Mary Mann on Ray Johnson

Ray Johnson, BOO[K], ca. 1955, artist’s book: collage on cardboard cover with hand-sewn binding; handwritten text and drawing in black and red inks on cut paper pages, 8 x 6 inches (20.3 x 15.2 cm), closed. © Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co. / Photo: Ellen McDermott

Jack wrote a letter.

He spent days writing it. First, the salutation. Then, the closing. And then, Jack puzzled over the middle. He dreamed of what he could write. He considered all the possibilities. He ended up writing his letter backwards, which is how he liked to read magazines. He pasted in some pictures from an actual magazine for emphasis.

He signed the letter very carefully and folded it into thirds. He selected a green felt pen to address the envelope, and he sealed it with a bitter lick of glue.

Then Jack walked to the United States Post Office, taking a left on Fifth Avenue and a right at the bottom of Madison Square Park. On the way he gave sixty-seven cents to an old homeless woman with a McDonald’s cup in her hand. He stepped out of the way of a tot, on a trike, who was followed closely by a hovering father. He saw: a young couple kissing on a bench; many people on cell phones, striding this way and that; a woman stroking a squirrel on its side.

The line at Shake Shack snaked around the southern section of the park. It was cool and dark inside the post office. Jack waited in line in order to buy the stamps in order to mail the letter that he had taken so long to write.

“Anything liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” asked the postman as he took Jack’s letter.

“Just words,” said Jack.

The postman put a stamp on the envelope and took Jack’s money. Then the letter went into the big blue sorting bin, and Jack went back outside and began to walk. He heard: sirens, trucks, people talking, cabbies honking. He smelled: falafel carts and taco vendors, ladies’ perfumes, car exhaust.

Jack thought about his letter. Born in the big city, it would soon ride in its first truck, bound for its first flight. It would soar high above: the bustling cities and gentle green hills of the East; the long expanses of wheat and corn and soybeans of the Midwest; the mountains and valleys and deserts of the West.

The plane would land in the Far West, and Jack’s letter would travel in another truck that would rumble along beneath the shade of tall redwoods and sequoias. Red and green, red and green: the whole landscape would be like a Christmas postcard. The whoosh of quiet. The clean smell of dirt. The spicy smell of pine.

Jack’s letter would be placed in a mailbox on the side of a dirt road. Jack leaned against a storefront on 13th Street and closed his eyes. A particular pine grew next to that mailbox—a Ponderosa pine, very tall and straight, red and rough, with thick clusters of needles shooting out of its high branches. The tree, when you buried your face in the furrows of its bark, smelled like vanilla cake.

Ray Johnson Biography

Ray Johnson (b. 1927, Detroit, MI; d. 1995, Long Island, NY) studied at Black Mountain College, North Carolina (1945-1948). The most recent retrospective of Johnson’s work opened at Raven Row, London (2009), and traveled to Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Recent solo exhibitions in 2014 have been held at Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; and The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. Group exhibitions have been held at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2009); Max Ernst Museum, Brühl, Germany (2011); the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. (2011); Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, California (2012); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2012); the Brooklyn Art Museum, New York (2012); the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York (2012); the Musée Denys-Puech, Rodez, France (2012); the Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, Illinois (2013); The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (2014); and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York (2014). More information about his work can be found at
Mary Mann Biography
Mary Mann (b. 1985, FL) is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Columbia University, New York. She is the associate editor of the book collaboration Woman in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), and her writing has appeared in The Believer, The New Inquiry, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, Matter, Salon, and New York Magazine.