CHAMPAIGN — Artist Ray Johnson was a bit of a conundrum, says the guest curator of an exhibition of his work opening tonight (Aug. 29) at Krannert Art Museum.
"He's such a paradox," said Mirian Kienle, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Illinois. "He was sort of like a Joseph Cornell figure: so incredibly connected to everyone in the New York art world but sort of an outsider."
That's one reason New York Times art editor Grace Glueck in 1965 called Johnson "the most famous unknown artist in New York."
Through the years he's also been called the father of "mail art" and prescient — he was one of the first performance artists, and the proto Pop artist, having been the first to use in his art images from pop culture.
Twenty-five of his collages will be part of "Return to Sender: Ray Johnson, Robert Warner, and the New York Correspondence School," which Kienle curated in collaboration with Warner, an exhibiting artist from New York who knew Johnson personally.
Warner has lent to the exhibition 13 boxes of ephemera that Johnson gave him in the late '80s. Warner also will do a performance this evening at Krannert Art Museum.
To complement the exhibition, the Gelvin Noel Gallery at Krannert will showcase works from the museum's permanent collection by artists who corresponded with Johnson.
Johnson founded in the '60s the New York Correspondence School, an international network of visual artists, writers and celebrities who exchanged mail art and engaged in mail-art events.
Kienle said Johnson also would send mail art to persons he met on the subway or elsewhere in New York — and to people he had known while in college.
Kienle, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., said Johnson, who died in 1995 at age 67, remains relevant today because of social media and issues related to information and art technology.
As for Facebook and other social media sites, one wonders what Johnson, who was reclusive at times, would have made of them.
The Detroit-born artist built his reputation under the radar, preferring to be inclusive rather than elitist.
And though galleries were interested in him, Johnson chose to circulate his art mainly through the mail, hence the term mail art and the movement known as the New York Correspondence School.
According to the online Johnson estate website, Johnson grew up in Detroit and attended an occupational high school, where he studied advertising art program.
He then studied at the Detroit Art Institute and spent a summer drawing at the Ox-Bow School in Saugatuck, Mich.
In 1945, he left Michigan to study at the progressive Black Mountain College, with the likes of Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger and Robert Motherwell.
There he also befriended visiting lecturers John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller.
Johnson moved in 1949 to New York City, where he painted geometric abstractions. He destroyed most of that work and turned to collage soon thereafter.
By 1954, he was making irregularly shaped "moticos" — what he called small-scale collages; he included in them images of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple and department-store models.
From the early '60s on, Johnson cut up his moticos to create compositions he glued onto small blocks of layered cardboard. He would ink, paint and sand these "tiles," using them in his collages.
In his works, Johnson also incorporated letters or fragments of words and names of celebrities, literary figures and art-world denizens.
"In his typically self-deprecating way, Johnson would say that he did not make Pop Art, he made 'Chop Art,' " reads his biography.
Kienle believes Johnson's work traveled the boundary between public and private space.
"I think his bio kind of matches that," she said. "He's sort of a famous unknown."
If you go
What: "Return to Sender: Ray Johnson, Robert Warner and the New York Correspondence School, guest-curated by Miriam Kienle.
When: Opens with a public reception from 6 to 7 p.m. today and remains on view through Jan. 5 (museum hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays); Warner will deliver comments at 6 tonight
Where: Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, C
Admission: Free; $3 donation suggested
Screening of the five-minute "Ray Johnson Correspondence School" (1974) and the documentary "How to Draw a Bunny" (2002), 5:30 p.m. Oct. 10, Room 62, Krannert Art Museum
Gallery conversation with Kienle, guest curator and doctoral candidate in art history, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14