Legend has it the face of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships. If so, artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) has her beat. His 1960s explorations of death through a mail art project are galvanizing thousands of artists more than a decade after his death.
The concept was simple. Johnson made art on legal-size paper and mailed it to fellow artists. Sometimes there were instructions for further action. Johnson’s mailing art habit grew into an informal network he called the New York Correspondance (sic) School.
Johnson gathered some of the work about death into an unbound book titled it “A Boop About Death.” Eventually, Johnson thoughts turned to action and he became famous for something else—his death from a leap from the Sag Harbor Bridge.
In 2009, Matthew Rose initiated a project asking for artwork about death a’la Johnson. He issued an open call with a caveat: each responding artist had to create one original artwork and supply 499 copies. The idea was to create 500 identical unbound books. (Johnson also left his death book unbound). Nearly 500 artists responded including Yoko Ono.
An exhibition was held in SoHo in 2009 that saw blocks lined with people wanting to see the show. Copies of ABAD (A Book About Death) landed in permanent museum collections and launched international interest in the project.
A new round of ABAD is happening now at C.W. Post campus of Long Island University in Brookville. An exhibition titled, Ray Johnson and A Book About Death, runs from November 1 to 6. The show includes new artwork, Johnson’s original project and the entire 2009 ABAD project. An ezine of new art made from some of the 2009 project artists is also on view. The ezine arose from participating artists who met at the 2009 show and kept the art making connection going.
On Wednesday night (November 3), things are going to explode. The show opens with an exhibiting artist reception and a fluxibition (an evening of live and video performances). Around 13 performances will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. The opening runs from 5 to 11 p.m. It’s held at the Student Art League Gallery at Hillwood Commons of CW Post.
Performances include a Japanese Butoh dance, a conceptual performance of “A Book About Ray Johnson Volume 2,” a Thai Nang Shadow Theatre piece, a living statute piece, a three-channel video piece and more. See rayjohnsonandabookaboutdeath.blogspot.com for details. There’s even a phone line set up so people can “call Ray Johnson” to get them revved up for the exhibition.
Ray Johnson and A Book About Death is co-curated by Joan Harrison and LuAnn T. Palazzo. Ray Johnson lived in Glen Cove and then Locust Valley and did several performances at the college. The gallery will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.