Untitled [Strange Devices...] c. 1955-1960

The art of Ray Johnson (American, 1927Ė1995) was rooted in his prolific correspondence. Throughout his life, he mailed a tremendous number of collages, drawings, and printed matter to friends and colleagues. Among the recipients were several staff members at The Museum of Modern Art, most notably the curator Dorothy Miller, who received Johnsonís mailings from the mid-1950s on, and the library director Clive Phillpot, who corresponded with Johnson in the 1980s and 1990s. This exhibition focuses on Johnsonís early printed materials, especially his self-promotional flyers and booklets for his work as a designer and illustrator in the 1950s and early 1960s. These were some of the first things Johnson sent to the Museum, and they contain the hand-lettering and complex wordplay that were recognizable aspects of his style throughout his artistic career.

In addition to the flyers, the exhibition includes examples of Johnsonís print designs, including covers for books and records as well as contributions to fashion magazines. These works also reveal elements of Johnsonís biography, such as his friendship with Andy Warhol, who provided Johnson with introductions for commercial design work. Other materials, such as the flyers for the Living Theater (an experimental theater in New York City), are artifacts of Johnsonís participation in a downtown scene that was teeming with new energy and ideas from visual artists, musicians, dancers, and poets. These self-published flyers were first circulated within that scene and are an early example of Johnsonís unconventional methods of distributing his work.

This exhibition is organized by David Senior, Bibliographer, MoMA Library.

Materials were assembled from the MoMA Library Collection. Several items have been loaned from the MoMA Archives' Dorothy C. Miller Papers. The Ray Johnson Estate has also generously loaned materials to the exhibition.

Black Mountain College

From 1945 to 1948, Johnson attended Black Mountain College, a decisive event in his artistic life. This experience initiated friendships with various instructors, students and alumni of the school, such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and Elaine and Willem de Kooning. In his CV from 1967 shown below, Johnson lists Josef Albers as an instructor during his time at Black Mountain. The German emigres, Josef and Anni Albers, were important figures at the school. They were founding instructors and developed Bauhaus teaching methods for the curriculum, particularly Josef Albersí foundational courses in design and color. The effect of the Albersí on Johnsonís early graphic work and paintings is evident in this 1947 cover illustration for Interiors. Josef Albers took an interest in Johnson as a student and was responsible for getting Johnson this early commission.

Cover illustration by Ray Johnson. In Interiors. Vol. CVII, no. 4, November 1947.

Ray Johnsonís artist CV, 1967


In the 1950s, Johnson created a body of work out of found materials and cut-outs from popular print media. He called these constructions "moticos," an anagram for osmotic. They are often cited as among the earliest examples of Pop Art. During this period, Johnson mailed his moticos to friends and colleagues, put them up along sidewalks and in other informal settings, and exhibited them in a few gallery shows. He also printed and mailed a series of texts that poetically elaborate the idea behind the moticos. Even the sheets that simply list the titles of the collages can be read as poems about the interactions of the images and influences embedded in the moticos. The examples shown here were among a series that Johnson mailed to the MoMA curator Dorothy Miller in 1955.

Moticos. 1956

What is a Moticos? New York, 1955. Text first appeared in the inaugral issue of the Village Voice on October 26, 1955. Image courtesy of William S. Wilson.

Announcing 36 New Collages by Ray Johnson. 1955

Envelope for the 36 Collages flyer, sent by Ray Johnson to Dorothy Miller, 1955.

Detail from Untitled [Fusille Klein]. New York, 1955.

Design Flyers

Like many young artists in New York City, Johnson needed to use his creativity to subsist, and he was able to find some work as a graphic designer in the 1950s. These commissions share their tone and motifs with his collages and performances of that time. From about 1955 to 1962, he had these promotional flyers printed; he would mail them to colleagues and friends in hopes of getting new commissions for designs and illustrations. The dates for some of these flyers have been found on receipts and printing plates held by the Ray Johnson Estate. Otherwise, dates can be roughly deduced by the address listed on many of the flyers: 2 Dover Street, where Johnson lived until 1960.

Untitled [A bird can do easy flying...] c. 1955-1956.

Untitled [Music Titles on Chair]. 1956

Ray Johnson Drawings. 1956. Pencil writing on the flyer decodes the message.

Untitled [Orange Cut-outs]. 1957

Untitled [Laundry List]. c. 1955-1960

Untitled [Stacked Collaged Squares]. 1956. With added note by Ray Johnson, "I hope you can see my designs in Bonwit Tellers windows."

Ray Johnson Galler. c.1955-1960

Untitled [Hunt's Catsup]. c. 1955-1960

Untitled [Cut-up New York Street Map]. c. 1955-1960

Untitled [If Tears are Dropped]. c.1961. Gift of William S. Wilson.

Untitled (POP Pillspill) design mechanical for a promotional flyer c.1954-60. Collage on cardboard panel. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Untitled [Hold-Up]. c. 1954-60. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Ray Johnson & Gutai

In 1956, Johnson was in contact with the Gutai group, an avant-garde group of Japanese artists that had formed in 1954. He sent the group's founder, Jiro Yoshihara, a few of his design flyers and several collages. As a result, some of the materials were published in the group's magazine, Gutai, that same year. The page shown here, from Gutai no. 6, includes several reproductions of Johnsonís flyers as well as a Japanese translation of the letterhat Johnson included in the his package. Johnson subsequently made a flyer that reproduces exactly a section of his page in Gutai.

Full page and detail featuring Ray Johnson's design flyers from Gutai. no 6. Tokyo, 1957

Untitled [Gutai page]. c. 1957-1960

Two Little Books

Johnson had the pages of these two self-promotional books printed and then bound them himself with colored thread and also cut the circular holes in the pages of the Peek a Book of the Week. These copies were found in the libraryís file on Johnson in 1987 and cataloged separately as artistís books at that time. They were likely part of the series of mailed materials sent to Dorothy Miller in the mid-1950s.



Design in Print

Johnson was commissioned to design several book covers for literary publishers as well as album covers for record labels in the 1950s. A collection of these cover designs appear below. By 1956, he had met Andy Warhol in New York and the two became friends. Warhol had illustrated covers for New Directions and was a successful illustrator for fashion magazines of the time such as Harperís Bazaar, and he introduced Johnson to art directors in the commercial design world. Shown here are several examples of Johnson's magazines, including Harperís Bazaar and Seventeen, that used Johnsonís illustrations, hand-lettering, and backdrops for fashion photography. Quite apart from Seventeen and Harperís Bazaar was Tuli Kupferbergís Birth, a bohemian little magazine for which Johnson served as art director.

Rogers & Hart's On Your Toes. New York: Columbia Records, 1956.

Cover design proposal by Ray Johnson for A Tangled Web, by Nicholas Blake. Watercolor, collage, and ink on cardstock. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Arthur Rimbaud. Illuminations.. New York: New Directions, 1957

Kenneth Patchen. Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1958.

Charles Eric Maine. The Isotope Man. Philadelphia/New York: Lippincott, 1957 and Kenneth Patchen. Because It Is. New York: New Directions, 1960

Giuseppe Cioachino Belli. The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppe Cioachino Belli. Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon Society, 1960

Endpapers by Ray Johnson and colophon from What is the World, by Betty Miles and Remy Charlip. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958. Gift of William S. Wilson.

Cover and backcover detail from What a Man Can See, by Russell Edson with drawings by Ray Johnson. Penland, North Carolina: Jargon Society, 1969. Johnson's drawings for this publication were originally produced in 1959.

Backdrop design by Ray Johnson for a photoshoot in Harper's Bazzar, February, 1957.

Hand-lettered backdrop by Ray Johnson. From New York Times Fashion Supplement, March 2, 1958. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Hand-lettered caption by Ray Johnson from Seventeen, December, 1958.

Teen magazine page designed by Ray Johnson. Not dated. ©The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Hand-lettering and layout by Ray Johnson from the colophon and title page of Birth, no. 1, 1958

Details of hand-lettering by Ray Johnson from colophon and title page of Birth, no. 3, 1960

Flyers for Friends

The promotional flyer below, for a series of events in early 1957, illustrates Johnson's continued connection to Black Mountain College while in New York City. Listed in this flyer are BMC instructor Merce Cunningham's first performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; a new series of publications by The Jargon Society, which was founded by BMC alumnus Jonathan Williams; and an exhibition of works by Cy Twombly, with whom Johnson had become acquainted through BMC alumnus Robert Rauschenberg. Johnson collaborated with his friend Norman Solomon, also a BMC alumnus, on a radio station flyer that was reproduced in an issue of Print in 1957. Finally, Johnson's hand-lettered flyers for performances at Julian Beck and Judith Malina's The Living Theatre further reflect his active involvement in the downtown scene of artists, writers, and performers.

Promotional flyer for "Ray Johnson-Drawings, Lettering, Design" and "Merce Cunningham and Dance Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music, January 12th [1957], three new titles by Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society and Cy Twombly at the Stable Gallery opening January 2 [1957]". c. 1956.

Illustration of an announcement for a radio program designed by Ray Johnson with a photograph by Norman Solomon. In Print. Vol. XI, no. 1, February-March, 1957.

Flyer for Jonathan Williams/Jargon Society book release event at the Living Theatre, 1957. © The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Flyer for Theater Pieces by Samuel Beckett. New York: The Living Theatre, 1959

Flyer for a performance by Aileen Passloff & Co. New York: The Living Theatre, 1960.


I am completely indebted to the guidance of William S. Wilson and Michael von Uchtrup in helping me to further identify many of the materials in this exhibition and learn more about these works in the context of Ray Johnson's biography. I also thank former MoMA Library director Clive Phillpot for his direction and expertise in this regard. They, along with The Ray Johnson Estate, were essential in compiling a list of extant examples of Johnson's book covers and work in print for magazines and newspapers. I am especially grateful to archivist Diana Bowers at The Ray Johnson Estate for assisting in the loan of several items from the Estate's archive for this exhibition. Thank you as well to Michelle Elligott and Elisabeth Thomas in the Archives Department at MoMA for lending several of the moticos flyers, which were found in the Dorothy Miller papers.