PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs

Dubbed “New York’s most famous unknown artist” by the New York Times, Ray Johnson (1927–1995) was a widely connected downtown figure, Pop art innovator, and pioneer of collage and mail art. After moving from Manhattan to suburban Long Island in 1968, Johnson selectively distanced himself from the mainstream art world, holding only two exhibitions after 1978. Yet even after his last show, in 1991, he remained a prolific and unpredictable artist.

Johnson used photographs in his work for decades, but it was only with his purchase of a single-use, point-and-shoot camera in January 1992 that he embarked on his own “career as a photographer.” By the end of December 1994 he had used 137 disposable cameras. His most frequent subjects were what he called his Movie Stars: meter-high collages on cardboard, often featuring the bunny head that served as his artistic signature. They became ensemble players in the curious tableaux he staged in everyday locales near his Locust Valley home.

At his death by suicide in January 1995, Johnson left a vast archive of art in boxes stacked throughout his house, including over five thousand color photographs, still in the envelopes from the developer’s shop. This body of work, virtually unseen until now, comprised his final major art project, the last act in a romance with photography that had begun some forty years earlier.

PLEASE SEND TO REAL LIFE: Ray Johnson Photographs is made possible by Ronay and Richard L. Menschel and the J. W. Kieckhefer Foundation, with support from the Young Fellows of the Morgan Library & Museum.

Unless otherwise noted, all works are by Ray Johnson. Johnson did not title his photographs; descriptive titles are provided for identification purposes only.