The Open Curriculum of the New York Correspondence School: Ray Johnson’s Pedagogical Mail Art

“The New York Correspondence School is an alternative social network formed by the artist Ray Johnson who encouraged artists, friends, acquaintances, and strangers to share their art through the postal system. Johnson began sending aestheticized mail to his friends as a teenager in the 1940s, a practice he continued to develop while studying at Black Mountain College, and by the 1950s, these mailings, often called ‘mail art,’ had become a major aspect of Johnson’s work as an artist. In 1962, Ed Plunkett, one of Johnson’s correspondents, named the international network of participants ‘The New York Correspondence School’ (NYCS), a play on ‘The New York School’ of abstract expressionist painters. Johnson’s mailings to the NYCS turned forms of communication and education into artistic media in personal letters, mass-produced flyers, absurd packages, and everything in between. While a multiplicity of reoccurring images and references appear in Johnson’s work, from animals such as his trademark bunny head, to pop stars and pop artists, the educational themes are crucial to understanding the NYCS as a network critical of the larger commercialized art world. Johnson reeducated his correspondents with mailings such as his ‘brief histories’ and ‘how to draw’ instructions, which destabilized traditional definitions of art and education. By encouraging collaboration and participation, these pedagogical mailings undermined notions of individual authorship and created a new model for network-based art experiences. The curriculum of the NYCS existed in constant flux; Johnson’s lessons were open to the indeterminacies, chance encounters, and free-associations inherent to both aesthetic and interpersonal experiences. A clear history of the NYCS is impossible to establish since it involves the collective activities of a shifting group of people and because Johnson enhanced factual uncertainties by including unreliable statements and incorrect dates in his work. …”
sofia kofodimos
I Is an Other: The Mail Art of Ray Johnson
NY Times: An Elusive Artist’s Trove of Never-Before-Seen Images
Mail Art & Ephemera

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