It was an astonishing find in the attic of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation back in 2013. There it was; a pristine collection of Ray Johnson “moticos” tucked inside their original envelope with the postmark December 30, 1955.
With this discovery, the exciting times of Sybil Shearer and Helen Morrison’s connection to Ray Johnson suddenly sprang to life. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Lippold, were together at Black Mountain College in the late 1940’s where Ray Johnson was a student. Helen’s photograph of sculptor Robert Lippold is in the Smithsonian, Washington DC; her portrait of musical renegade John Cage can be found at the Newberry Library. In 1949, Sybil and Merce Cunningham choreographed solos for one another when she and Morrison organized a series of performances by him and John Cage in nearby Winnetka, Illinois. The rich, creative connections between Shearer and Johnson are only now beginning to be revealed on closer examination of this collection.
Now, fast forward to the present: in February 2022, with the Art Institute of Chicago’s impressiveRay Johnson c/o exhibition underway, the Foundation approached the exhibition’s lead curator,Caitlin Haskell, for advice. Haskell was immediately intrigued and soon determined the collection held important examples of Johnson’s early work and expressed interest in the possibility that the museum might eventually purchase the pieces.
The Foundation’s Board Chair, Alida Szabo, and Executive Director, Scott Lundius, then met with representatives of the Ray Johnson Estate, who happened to be in town for the exhibition closing reception and announcement of Haskell’s additional new role as Director of Ray Johnson Collections and Research for the museum.
Frances Beatty, Managing Director of the Ray Johnson Estate, and Maria Ilario, Director of Collections and Archives, verified their authenticity and were thrilled to see the pieces as they were unknown evidence of Ray Johnson’s connections to artists in the Midwest. The collection of moticos and related ephemera is now the Sybil Shearer Collection of Ray Johnson, a significant addition to the growing collection of Ray Johnson materials in the Art Institute of Chicago Archives. Within the first few days after the transfer of ownership, Haskell reported that, “they have already brought to light several important connections between Ray’s collage practice and his involvement in the world of mid-century dance.”
Ray Johnson’s Moticos
We wonder if Ray Johnson knew that he and Sybil shared an understanding of the power of forming connections. Shearer’s three-volume autobiography is replete with letters she wrote and received. They marvelously concoct the times she lived in, embodying the archetype of the artist exploring and reflecting on her craft. Later in life, Sybil understood the importance of staying connected with dance contemporaries even though earlier she was considered an isolated dance maverick, living more in communication with Nature than with other creatives.
Throughout his life Johnson mailed collages and drawings to friends, colleagues and others who had piqued his interest. Johnson’s friends described him as mysterious. He lived alone and simply. To flesh out an artistic idea, he invited friends to witness what he saw on the New York streets, involving them in the onset of creation, an essential collaborator. Nam June Paik considered him a forerunner and important collaborator in the field of communication art. Johnson’s correspondence was often provocative, inciting the recipient to respond, calling out their creativity, and inducing them to mail it forward. As testament to his lasting influence, there are vibrant mail art networks still functioning internationally and his legacy continues in the movements Pop Art, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art.
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