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Ray Johnson mail art collection

Identifier: MSS 0728

Scope and Content Note

This collection comprises American mail artist Ray Johnson's (1927-1995) letters, collages, and artwork sent to his friend and artist Phyllis Floyd. Also included in the collection are newspaper clippings about Johnson and promotional material for retrospectives of his career.

Johnson regularly sent his work to Floyd in reused business envelopes and included found items such as advertisements and articles in his correspondence. Specimens of his mail art in the collection are composed from fragments of magazines, stickers, collages, and drawings. In addition to sharing his own work, he included letters and drawings intended as collaborations. There are examples of collaborations with Phyllis Floyd as well as artwork Johnson made with her daughter Zoe.

In addition to mail art, the collection assembles promotional material and other ephemera that advertised events related to Ray Johnson's work. Johnson sent Floyd invitations to his New York Correspondence School meetings and posters and fliers for his exhibitions. Several fliers and catalogs from retrospective shows and the documentary How to Draw a Bunny are also included.


  • Creation: 1972-2014


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note

American artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was instrumental to the development of the mail art movement. Over the length of his career, he established the New York Correspondance [sic] School and sent countless artistic letters, postcards, collages and other small objects to friends and collaborators. His work in this area stems from a foundation in fine arts and design while embedded in the extensive creative milieu anchored in New York City around notable such notable figures as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).

Ray Johnson's early artistic development began with design classes in high school. After he graduated, Johnson left his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he experimented with abstract expressionist painting. In 1949, he moved to New York City where his work took on elements of collage in a style that heralded Pop Art. Johnson developed his collage technique into a personal style that he termed "moticos," an anagram of "osmotic." The theatrical element of his paintings anticipated his participation in early forms of performance art with members of the Fluxus movement. He produced compositions that were performed by The Living Theatre and held interactive events called Nothings, which echoed the growing trend of Happenings pioneered by Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow (1927-2006). Johnson said that Nothings were an "attitude more than a happening": Nothings were events in which people gathered specifically for nothing to happen; once something did happen, the Nothing was over.

Johnson's interest in public art culminated in his mail art, which allowed him to synthesize his skills as a collagist with social, participatory art. As a practice, Johnson's mail art consisted of a variety of stickers, drawings, and collages sent through the mail, often with a note to the receiver “please add to this.” Beginning in 1968, he organized meetings for the New York Correspondance [sic] School that advanced the phenomenon of mail art and produced a network of artists working in this field. Johnson purposely replaced the "e" in correspondence with an "a" to "suggest movement and play." That year, he was mugged coincidentally on the same day as his friend Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas. This experience acted as the catalyst for his departure from New York, and he spent the remaining years of his life in Locust Valley. Despite the inherent sociality of his art, Johnson grew increasingly reclusive over the next decade, eventually ceasing to exhibit his work in the 1980s.

Johnson is believed to have committed suicide on January 13, 1995: on that day, he was reported to have been seen diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and swimming out to sea. The documentary How to Draw a Bunny on Johnson's life and work was released in 2003.

"Ray Johnson." Contemporary Artists Gale, 2001. Biography in Context. (GALE K1636001203). Ray Johnson Estate. "Ray Johnson Biography." Accessed August 5, 2015.


.3 linear foot (1 box)

1 oversize removal


This collection comprises American mail artist Ray Johnson's (1927-1995) letters, collages, and artwork sent to his friend and artist Phyllis Floyd. Also included in the collection are newspaper clippings about Johnson and promotional material for retrospectives of his career.


Purchase, April 2014

Shelving Summary

  1. Box 1: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
  2. Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS mapcases


Processed and encoded by Sean Lovitt, May 2015.

Finding aid for Ray Johnson mail art collection
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2015 May 4
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA