For legendary mail and collage artist Ray Johnson (1927–1995), any ephemera of everyday material culture he encountered could potentially be art—including the bottle caps, abandoned toys, tennis balls, fragments of fractured ceramics, stickers, gloves, shells, and lost bathing suits found on his many beach walks. He made fishermen’s trolling lures, a box of neckties, and mannequin feet designed for sock displays into sources of meaning by approaching them as facts of the environment. Why did these things come into the world? Do they represent evidence of something? Can the ostensibly random encounters of life be assembled into order?
“Ray Johnson: The Bob Boxes,” on view at the College for Creative Studies’ Valade Family Gallery in Detroit through October 8, displays the contents of thirteen collections of such ephemera, assembled by Johnson and bestowed upon one of his most intensive correspondents, Robert Warner. The contents of these boxes largely consist of washed-up objects found by Johnson during his “prison walks”—his term for the daily afternoon strolls on the Long Island beach where he took breaks from the captivity of his job—mingled with overflow correspondence addressed to Johnson’s New York Correspondence School (some of which remains unopened), original artworks, and a multitude of additional objects sent to him by correspondents or sourced from unknown locations. The boxes hang on the wall, while the contents of each one are loosely arranged on plinths. Taken collectively, the boxes constitute a longstanding and intimate conversation between friends, one that reveals a fascination, even an obsession, with the accidents of objects’ travels, and the artist’s struggle to find meaning in the world.