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    Ray Johnson’s Untitled (Letterbox): A Cataloger’s Notes


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    Jennifer Roberts, Ray Johnson’s Untitled (Letterbox): A Cataloger’s Notes , National Gallery of Art, (accessed Jan 18, 2021).


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    [fig. 1] Ray Johnson, Untitled (Letterbox), 1964, spray-painted metal mailbox containing postcards, small objects, and envelopes with enclosures, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 2006.56.1

    Untitled (Letterbox) [fig. 1] is a work of mail art that collage, performance, and correspondence artist Ray Johnson sent or hand delivered to his friend, the art critic David Bourdon, around 1964.[1] The contents of the box—mostly printed ephemera Johnson altered, often to amusing or dark effect—relate to their mutual interests and the time they spent together in New York in the mid-1960s. These snippets of paper cut from diverse sources fill what is arguably a time capsule, too. The box references over two hundred people, including Johnson’s friends, such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, and celebrities, such as Elvis and the Beatles. More significant, however, may be the way Johnson fractured, recombined, and redistributed many of these specific references and encouraged his friend to do the same. Johnson compared himself to the tide mashing things up and to a catalyst setting things in motion. In order to contextualize Johnson’s approach to blending art and life, terms like “proto-pop,” “neo-Dada,” “junk art,” and “conceptual art” have been used to describe his work, and labels like “founding father of mail art,” “America’s leading collagist,” “first network artist,” and “New York’s most famous unknown artist” have been applied to the artist.[2] In what follows, the conservation (here preservation and restoration) and cataloging (compiling and fact-checking) of this surprisingly fragile and complex work are described in a question-and-answer format.

    What was the condition of Untitled (Letterbox) when it arrived, and how were the envelopes removed?


    [fig. 2] Untitled (Letterbox) with top door open

    When Untitled (Letterbox) arrived at the National Gallery of Art, the envelopes inside were packed tightly and the doors were stuck closed.

    A conservation technician was able to open the uppermost door and extract the envelopes with tweezers [fig. 2].

    What was the condition of the contents of the box?

    The cellophane tape hinges Johnson used were failing because the adhesive had dried up. Ironically, many individual pieces previously taped together, but now floating loose in the envelopes, had been stamped, “COLLAGE BY RAY JOHNSON” [figs. 3–5]. Johnson also used this stamp on pieces of paper with no signs of collage [fig. 6]. 

    How were the cellophane tape hinges in Untitled (Letterbox) restored?


    [fig. 7] Conservation technician Vincent Carney working in the paper conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art

    Yellow adhesive stains where tape had once been, along with the pieces of tape themselves, provided important clues about Johnson’s original construction.[3] Acid burns—brown stains caused by the acid in one piece of paper interacting with the surface of another—also indicated where differently sized papers had once overlapped. Using these discolorations as a guide, paper conservation technician Vincent Carney painstakingly matched loose clippings with their original supports [fig. 7]. He reattached the tape to the collage elements with a heat-activated adhesive.

    Is Untitled (Letterbox) a typical example of Johnson’s work?


    [fig. 8] Ray Johnson, Cervix Dollar Bill, 1970, brush and black ink, pen and black ink, collage, and acrylic paint, with surface abrasions, on composition board, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jacob J. Weinstein in memory of Mrs. Jacob Fox), 2015.19.2523

    No, these stamped or taped miniature collages Johnson sent out by mail are very different in both materials and concept from the heavily worked collages he exhibited in galleries and museums and sometimes sold. The mailed pieces were meant to be gifts, custom-made with the recipient in mind, and so he resented when people sold them. (Bourdon’s Untitled (Letterbox) was sold after Bourdon died.) The Gallery’s collection includes a particularly great example of one of his more elaborate collages: Cervix Dollar Bill of 1970 [fig. 8], which is part of both Johnson’s Mona Lisa and Dollar Bill series. Some characteristically Johnsonian aspects of this collage are: the large amount and distinctive style of ink drawing and hand-lettering done with pen and brush; the removal of some pigment by abrading; the arrangement of cut-and-sanded pieces of thick paperboard to create a surface like that of mosaic, relief sculpture, or assemblage; his inclusion of his own written texts; and his appropriation of printed reproductions by cutting, transposing, gluing, and over-painting with acrylics.

    Since the work is unsigned, how can it be authenticated?


    [fig. 9] Envelope 63. Johnson has typed names, most likely of the recipients of his mailings, on this envelope, which he probably used repeatedly as a temporary holder. “RAZOR BLADE INSIDE” refers to the only piece now inside this envelope: a clipping with a razor blade taped to it

    Authenticating Untitled (Letterbox) would have been difficult without input from art dealers Frances Beatty, who represents the estate of Ray Johnson, and Phyllis Stigliano, who organized an exhibition that included Untitled (Letterbox) during Johnson’s lifetime.[4] Beatty viewed the box and all of its contents and Stigliano provided a photograph taken around 1991 of Bourdon with Untitled (Letterbox) and envelopes from it [fig. 9]. An exhibition catalog, the photograph, a drawing by Johnson of the box, and other information provided by Stigliano confirm that the box the Gallery purchased is indeed the one exhibited in 1991. Stigliano also had a photocopy of a collage by Johnson that included a photograph of Untitled (Letterbox) in it. Beatty had a similar collage with just half of the photograph of Untitled (Letterbox) in it.[5] As discussed below, to further authenticate the work, the Gallery attempted to contact all previous owners of the box to confirm and complete its provenance (the history of ownership).

    Should this object have been restored to some earlier state or left exactly as it was?

    In the mid-1980s, in conjunction with a book they were writing on collage, the artists Joan and John Digby visited Johnson and asked him whether he was concerned about preservation, to which he replied that he was not.[6] The Digbys requested a statement from Johnson about art, to which he responded: “Should an eyelash last forever?” Johnson explained to the Digbys that he used false eyelashes made with real eyelashes in some of his collages. He said: 

    The eyelash could be cut in half because these eyelashes are composed of individual hairs, maybe even as many as a hundred of them, that somebody in Korea glued down to a strip of adhesive, so should the whole thing collectively last forever, or for one month, or should half of it last for that period of time, or one eyelash hair, should one eyelash hair last forever? Which then gets down to the point of no eyelash and “Should nothing last forever?” Which is pure Taoism, pure Zen when you get down to that, which is a point I often get to in my work. I used to do events called “nothings,” and I’m involved with just absolute space, with no art, no eyelashes, no statement, no nothing.[7] 

    The interviewer, curator, and art critic Henry Martin, replied, “You’re involved in the idea of Zen nothingness and yet your life is a kind of constant happening,” to which Johnson, said, “Well, yes.” In the same interview, Johnson described how he methodically worked from A to Z cutting definitions out of an American English dictionary and later a Yiddish one. Of his Scotch-taped collages Johnson said: “The people who have them now remark that they’re falling apart, but that’s the nature of Scotch tape.”[8] 

    The painstaking work of Gallery conservators to readhere pieces of Untitled (Letterbox) with removable adhesive might seem rather futile in light of Johnson’s statements, but part of the Gallery’s mission is to preserve and in some cases restore the works in its collection. Johnson cared enough about this group of mailings to purchase the box that houses them.[9] Bourdon said the pieces within each envelope were stacked from smallest to largest by Johnson.[10] The contents of the envelopes were not organized in this way when the object arrived at the Gallery, and since it is unclear whether each piece of ephemera still resides in the envelope Johnson last put it in, the Gallery has not reorganized the pieces by size. In contrast to Bourdon, Johnson’s friend Edward M. Plunkett received envelopes containing “tidbits of disorganized collage scraps” from Johnson.[11] Names typed on the outsides of unaddressed envelopes do not necessarily relate to the current contents, because Johnson frequently reused envelopes (see fig. 9).

    Because Untitled (Letterbox) includes ephemera produced and altered by people other than Ray Johnson, who is considered the artist?

    Untitled (Letterbox) has always been attributed to Johnson alone in publications, despite the fact that it includes mail Johnson received from others and then sent to Bourdon. Johnson was the primary force behind the New York Correspondence School (NYCS), the purchaser of the box, and the source of most of the material in it.[12] Given Johnson’s conception of life and art as existing in a state of constant change, one could say he collaborated with everyone and no one. The space between these two extremes is murky.

    Bourdon comes closest to being a true collaborator on this work. He was the keeper of the box, the final recipient of the contents, Johnson’s intended audience, and one of the creators of the verbal and visual correspondences in the box. Clues suggest, however, that Johnson was unhappy with Bourdon’s occasional failure to reply to his mailings. Bourdon’s lack of participation, along with the fact that he made no known claims of authorship when he lent Untitled (Letterbox) to exhibitions, suggest that he did not see himself as co-artist with Johnson.

    In Untitled (Letterbox), Johnson used materials that Michael Malcé, May Wilson, and William Wilson, among other NYCS members, wrote or drew on. They certainly knew Johnson might recycle anything they sent to him, but nothing indicates that they knew anything about Untitled (Letterbox). Like Bourdon, they are not considered co-artists with Johnson on this particular work, but they were collaborators on Johnson’s larger NYCS project.

    Some enclosures are clear appropriations. The box contains, for example, a rejection letter from the art critic Hilton Kramer to Johnson. Since the letter is there in the box, it is a part of the work, but is it a work in itself? Kramer is the sole author of that fragment of the box’s contents, but does that make him a collaborator? Another example is a handwritten note, a casual party invitation, from artist Marjorie Strider with a paper clip attached to it. How Johnson got it and to whom it was addressed is unclear. Johnson put it in an envelope with other Strider-related material. The concept of the work is his; that she is the author of the note is beside the point.

    The box also contains reproductions of other artists’ works that Johnson cut out, cropped, wrote on, or otherwise changed, sometimes adding or signing his own name next to the other artists’ signatures or in a caption. These are tongue-in-cheek collaborations that mimic graffiti.[13] 

    Does this work have a title? Who decides what the title is?

    Ray Johnson, Untitled (Letterbox), 1964

    [fig. 10] Untitled (Letterbox) with contents of Envelope 42

    Untitled (Letterbox) was not given a title when it was displayed in 1991 at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, but rather was described in the exhibition catalog under the heading “Correspondence and Books” as a “mailbox containing correspondence sent to David Bourdon.”[14] The name Untitled (Letterbox) first appears in a Whitney exhibition catalog in 1999, so this may have been a title created by the lender, art dealer Virginia Green, who owned it at that time. In 2005 the Hackett-Freedman Gallery gave the title as Letterbox.[15] The word letterbox is chiefly used in Great Britain, where it refers to a mail slot with a flap in the middle of a door. Multichambered boxes like the one Johnson chose [fig. 10] are commonly installed in the vestibules of small apartment buildings (i.e., tenements, brownstones, and walk-ups) in lower Manhattan, where Johnson was living in 1964. The word letterbox also refers to a portable box that holds correspondence or stationery, also called a writing box. Despite its awkward shape, this is actually how Johnson and Bourdon ended up using the box.

    The case for a title of Untitled (Mailbox), which might seem more likely for an American artist and audience, is weaker. A 1989 sketch by Johnson depicts a tunnel-shaped mailbox that he captioned “The Mailbox,” which suggests he associated that style, typically American and suburban or rural, with the word mailbox.[16] The counter argument is that when Johnson sketched the box for Phyllis Stigliano in 1991 he wrote “mailbox” above it.[17]

    The individual envelopes do not have titles. On a 1976 loan form for an exhibition, Bourdon describes individual envelopes by subject, date, and number of items inside.[18] “Untitled” followed by a descriptive term in parentheses has become standard in the literature on Johnson’s collages. A National Gallery of Art registrar numbered from 1 to 120 the envelopes, postcards, and five objects (an earring, a toilet paper roll, an advertising token, and two keys) inside the box. The envelopes were not arranged by date; no particular order was apparent. For now, the curatorial staff is using this number system, although more descriptive titles (e.g., Envelope 2 [Andy Warhol]) may later evolve as scholars write about individual envelopes. The contents of the envelopes were not numbered, but were photographed (see fig. 9).

    What is the date of this work?

    “JUL 28” followed by a smudged number that looks like “1964” is stamped in ink on the bottom of the box. Where there are postmarks on envelopes, 1964 is the most frequently stamped date. A receipt inside the box for the purchase of a mailbox like this one is dated April 1964. Events referenced in the contents of the box mostly happened in 1964. The following years appear in one postmark each: 1963, 1965, 1966, and 1969. Some of the materials inside the envelopes date from earlier than the postmarks on the envelopes indicate. Johnson’s more elaborate collages and drawings which are not part of Untitled (Letterbox) often have more than one date inscribed on them. Publications on Johnson usually list all of the dates inscribed by the artist (i.e., 1962, 1970, 1992). Thus, where space permits, the years 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, and 1969 could all be provided as the official date of this work. This could become very complicated over time, as pieces of paper inside are traced to earlier or later years, so the Gallery has adopted 1964 as the date of the work as a whole. 

    What is the history of the medium designation?

    Discrepancies in medium identifications for multipart works often have more to do with the emphasis or needs of the person writing them than with the actual contents of or materials used to make the work. The medium line provided in the exhibition catalog Ray Johnson: Correspondences is: “Letterbox, 108 envelopes containing collages, drawings, and postcards sent to David Bourdon.”[19] This example emphasizes that Bourdon was the recipient and that collage and drawing techniques were used. The catalog More Works by Ray Johnson, 1951–1991 highlights what is most unusual, the toilet paper roll: “Correspondence: 108 envelopes with various enclosures, 5 postcards, and 1 toilet paper roll / mixed media.”[20] 

    How is the medium described today?

    The Gallery initially adopted the description “mixed media,” which is concise, but vague. The individual components are 1 tenement-style mailbox, 112 envelopes with enclosures, 3 postcards, 1 toilet paper roll, 1 earring with seeds and a sea shell on it, 1 metal “flipper” advertising token glued to cardboard, and 2 keys.[21] Identifying all of the contents and media of the envelopes produces a much longer list: pages from newspapers, magazines, and dictionaries and other books; ephemera; business or government stationery; Johnson’s or other people’s correspondence or writings; postcards and envelopes; envelope faces; snapshots, press photos, and photo-booth pictures; squashed penny souvenir tokens; plastic food wrappers; cellophane tape; fabric swatches; yarn; a dried cornflower; staples; rubber stamps and inks; magic marker, ballpoint pen, colored pencil, grease stick, dirt, and graphite. The work was made using a similarly long list of techniques: drawing, writing, scribbling, printing, embossing, typing, stamping, staining, rubbing, cutting, cutting out, clipping, tearing, folding, taping, stapling, pasting, or otherwise altering.

    Return to In Depth

      Jennifer Roberts

      Feb 2, 2018

    1. Mail art, a term coined around 1969 or 1970 and sometimes used interchangeably with correspondence art or postal art, is art made to resemble mail or to be mailed. Collage, which derives from the French verb coller, to glue, refers to a work of art in which paper or other flat materials are pasted or glued to a paper or board mount. Performance art combines aspects of performance, such as making sounds or moving before an audience, with aspects of fine or conceptual art, such as using paint or meeting in an art gallery.

    2. Two sources that briefly explain the terms listed here are Robert Atkins, ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, 3rd ed. (New York and London, 2013), and Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith, The Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2009).

    3. Since Johnson was constantly “destroying” and “rebuilding” his work, questioning through his working processes notions such as authenticity or originality, the word original here refers back to the time when he sent or gave the contents of the box to Bourdon. Punning on the postal term dead letter, Johnson described mail art that stopped moving as “dead.”

    4. Beatty is president emerita of Richard L. Feigen & Co., the gallery that represented Johnson during the artist’s lifetime and his estate following his death. Beatty has organized exhibitions of Johnson’s work, produced—with John Malkovich, Andrew Moore, and others—an award-winning film about Johnson, and contributed to a website about him ( ). In 2016, Beatty and her son launched the art advisory and dealership Adler Beatty, which now represents the Estate of Ray Johnson.

      Stigliano was cocurator with Janice Parente of Works by Ray Johnson at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York, in 1984 and More Works by Ray Johnson, 1951–1991 at the Goldie Paley Gallery of the Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1991. Bourdon contributed an essay to the catalog of the 1984 exhibition and lent the mailbox and correspondence from Johnson to the 1991 exhibition.

    5. Although splitting and recombining collages was one of Johnson’s working processes, the Beatty collage does not appear to have derived from the Stigliano collage or vice versa. Rather, Johnson used two copies of the same photograph, which appears in yet another photograph, taken by Stigliano at Bourdon’s apartment in 1991. Jennifer R. Roberts of the National Gallery of Art wishes to thank Beatty and Stigliano for so generously providing information and images in answer to her inquiries about Letterbox.

    6. The book is The Collage Handbook (New York, 1985). Johnson said the Digbys “were particularly concerned with technique, and preservation, and like why do I use such cheap materials, and why don’t I use good papers . . . all of which I answered by saying I’m simply not concerned with things like that.” Johnson quoted by Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, OH, 1999), 198. 

    7. Johnson quoted by Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, OH, 1999), 199.

    8. Henry Martin, “Should an Eyeslash Last Forever? An Interview with Ray Johnson,” Lightworks Magazine 22 (2000): 47.

    9. A handwritten receipt with Johnson’s name and address, 176 Suffolk St., NYC, on it suggests he bought the mailbox second-hand at the Accurate Mail Box Company at 792 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. The receipt and a related yellow phone-book page are contained in Envelope 35.

    10. Bourdon and Philip Leider, “The New York Correspondence School,” Artforum (October 1967): 50.

    11. Ed Plunkett, “New York Correspondence School,” in Plunkett et al., “Send Letters, Postcards, Drawings and Objects…,” Art Journal 36, no. 3 (Spring 1977): 233.

    12. Coined in 1962, the name New York Correspondence School (NYCS), a combination of New York School of Painters (meaning the abstract expressionists or Action Painters) and correspondence school (lessons conducted by mail), refers to the group of artists, writers, performers, and others to whom Johnson sent mail, whether they wanted it or not. Johnson used various tactics to break down the boundaries between individuals and create a network or organic whole. His use of pseudonyms, nicknames, and instructions to “please send to” or “please cut and send” sometimes obscured the identities of individuals.

    13. An example of Johnsonian graffiti is his addition of a penis, drawn in red felt-tip pen, to a figure in a cartoon in this work. Johnson mentions that “graffiti artists” are important to his work in his interview with Henry Martin, although in that context he is discussing spray-painted graffiti on buildings. See Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, OH, 1999), 199.

    14. More Works by Ray Johnson, 1951–1991 (Philadelphia, 1991), 26.

    15. Jess Word Pictures Ray Johnson: Paste-Ups, Moticos, and Assemblages, 1951–1997 (San Francisco, 2005), 6.

    16. The drawing is in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The image is available for free online in MoMA’s collection database at

    17. Stigliano provided me with a photocopy of Johnson’s drawing in which he sketched the box next to his collage Caged, evincing that he saw formal similarities between the two pieces and wanted them hung side-by-side in the Moore College exhibition she was organizing. A photocopy is in the NGA curatorial files.

    18. A copy of the form for an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art is in the Archives of American Art, David Bourdon Archive, Ray Johnson files. Bourdon loaned them 10 envelopes, ranging in date from 1964 to 1970, and provided an insurance value of 10 cents for each. The list confirms that the contents of Untitled (Letterbox) were not the only mailings that Bourdon received from Johnson. Some reside at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    19. Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, OH, 1999), 131.

    20. More Works by Ray Johnson, 1951–1991 (Philadelphia, 1991), 26. The discrepancy between the two may be due to small envelopes being taken out of, and postcards being placed into, larger envelopes.

    21. The token advertises Cascarets laxative, although Johnson glued the token down so that only the side embossed with a cherub sitting on a toilet and the words “Tails You Lose All Going Out-Nothing Coming In” is visible.