Ray Johnson was a pioneer and active participant in the Mail Art movement, a conceptual art form that connected people across the world. He began to explore the possibilities of Mail Art while studying at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers, de Kooning and John Cage. Johnson was particularly interested in Cage's ideas about chance operations. In his mailings, he introduced these elements by requesting the recipient of his mailings to forward material on to another person, often a fellow member of the "New York Correspondance School" (Johnson changed the "e" to an "a" to suggest change and movement in his characteristically jocular manner). These letters included doodles, small sketches, bits of paper and collage material often about the Happenings and going-ons in the New York art scene that eventually spread across the nation. Like Marcel Duchamp, Johnson was interested in the active participation of the artwork itself and the codes, politics and systems of communication between the larger contemporary art community. Johnson himself, however, was somewhat of a recluse, cultivating his role as an outsider via mail art and the telephone, referring to himself as a "mysterious and secret organization."
From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Ray Johnson sent art critic John Gruen hundreds of newsletters and various correspondences after Gruen's "Underground" column in Vogue in 1968. He writes:
"Ray Johnson's "A Mysterious Correspondance School" is clearly a poetic phenomenon in which the written word is disseminated to give a heightened sense of its magical attributes. It does not so much matter what the message is all about. The facts that the message somehow mystically arrives through the mails and that its meaning is charged with ambivalence are enough to get Johnson's highly evocative point across" (J. Gruen, Vogue, September 1968, p. 278).
In the present collection of letters sent to John Gruen over a period of twenty years, the viewer possesses the vast expanse of imagery and text and is able to both verbally and viscerally engage in the artist's complex and unresolved possibilities of correspondence and the process of art-making.