Ray Johnson’s Mail Art Returns to a Mailbox Near You

Who knew snail mail could become performance art?

Ray Johnson's mail art. Photo: Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.


Mailing a letter has taken on a certain charm in an era of instant communication, and so Performa’s revival of underground Pop artist Ray Johnson’s mail art project, called the “New York School of Correspondance” (an attempt to put a touch of “dance” into everyday “correspondence”), feels especially felicitous.

In conjunction with Johnson’s estate, several of his original mail art templates are being put back into circulation by the non-profit, while never-before-seen selections from Johnson’s archive of offbeat mail art are on display until September 1 at Richard L. Feigen gallery in New York.

Ray Johnson's mail art. Photo: Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.

Ray Johnson’s mail art.
Photo: Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.

Johnson began making mail art in the early 1960s; he used the postal system to circumvent the confines of the traditional “insider” art world by encouraging  mass participation. Johnson’s templates were photocopies of his own original drawings, which often included prompts like “please add hair to Cher” or “draw a bunny.”

Recipients were directed to either return the pages to Johnson or forward them along to others.

Altering the project for the digital age, Performa is placing the templates in monthly art publications, local newspapers, and online as PDFs. Altered templates are being accepted on a rolling basis, and will eventually be posted on Johnson’s estate website. Of course, there’s also a custom hashtag, #PleaseAddTo, where you can follow the evolution of the project and perhaps gain some inspiration for a creation of your own.

The Starn Twins template.  Photo: Performa.

The Starn Twins template.
Photo: Performa.

The first template, currently in circulation in various print publications, is “The Starn Twins,” which invites participants to complete a fractured pair of the artist’s signature bunny sketches. Other templates, including “Andy Warhol’s hand,” “Andy Warhol head,” and “Silhouette,” are currently available on Performa’s website.

If the project’s old-world charm feels especially welcome today, so does its commentary about the art market.

“The most radical aspect of the NYCS,” wrote David Bourdon in Art International in 1969, “is the attempted overturning of the American art market through free distribution of art. Johnson’s mail-away art can’t be bought or sold but only received—whether the recipient wants it or not.”

Ray Johnson's mail art. Photo: Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.

Ray Johnson’s mail art.
Photo: Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.

Performa will be accepting submissions for “Please Add and Return To” on a rolling basis. Please Return To: Mail Art From the Ray Johnson Archive” will be on display at Richard L. Feigen from May 1–September 1, 2015. 

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