The Porous Philosophy of Ray Johnson
PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College
To call Ray Johnson enigmatic would understate his perplexing and intentionally elusive position within postwar American art history. Ever resistant to categorization, Johnson’s prolific body of work spans painting, drawing, collage, mail art, and performance, activities for which he developed distinctive nomenclature: he called the collages “moticos,” his mail art practice “The New York Correspondance School,” and his performances “nothings.” Johnson is probably best known for his signature “bunny-heads,” the Kilroy-esque cartoons that populated many of his Correspondance School mailings and inspired the title of the award-winning documentary about Johnson’s life and work, How to Draw a Bunny (2002).
While Johnson’s work is known for its absurd and mysterious content, playful ambiguity, and idiosyncratic self-presentation, this paper contends that his mature artistic practice was anchored in a critique of mainstream art markets and institutions, reflecting a highly consistent set of aesthetic and philosophical aims. In examining the evolution of Johnson’s art work from the 1950s, I propose that his practice developed according to a set of interrelated aspirations: to renegotiate the relation between the producer and consumer of art; to overturn both market-based notions of artistic value and critically-prescribed standards of artistic merit; to emphasize creative process over end results; to establish alternative venues for exhibition and exchange outside the gallery and museum settings; and, most importantly, to embed art in the routines of everyday experience. Furthermore, I argue that Johnson’s aesthetic and philosophical aspirations can be traced back to his formative education at Black Mountain College, and specifically, to the writings of the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who was an enduring influence on the College’s curriculum and pedagogy.
Numerous scholars have addressed the question of Dewey’s influence on the generation of American artists who preceded Johnson—namely, the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Here, I will argue that Dewey’s influence extended to artists of Johnson’s generation, reaching artistic maturity in the mid-to-late 1950s, just as Abstract Expressionism’s dominance was waning.
Ray Johnson was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1927. From 1945 to 1948, he attended Black Mountain College. After leaving the College, he moved to New York City, where he soon joined a small colony of former Black Mountain teachers—including Richard Lippold, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham—who were living on the Lower East Side in a tenement thatthey sarcastically referred to as “the Boza Mansion,” after the building’s landlord. Around this time, Johnson was producing quilt-like, geometric abstract paintings on wood using a palette knife. These early paintings are often interpreted as evidence of the influence of Johnson’s favorite professor at Black Mountain, Josef Albers, who is best known for his own distinct brand of austere, geometric abstraction. In 1951, Johnson joined the American Abstract Artists, a group that had at one time counted both Albers and another of Johnson’s Black Mountain professors, Ilya Bolotowsky, among its members; Johnson would serve as the group’s treasurer for two years. During this period, Johnson worked as a freelance graphic designer and held a part-time job at the Orientalia Bookstore on E. 12th Street, an experience that undoubtedly nourished his burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism.
In the mid-1950s, Johnson purportedly destroyed a large number of his paintings by burning them in fellow Black Mountain alumnus Cy Twombly’s fireplace. What exactly prompted this dramatic gesture of disavowal is unknown, but it could be related to an incident from the early 1950s at the Boza Mansion that Johnson later referred to as a decisive event. In a 1968 interview with Sevim Feschi, Johnson recalls that he had been experimenting with poking straight pins through the back of a preparatory study for a painting. Excited about his “terrific idea,” he showed the work to his neighbor John Cage, who reacted negatively, to Johnson’s surprise and disappointment. While Cage’s rejection may not be the sole motivation for Johnson’s abandonment of painting, it could have catalyzed the younger artist’s desire to break free from prescribed restrictions and the emergence of the intricate collage practice he called “moticos.”
“Moticos” is an anagram of the term “osmotic,” the adjectival form of “osmosis,” which refers to the process of liquid flow between two semi-permeable membranes, and more colloquially, to thegradual process of assimilation or absorption of ideas. According to the possibly apocryphal account offered by Johnson, the term was arbitrarily picked from a dictionary by his friend Norman Soloman; yet, this word effectively evokes the idea of dynamic flow and exchange, qualities that are relevant to Johnson’s developing collage practice during this period. Johnson’s moticos are composed of everyday found objects—mass media fragments, commercial packaging, scraps of cardboard—which he intricately arranged in small-scale compositions and then emblazoned with puns, pictograms, enigmatic hieroglyphs, small blocks or “tesserae,” celebrity names, Chinese lettering, and other more obscure references and elements. Still, the moticos’ delicately embellished surfaces do not obscure the fact that they are composed of humble materials, such as the standard sheets of cardboard used by commercial laundries for men’s shirts.
Some of the moticos were modified over a period of many decades, as Johnson obsessively re-worked their surfaces through an endless process of cutting, pasting, tracing, and sanding down. Those moticos he did not destroy or give away, Johnson “recycled” by shredding into noodle-like strips and reassembling on the surface of new works to create a sort of raised, bas-relief effect. Movie Star with Horse (1958), for instance, features hand-made ink drawings, print reproductions, and shred-like pieces of previous moticos. A wash of paint has been applied to the surface, which was then sanded to give it a distressed appearance. Included to the right of the composition are miniaturized, India ink-drawn silhouettes, which, confusingly, Johnson also referred to as “moticos.”
Fig. 1: Movie Star with Horse (1958), 16.5” x 13.5” © Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
The moticos were occasionally shown in galleries and entered private collections, though Johnson’s preferred mode of exhibition was performative events. For instance, in the fall of 1955 Johnson arranged hundreds of moticos on the floor of a warehouse in lower Manhattan, an event that Johnson’s friend and (fellow Black Mountain alum) Suzi Gablik referred to as potentially “the first informal Happening.”
Fig. 2: Moticos installation, New York City, 1955, Photograph Elisabeth Novick
below, Fig. 3: detail
Such events marked the beginnings of the performance practice Johnson would more fully develop in the early 1960s, a practice which he referred to as “nothings,” in a humorously nihilistic response to the avant-garde “happenings” orchestrated by Allan Kaprow and others beginning in 1959.
Johnson expanded his ritualistic modes of production and exhibition through mail art, a medium for which he can be considered a “founding father.” Though he had sent illustrated letters and gifts through the post since his adolescence back in Detroit, this practice did not become fully realized until the mid-1950s, when Johnson began to keep a list of some 200 regular correspondents. The network was “institutionalized” in 1962, when Johnson’s frequent correspondent and friend Ed Plunkett christened it the “New York Correspondence School,” a double-pun on the New York School of abstract painting and the ubiquitous correspondence art schools advertised on matchbooks and subway posters. By utilizing the US Postal Service as an alternative to the mainstream gallery system, Johnson cultivated and grew his postal network as an accessible, inexpensive, and thus democratic, medium. Johnson used the network to broadcast encoded messages to a hand-selected community of artistic collaborators, who were often requested to “add to” a mailing and then pass it along to an ever-widening group of recipients: conceptual art meets the chain letter.
Although Johnson sought to sidestep the art world’s conventional exhibition venues and commercial modes of distribution, his mail art was still in some sense all about the art world. The mailings trafficked in art world gossip, in-jokes and proper names, and a number of prominent artists, curators, gallerists, collectors and journalists could be counted amongst the NYCS’s members. Even as he used it to stay connected to the art world, Johnson’s mail art practice enabled him to resist both co-optation and commodification, by substituting a gift-based economy based on participation, mutual obligation, and ritual procedures. Johnson described this daily postal ritual in a 1977 interview:
I have a whole process, of a steak knife which I use to open my letters, it’s like prayer, it’s a ritual for me, a ceremony. I’ll go out to the mail box, bring the mail into my house, I have a very good mailman, he sort of piles things very neatly. I put them on my work table; I turn on the television set; I have my cup of coffee; I turn on the overhead light; it’s like a corpse on the table. It’s really my prayer.
And in yet another act of ritualistic self-destruction, Johnson “killed off” the NYCS in 1973 with an obituary sent to the New York Times. He christened his new school of correspondence art “Buddha University,” referencing his interest in Zen Buddhism. Despite its public “death,” the network continued to expand and the mailings did not cease until Johnson’s own death in 1995.
Fig. 4: Ray Johnson, Untitled Mail Art Announcement (15 March 1972) ©Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
With his mail art, Johnson’s practice took on the structure and form of everyday communication as a medium through which to engage a wide network of participants. The quality of porosity suggested by the term “moticos” provides an apt description for the reciprocal flow of ideas, names, images, and codes that Johnson’s postal system enabled. It was through this collaborative exchange, or “correspondance,” with a wide network ofpostal partners that Johnson’s porous philosophy of art and life was fully realized. One hallmark of this philosophy was that art should be retrieved from both the market and its usual institutional contexts and re-embedded in everyday life, to become as ubiquitous and useful as industrially produced objects. As Johnson himself suggested in a 1968 interview:
Perhaps it’s all incorrect that these (the moticos) be looked at in terms of painting or creativity or beauty or whatever. It might very well just be useful objects like an automobile or a chair. And these happen to be things hanging on the wall. I never used to believe in a work of art being bought. I thought it should just be made and not cherished or sold.
In a matter-of-fact tone reminiscent of the naïve persona assumed by his friend Andy Warhol, Johnson proposes that art objects should be considered equivalent to industrially produced commodities. But he follows this provocative statement by suggesting that he believes that art shouldn’t be “cherished or sold” like a commodity. In short, he accepts that art has a use value like any other functional object, but he wants to reject the notion that it possesses exchange value, as an object bought or sold on a marketplace. Indeed, a primary example of something with use value but no real exchange value is precisely the ritual performance: an event that is essential to the vitality of a community and yet remains time-bound, ephemeral, and thus cannot be “cherished or sold.” This simple yet revolutionary idea—that art should have a quasi-ceremonial role in everyday life rather than exist as a fetishized, rarefied commodity under the purview of elite collectors and museums—forms the core, I think, of Johnson’s aesthetic philosophy. This idea is also a fundamental tenet of one of the most important philosophical treatises on aesthetics of the past century—John Dewey’s Art as Experience, to which I’ll now turn.
Although Dewey had written on aesthetics previously, Art as Experience remains his most sustained treatment of the subject, and is perhaps his most widely read and influential philosophical work. Delivered as a lecture series at Harvard in 1932 and then published in 1934, Art as Experience grew to prominence through its central role as the intellectual foundation of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project under director Holger Cahill, an avid follower of Dewey. Through the WPA, an entire generation of American artists were exposed to Dewey’s work, and his influence has been observed in movements as diverse as Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism.
But Dewey’s influence was not limited to the United States. As historian Rainer K. Wick has noted, by the 1920s German translations of Dewey’s Democracy and Education and The School and Society had reached the Bauhaus, where Josef Albers would have first encountered these texts.  Albers became more familiar with Dewey’s philosophy after emigrating to the United States to teach at Black Mountain in 1933, and recently, scholars have characterized the pedagogy Albers developed in the U.S. as an attempt to fuse Deweyan and Bauhausian principles. Indeed, in the year after Dewey’s Art as Experience was published, Albers published a short article in English entitled “Art as Experience,” (1935) which drew heavily from Dewey’s ideas.
Johnson, as one of Albers’s most loyal pupils, was likely exposed to Dewey’s ideas in Albers’s classes, which stressed aesthetic experimentation and active engagement with the visual environment. Besides Albers, Johnson also would have encountered visiting professor Robert Motherwell, who taught painting at Black Mountain for a brief period in the late 1940s. Motherwell was an outspoken advocate of Dewey’s aesthetics and often referred to Art as Experience as one of his “early bibles.” But Dewey’s impact on Black Mountain pedagogy had actually begun long before Albers and Motherwell arrived on the scene—Dewey’s ideas about education, democracy, experimentation, and community had provided a philosophical foundation for the college at its founding, and Dewey himself had been a frequent visitor during the 1930s and sat on the school’s advisory board in its beginning years. Thus, even if Johnson was not directly familiar with Art as Experience, he could easily have absorbed Dewey’s teachings osmotically, as it were, through his immersion in the progressive experimental environment of Black Mountain.
In Art as Experience, Dewey states that his primary task (and the task of all aesthetic philosophy) is “to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Later, he describes the function of art as promoting “active and alert commerce with the world—complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events.” This notion of interpenetration of self and world, of art and experience, I contend, is philosophically aligned with Johnson’s porous practice and philosophy of art. What is central to both Dewey and Johnson’s thinking is the fundamental continuity between art and experience, rather than art’s distant and transcendent status above experience.
The idea of “an experience” is central to Dewey’s aesthetics and his philosophy on the whole, as noted by scholar Thomas M. Alexander, among others. In the third chapter of Art as Experience, Dewey defines “an experience” as one where separate parts fuse into a unified whole; where the subject undergoes something that can be marked as singular, transformative, meaningful, consummatory, and sets a standard of quality for experiences to come—for example, an especially memorable meal in a Parisian bistro would constitute “an experience.” Importantly, “an experience” is an active, not a passive process. It necessitates an attentive perceiving subject to not only consume the experience, but to behave and act in response. For Dewey, aesthetic experience is a particularly important kind of “an experience” because it constitutes a consummation of experience in general.Accordingly, the work of art is precisely that—work. The role of the art object is to facilitate an experience that is transformative for the viewer, and this task constitutes its work. In defining the work of art as a process, rather than as an object, Dewey posits an implicit challenge to the ways that artistic value is conventionally assigned—via the art market and institutions like museums, which primarily exist to collect, categorize and assign value to objects rather than to cultivate aesthetic experiences.
Dewey’s notion of the fundamental continuity between art and the everyday permeates Johnson’s artistic practice, beginning with his use of “osmosis” as the primary metaphor for his work’s “active and alert commerce with the world”—its incursion into the everyday happenings and rituals that constitute experience. Notably, Art as Experience makes frequent use of biological and environmental metaphors, often involving water, waves, liquid, flow, and the concept of “flux.” For instance, in the first chapter on “The Live Creature,” Dewey states, “In an experience, flow is from something to something. As one part leads into another and as one part carries on what went before, each gains distinctness in itself.” Elsewhere, in discussing this flow of experience, he writes, “all interactions that effect stability and order in the whirling flux of change are rhythms. There is ebb and flow, systole and diastole: ordered change.” Dewey’s dynamic descriptions of everyday experience using terms like flow and flux is aligned with Johnson’s osmotic, stream-of-consciousnessaesthetics, in which ideas, images and signs bleed into one another and soak perception with their infinite correspondences, until these streams diverge, flooding out into the world via the postal network.
Johnson’s establishment of a postal network corresponds to another of Dewey’s primary contentions in Art as Experience: that art and aesthetics are most meaningful when they are “part of the significant life of an organized community.” Dewey emphasizes that community and tradition become severed from aesthetic experience when the art object is placed in an institutional setting like a museum or gallery, which leads him to praise the rituals and ceremonies of traditional societies. Like Dewey, Johnson understood art as an explicitly participatory endeavor, even as a form of encountering others. Though the social context for his practice was the art world, Johnson created his own “organized community” through the New York Correspondance School, a network that was based on shared aesthetic experience, a community fostered by art.
Dewey’s emphasis on art as the most effective means of human communication also resonates with Johnson’s mail art practice. In Art as Experience, Dewey writes:
Communication is the process of creating participation, of making common what had been isolated and singular… the expressions that constitute art are communication in its pure and undefiled form. Art breaks through barriers that divide human beings, which are impermeable in ordinary association. 
Dewey’s description of art as a form of communication that makes barriers permeable is, again, immediately reminiscent of Johnson’s osmosis metaphor. Though Johnson’s enigmatic use of language in the moticos might at first appear to obstruct communication and understanding, or even promote “impermeability,” this perceived difficulty, I contend, should be understood as an invitation rather than a resistance to interpretation. Johnson’s open-ended linguistic play demands a heightened awareness of potential everyday correspondences, and an increased attention to the subtle analogies between forms, sounds, words, images, and even commercial logos, as can be seen here through his use of Lucky Strike emblems.
At once pleasurable and frustrating to behold, the moticos challenge the viewer to offer a gambit in an interpretive contest that can never be fully resolved. Crucially, for Johnson and Dewey both, art is a form of communication that requires an audience to become fully realized—it has no meaning in isolation.
Of course, Johnson was not the only artist turning to everyday experiences and quotidian objects for his art; this shift to the everyday characterizes an entire generation of American artists who came of age during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism’s art world hegemony and reached artistic maturity at the moment of its decline. Allan Kaprow succinctly captured the choice faced by this generation in his landmark 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” where he writes, “Pollock’s near destruction of this tradition [of painting] may well be a return to the point where art was more actively involved in ritual, magic and life than we have known in our recent past…But what do we do now? There are two alternatives. One is to continue in this vein…The other is to give up the making of paintings entirely.”
It is no coincidence that Kaprow’s call for a more active involvement with “ritual, magic and life” recalls Dewey’s call for continuity between aesthetic and everyday experience, since Kaprow was himself a close reader of Art as Experience while he was studying philosophy at Columbia University in the late 1940s. Kaprow’s response to the dilemma faced by artists “after Pollock” was, of course, his invention of Happenings in the late 1950s. Another artist who took on the great dilemma of American art after Pollock was Robert Rauschenberg, who, like Johnson, encountered the teachings of both Josef Albers and John Cage at Black Mountain. In his oft-cited statement from 1959, Rauschenberg staked out his position on the relationship between art and everyday experience as follows: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” Part of Rauschenberg’s solution to the post-Pollock dilemma were his “Combines,” a hybrid medium that combined the abstract expressionist painterly gesture with the found-object sculpture, collage and photography.
I introduce Kaprow and Rauschenberg as two leading examples of the American avant-garde’s turn towards the procedures and materials of everyday life in the mid-to-late 1950s. Taken together, their innovations can be understood as laying the groundwork for what was to come, which Kaprow anticipated in 1958 as “the alchemies of the 1960s. Johnson shared a similar creative and intellectual lineage with Kaprow and Rauschenberg, summarized as a various mixture of Josef Albers, John Cage, and John Dewey. As we’ve seen, Johnson issued his own radical reorientation of art’s relationship to everyday experiences by inventing a highly individualized practice: moticos, nothings, and the NYCS. Whereas Kaprow envisioned an art “more involved” with life, and Rauschenberg aimed to “work between” art and life, occupying an intermediary position, Johnson’s work from the mid-1950s onwards is characterized by its utter continuity with everyday rituals, actions and events; as a result, the content and process of making art became as common and routine as the act of brushing one’s teeth or, indeed, opening the mail. For Johnson, the pursuit of “involvement” or “betweenness” was insufficient because it retains the essential distinction between art and everyday experience; instead, he aimed to collapse this distinction entirely.
Needless to say, the main features of Johnson’s multifaceted creative practice—such as porosity, fragmentation, contingency, collaboration, performativity—are at odds with the sacred tenets of high modernism, in which art is understood as an autonomous, medium-specific entity that is uniquely expressive of the artistic personality, and exists prior to and independently of the experience of its audience. On the contrary, Johnson’s art does not and cannot exist without a recipient to complete its meaning. Johnson’s “art work” is constituted not so much by discrete objects as by ongoing experiential processes, activities and encounters that require participation for their myriad meanings to catalyze and their full implications to be realized.
The explicitly participatory, theatrical, even quasi-ritualistic aspects of Johnson’s practice reflect his desire to dissolve the distinction between aesthetic and everyday experience, to reveal the aesthetic potential of the everyday, and, in turn, to imbue art with the content and form of the everyday. His abandonment of painting, invention of the “moticos,” and establishment of a postal distribution network each shifted art and experience ever closer into alignment. That his practice enacted many of the key ideas in Art as Experience not only demonstrates Johnson’s commitment to reinvigorating art with meaning in and through experience, it also testifies to the broad and under-acknowledged impact of Dewey’s ideas on postwar American art.
- Johnson would frequently use the misspelling “correspondance” in order to emphasize the postal “dance” taking place between two correspondents.
- How to Draw a Bunny. Dir. John Walter. Palm Pictures, 2002.
- One such exception is art historian Hannah Higgins’s study Fluxus Experience(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), which takes Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy as a framework for considering Fluxus, an international art movement founded in the early 1960s. Ray Johnson’s connections with Fluxus, especially his relationship with Fluxus artist George Brecht, is discussed in depth in Julie Jean Thompson’s essay in this issue.
- The Boza Mansion group was featured in a two-page profile entitled “Four Artists in a ‘Mansion,’” Harper’s Bazaar(July 1952): 78-9.
- Sevim Feschi. Oral history interview with Ray Johnson.17 Apr. 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed online <http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/johnso68.htm>.
- Gablik’s statement appears in her pioneering study of Pop Art, co-authored with John Russell, Pop Art Redefined (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969): 17. Black and white photographs of the 1955 moticos installation taken by Elizabeth Novick can be seen on pgs. 18-19. The moticos also received some early attention in the press, like in the inaugural issue of The Village Voice. See John Wilcock, “The Village Square,” The Village Voice(26 October 1955).
- For more on Johnson’s activities during the early 1950s, see Donna De Salvo, “Correspondences,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences, Donna De Salvo and Catherine Gudis, eds. (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, New York: Flammarion Press, 1999): 15-29.
- Ray Johnson. Untitled Interview with Diane Spodarek and Randy Delbeke. 26 Sept.1977. Detroit Artists Monthly, Vol. 3, No. 2, (February 1978): 3-9. Accessed online: <http://www.jpallas.com/hh/rj/DAMintervw-RayJ.html>.
- Feschi, Oral history interview with Ray Johnson.
- See Holger Cahill, “American Resources in the Arts,” in Francis V. O’Connor, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project(Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973): 33-44.
- For an overview of Dewey’s influence on Abstract Expressionism, see Stuart Buettner, “John Dewey and the Visual Arts in America,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer 1975): 383. Also, see Maurice R. Berube, “John Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists,” Educational Theory, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring 1998): 211-227.
- Rainer K. Wick, Bauhaus: Kunstschule der Moderne(Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 2000): 174; 355.
- According to the authors of Art Since 1900, Albers “reoriented the Bauhausian analysis of materials and structures along the lines of the American pragmatism of such philosophers as John Dewey (who was not unknown at the Bauhaus).” See Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005): 345.
- Josef Albers, “Art as Experience,” Progressive Education12 (October 1935): 391-93. Fred Horowitz, a leading authority on Josef Albers’s life and work, has recently alerted me to a mildly disparaging comment Josef Albers made regarding Dewey’s theory of progressive education and its emphasis on “self-expression,” recorded on January 21, 1966 during a meeting with students at the University of South Florida. Still, such a passing comment should not overshadow the apparent influence of Dewey’s philosophy on Josef Albers beginning thirty years previously, upon his arrival in the US. Original sound recording in the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation Archives. Access CD R062. Courtesy the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.
- Berube, “John Dewey and the Abstract Expressionists,” 220.
- Mary Emma Harris discusses the influence of Dewey on Black Mountain in “Introduction” and “A New Deal in American Education,” in The Arts at Black Mountain College(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002): 2-7.
- John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Penguin, 1934; Perigee edition, 2005): 2. Henceforth referred to as AE.
- AE, 18.
- Thomas M. Alexander, “The Art of Experience,” John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987): 183-268.
- AE, 38.
- AE, 15.
- In this regard, it is important to consider Johnson’s attraction to Zen Buddhism, which, like Pragmatist philosophy, also takes flowing water or the “stream” as the primary metaphor for human consciousness. While the notion of “stream of consciousness” originates in ancient Buddhist thought, Pragmatist philosopher William James was the first major proponent of the idea in the Western philosophical context. Buddhism and Pragmatism also hold a common foundation in their shared resistance to Cartesian dualism. As historian Daniel J. Singal describes Dewey’s philosophical nondualism: “Dewey, in keeping with the ‘integrative mode’ of Modernist culture, devoted his career to combating dualisms of all kinds—including those dividing mind from body, science from art, the city from the countryside, and the elite from the common people—all the while, of course, resisting final closure. Everywhere one looks in his writings one finds this sensibility at work…” Daniel Joseph Singal, “Towards a Definition of American Modernism,” American Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1, Special Issue: Modernist Culture in America (Spring 1987): 7-26. Though the philosophical parallels between Buddhism and Pragmatism is a topic that reaches beyond the scope of this paper, it is an important point of reference while considering the ideas underpinning Johnson’s work, as well as that of many other American artists who had been exposed to these philosophical traditions.
- AE, 5.
- AE, 253-54.
- Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): 6-7.
- For more on Kaprow’s interest in Dewey, see Kelley’s introduction in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, xi-xxvi.
- Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in Dorothy C. Miller, ed. Sixteen Americans(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959): 58.
- Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” 9.