what writers or poets do,” Johnson responded. Despite his extensive use of text and wordplay, Johnson eschewed the label of poet: “I shouldn’t call myself a poet but other people have. What I do is classify the words as poetry.” Poetry is an apt model for Johnson’s communication, though, since his words, images, and symbols require a deep unpacking of possible meanings.

What about the social aspect of communication? While his mailings offer a model for sociability, they aren’t exactly a social interaction. His performances and lectures (which were usually more akin to performances than traditional talks) use many of the same models I’ve noted — i.e., wordplay and free association — but they also involve a more immediate social interaction with the audience or other participants. On the day of his lectures, he would look to his morning mail for inspiration, finding something during his ritual opening of letters to use in his talks, whether it be something to wear or to hold. “I’m dealing with magic,” he told Spodarek and Delbeke. “I provoke the mailbox to provide me […] Or, I will use what is in the mail for the subject of my lecture.” Pieces, sometimes from strangers, would become essential elements in his communication to that day’s audience, adding an element of chance to each lecture and making each event a one-off occurrence.

in-ter-view n.
A meeting of persons face to face, especially one sought or arranged for the purpose of formal conference on some point.
Looking into; inspection; examination.

But Johnson also upends communication by playing with its failures, the nothings and silences that communicate so much but are often hard to interpret. This brings us back to the interview format, a technique of communication — a social interaction — but also a kind of correspondence. And Johnson performed it much as he did everything else. In a 1968 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Sevim Fesci begins by asking about Johnson’s background, where he is from and when he was born, to which Johnson replies: “I find whenever one begins a tape like this that it doesn’t get interesting until you’re into it […] And your beginning questions prompt a certain silence.” As with his rearrangement of furniture, Johnson never approaches an interview as a blank slate awaiting questions; he always has a performance in mind. As Martin notes: “He explains himself only in the very same ways that he expresses himself, and getting an interview from him means accepting potluck.”

The transcript of a second 1984 radio interview, with Shirley Samberg, is filled with “[pause]” notations. After the first occurrence, Johnson tells Samberg: “This is something I planned hours ago. That I would create spaces in reply to questions. Or in reply to logic. As I’ve done here. I’ve just created a sort of a rectangle with nothing in it.” A rectangle of nothing evokes a series of performances — happenings — that Johnson gave throughout his career. A student at Black Mountain College at the same time as John Cage tenure there, the most famous artist of nothing, Johnson was similarly interested in these blank spaces and pauses. As Thomson notes in her introduction, “Johnson’s emphasis on, and inclusion of space, allowed it to become an active part of his work.” She draws attention to this moment in the Samberg interview, as well as to the moment during his Archives of American Art interview when, asked about time in his work, Johnson paused to smoke a cigarette and then explained: “By the way, that was the answer to your question about time.”

In his interview with Held Jr., Johnson describes an appearance he made on a talk show:

They thought I wanted to sit and talk and present, and they set up the camera and the background, and so forth. But what I was doing was action in the outer edges, and I began moving, physically moving everything, which is like a recurring theme of my lectures, which is to set everything in motion.

Even in his blank spaces and nothings, Johnson is working around the edges of what we presume an interview to be, forcing us to rethink our roles. If every question becomes a prompt for an artwork, the interviewer becomes a participant in an ongoing performance. At one point, while speaking with artist and longtime correspondent Richard Pieper, Johnson claims that many of his performances are not conceptual art but rather “participatory action. I keep saying to people who want to find out about the Correspondence School that the only way to truly understand it is through participation, because what I do is made for each person.” In his interviews, Johnson offers a chance to participate, correspond, and communicate, in the fullest meaning of those terms.


Megan N. Liberty is an arts and culture writer based in Brooklyn. She is the Art Books editor at the Brooklyn Rail and has a master's in Art History from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

LARB Contributor

Megan N. Liberty is an arts and culture writer based in Brooklyn. She is the Art Books editor at the Brooklyn Rail and has a master's in Art History from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.


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