The 67 year-old mail artist jumped off a bridge in Sag Harbor in New York State on January 13th, 1995. The representatives of the official art world had never doubted the importance of the artist, considered to be the father of mail art, but were unable to establish contact with him - because of his strong aversion to the commercial art world, gallery owners, and generally, professional arts organizers. They could breathe a deep sigh of relief: he was no longer there to create confusion. Others - specifically the members of the large mail network organized around him - found the most charming characteristics of his personality in the natural way he made connections and his requests to his partners to contribute to an open artefact. But other contradictions in his life diversified the art scene, wreaking havoc on art historians reliant on simple equations. Everybody knew him as a communicative, even loquacious, person, he was brilliant at small talk, he hadn't heard of discretion, but his death revealed that the details of his personal life had been shrouded in secrecy, even from his closest friends. If we choose to enumerate the elements of his method of creation, his character, and biography all which contributed to the development of the Johnson legend during his lifetime, one paradox would certainly have to be mentioned: on the one hand, he avoided, at all costs, public appearances, on the other hand, he was obsessively preoccupied with where and how many times his name appeared in print. While he pioneered a perfectly functional alternative communication network, albeit manipulative - though creative and with good intentions - his work excluded expropriation, even though he circulated it with "add and return" instructions, it was always he who directed and controlled the events.
One can find the key to these contradictions in his fundamental convictions that defined his lifestyle, personality, and work: he fought against even the slightest allusion to originality and accomplishment. That explains equivocally his fascination with collage techniques and the attention he paid to the accidental telltale words, his initiative to establish the mail art network, his patronage of seances at NYCS (New York Correspondence School). He was attracted to all that was defined by chance and the unforeseen. He was repulsed by the final, the conclusive, and the localized.
After all, we must conclude that Bourdon's comment - that Ray Johnson, through his suicide, ceased to impede the dissemination of his own work - was precipitate. His legend continues to spread even after his death and makes difficult, - possibly even more so than while he was alive - positioning his work as art, dealing with it as such, and selling it.
The mysterious circumstances of Johnson's death generated speculation among his friends and the police. Friends who knew that he was careful with hidden relationships, symbols, and numerology, didn't fail to notice that Ray, aged 67 (6+7=13), arrived at a hotel on Friday, the 13th of January, checked into room 247 (2+4+7=13), and prepared his suicide for 7:15 am. Most likely, it was an art event. His only work where chance and diversity had no role to play. Some artist friends recalled that a few days earlier, Johnson had called and told them excitedly that he was working on his greatest performance.
The police investigated the case on a more prosaic level, though they did notice some unusual, perhaps even thrilling, details in the mysterious case. They found irritating clues in Johnson's house, (a postcard mailed on the 13th in
Los Angeles - signed by Johnson, an airplane ticket for the 13th, and a handwritten note with the address of a hotel in Mexico), from which they concluded that suicide was not probable, instead, they suspected homicide. Another piece of evidence supported their conclusion: though it was well-known that Johnson led a frugal existence and had never appreciated creature comforts, $400,000 was found in his bank account... for Luther Blissett.
"It's fortunate to become a myth in this life," said Tibor Hajas, "death cannot harm it in this case." And truly, when Ray Johnson was involved, his death only intensified the augmentation of his myth. The mysterious circumstances of his death and the discoveries of the artist's secret personal life then obscured even further his already vague image.
One of the discoveries was that he was in contact with a certain Luther Blissett, an anonymous person in the art world, who didn't belong to the famous people appreciated by Ray. This in itself is not suspicious, Johnson had communicated and exchanged letters with common people, an interesting name always tweaked his curiosity. But the enormous amount of money found in Blissett's name made the police deduce an accomplice relationship, they discovered that Blissett was a homosexual and drug user.
Another chapter of the story is a best-selling book published in November of 1995, by the Rome-based Castevecchi Edizioni. The name of the book is Mind Invaders. How to Fuck (With) the Media? and it sold out in just two months, and immediately went into reprint. The publication was a part of the Luther Blissett-project, and among those who launched it, we find Ray Johnson. The police detective on the case connected the $400,000 with the financing of the book, and as the subject of the book denied the utility of the media and operated with subversion, he concluded that Johnson's death could have been in the interest of the CIA. The police assumptions began with a hypothesis among private detectives and friends, the wildest of theories suggesting some sort of CIA-Masonic conspiracy aimed at killing Johnson. However, the book was published despite Ray's death, and the identity of Luther Blissett remains unclear. This, and the explicit directive of the book, warning the manipulated reader that they were expected to re-manipulate others and create new LB-Figures in order to generate sensational disorder and chaos, summoning thousands of phantoms.
In the spirit of Luther Blissett (often ascribed to Ray Johnson), there were sabotages, performances, video screenings, pyschogeographical explorations, all creating a commotion worthy of Ray Johnson. The legend escalated and reached America , where at the Sociometry Fair 96' in San Diego there was a "Luther Blissett Display." But almost everywhere we find traces of the Blissett-legend (virtual performances in Albania, strange graffiti in Baltimore, as well as many art exhibitions). A Spanish artist who, of course, adopted the name Luther Blissett, tried to research the source of the legend, and to delimit its authentic pith. He learned from Johnson's friends that a few years earlier, the artist had received a press cutting which mentioned him from an Italian correspondent (probably Ruggero Maggi). On the reverse side, he found a blurb on the national soccer league, containing the sentence "Even Luther Blissett couldn't have scored such a goal!" The Spanish artist relates that Luther Blissett was a British soccer player who retired in the late 80's. He used to play in the Watford Soccer Club, whose owner and president was... Elton John. In 1983, he got signed on to the Milan Soccer Club, and hence, moved to Italy. But he never got used to the league, and one year later, the club sent him back to the UK. He's remembered as the proverbial washout. In a short letter to Vittore Baroni, Johnson dropped the line "By the way, who is Luther Blissett?"
The recipient remembered the calamitous footballer and started laughing.
After having aknowledged that the reputation of Blissett was better in England than in Italy (in the 1982-83 championship he scored 27 goals), Stewart Home, with his fellows of the London Psychogeographical Association, went to Greenwich for a psychogeographical "drift". There the group found Blissett street. In the following days the LPA discovered that is was named after the Reverend George Blissett, a Victorian do-gooder. The Luther Blissett story spread in London as a harmless, funny episode and wound its way back to Italy as an infectious multiple plot. That's all the Spanish artist found out. But we must keep in mind the warning of the book financed by Ray Johnson: in matters of Luther Blissett there is nobody you can trust.
The fact is, that already during Johnson's life (probably from 1994, though some sources quote 1983) there was - like the different artists clubs - a Luther Blissett Association, possibly founded by him, which pinpointed the manipulation of public opinion and the practical demonstration of the manipulative methods of the media. In the book published after his death, there are a surprising number of ideas presenting Johnson's strategy of communication and his way of thinking. It seems to be more than just a coincidence that the request of the book complies with a Vittore Baroni directive "Create your works of Ray Johnson and let them freely mix with the original ones. Let's keep alive and visible the legends of virtual Rays.... scare the shit out of the exploiters of posthumous glory." Acknowledging all of this, we must admit that Johnson's fellow artists undertook the lion's share in the spread of the Blissett-Legend.
We could say that the Ray Johnson-legend survives after the artist's death in Luther Blissett. The list of actions, projects, performances, bluffs, books and bands using this name is very long and refers to events varying in genre, objective, and quality . This could be a kind of respectful commemoration of the artist, whose method was based on the collage, at its most eclectic: the combining of the elite and the popular, the mixing of different kinds of information from various sources, and the overlapping genres. Nonetheless, this cluster of heterogeneous works, ideas, and organizations share the recognition that communication is mediated and that the manipulated and selective (though necessary) transmissions threaten society and art. This knowledge originates from Ray Johnson. The forthcoming episodes of the Luther Blissett-legend and their refutation, interpretation and selection is liable for the way new informations infiltrate, gain meaning, or are lost in the mind. It is important to emphasize that Johnson's work always conformed, but only to this principle. When he sent recirculated mail to his friends, just as when he mutilated his collages, when he organized the NYCS, when he had phone conversations with strangers, when made a list of underwear, and when he painted the bathtubs of famous people. Our mind, apart from the important relevant information, is full of insignificant, sometimes annoying thoughts, images, like those represented by pop art.
Ray Johnson is merited with materializing constant movement, change, and the limiting or broadening of consciousness in his work. His pioneering of an alternative communication channel is an effect of his ambition to substantiate with his every gesture, writing, or drawing, the conscious reflection of the moment. "The New York Correspondence School has no history, only a present," He once said, and this affirmation can be applied to all the work in his ever changing oeuvre.
If we are little bit responsive to hidden relationships, paying in this way a tribute of admiration to the spirit of the artist, we find it logical that the hotbed of the Blissett-legend is the Internet, which is considered by many to be inspired by Johnson. There are two reasons why the Internet is suitable to spread a legend associated with Ray. On the one hand, the almost emblematic relation between mail art and the network. Anybody can freely transmit any information on the Internet without moral, material, or physical barriers- partly because of a lack of legal control of the net. In this way the net erases the lines between elite and popular culture, challenging originality and seeking cheap solutions, and through this picks up the mail art tradition.
On the other hand, cyberspace, this no man's land, offers great opportunities - beyond the illusion of globality - to confront the short lived glitter of the moment and of knowledge. The Internet is considered by some, a Ray Johnson "nothing."
The Internet legend commemorating Ray through all the transformation, reproduction, disprovement, expropriation seems to retract Ray Johnson. The new chapters of the Luther Blissett-Legend - although Ray's friends tried - consecutively to bring it back to the original meaning, deal almost exclusively with moral questions of art, imposed by the new medium of communication: originality and reproduction. We should remember that these were the fundamental questions of Johnson's life work, too. The philosophical questions realized through delusion, the often repeated story, the original and the copy, the duplicate were all a part of the ideological background of the Johnson oeuvre. Critics have the opinion that the value of an art work is decided by its context. Is there any better context, virtual memorial, any better way to pay respect to the artist who, despite the fact that his name came to equate mail art, tried all his life, and even in his death, to escape from the dead words of art history?
(English translation by Anna Bálint, 1997)
1. The critic, based in New York, and the author of the books Warhol (Abrams Edition. NY. 1989) and Designating the Earth (Abrams Edition. NY. 1995), and wrote about Johnson in the catalog of his exhibition in Roslyn Harbour(Ray Johnson Collages. Valentine / Snakes / Movie Stars) and in the September 1964 issue of Art Forum (An Interview with nosnhoJ yaR), and in the November 1969 issue of Art International (Notes on a Letterhead). <>
2. The January 13th edition of the Spanish P.O. Box mail art magazine publishes selections of the immense Blissett legend. For Further details see the March 1996 issue of Vittore Baroni's Arte Postale, the March 1996 issue of Panorama from Bologna, the anthology Toto, Peppino e la guerra psichica (AAA edizioni. Viareggio. Udine), number 9 of the Luther Blissett Quarterly (Grafton Publishing House), the book of Giuseppe Genna entitled Net.generation (Oscar Mondadori. Casa Editrice di Segrate.1996), and the dispute about them in the A-Infos Hyper Archive on the Internet. <>
3. The psychogeographic drift is a short trip by foot or on bike along certain path through a city, aimed at following the changes provoked by the architectural and urbanistic solutions in the conscience and in the disposition. <>
4. Arte Postale! No. 59, Spring, 1995 <>
5. To mention only the most different ones: the name is assumed by the Neoist group Monty Cantsin and its philosophy (See on the Internet Monty Cantsin: The House of Seven of Nine Squares, Berlin), by a Bologna phantom director, the music of his film was composed by the Forbici de Manitu, a band connected to Vittore Baroni, by the Psychogeografic Association organized around Radio Kappa of Bologna, the plan developing the basis of football with three teams, by the bluff presented in RAI's Chi l'ha visto? program, the psychological campaign against teh Biennale of Venice (see more: in the bibliography) <>