Untitled (Mona Lisa Graphic Print)
Collage on illustration board
20 x 15 in (50.8 x 38.1 cm) (sheet size)
Image courtesy of Jenny Gorman, © Ray Johnson Estate
The image of the Mona Lisa was famously masculinized by Marcel Duchamp in L.H.O.O.T.Q (1919), introducing the theme of gender reversal that became a hallmark of Duchamp’s practice (e.g. his alter ego as Rrose Sélavy) and greatly influenced Johnson. Here, Johnson further masculinizes the Mona Lisa, fracturing her image and crossing it with a dissembled image of a naked young man masturbating taken from a porn magazine. The Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous and widely-distributed artwork image, was also one of Andy Warhol’s earliest silkscreened subjects. The obscene modification of the Mona Lisa by Johnson’s insertion of a graphic gay porn photograph has been interpreted as underscoring the commercialism and wide distribution of the Mona Lisa image, analogous to that of porn images.
Ray Johnson (1927-1995) was born in Detroit, studied at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, and moved to New York City in 1949 where he would live until 1962, at which time he moved to Glen Cove, Long Island. Over the course of his lifetime, Johnson pioneered a practice of mail art and collage works which were commercially difficult (small, arcane) and reflected the growing significance of mass media in 20th century life and the networked nature of the postwar art world. Integrating texts and images drawn from sources ranging from popular magazines to his personal telephone conversations, his work presents coded communication as a kind of self-portrait. Johnson occupies an idiosyncratic position in postwar American art between the assemblages and transfer drawings of Robert Rauschenberg and the work of Andy Warhol and other Pop artists.
His interest in language and semiotic systems looked to Dada and Marcel Duchamp while anticipating the development of appropriation strategies during the second half of the 20th century. Johnson sought out the random and the ephemeral, incorporating chance operations into his artistic practice with “mail art” and with performances and happenings. Operating under the intentionally misspelled mail art system he called the New York Correspondance [sic] School, Johnson used the art world as a network to distribute his collages and mail art pieces as well as to mine the mail he would receive for material for his collages, reifying the collaborations and ties to his contemporaries.
The Art Institute of Chicago holds the most extensive single collection and archive of works by Ray Johnson drawn from the recently acquired William S. Wilson Collection of Ray Johnson. The AIC presented a survey of Ray Johnson’s practice from November 26, 2021 through March 21, 2022.
The Ray Johnson Estate
Other works by Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson, Untitled (Beach Bum with Shirley Temple), 1972-86 10.27.91
Ray Johnson Estate
Art Institute of Chicago, “Ray Johnson c/o,” 26 November 2021 – 21 March 2022, with select full scans of the archives of the New York Correspondance [sic] School