Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 3, 2024
Miriam Kienle Queer Networks: Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023. 304 pp.; 108 b/w ills. $34.95 (9781517911638)

In Queer Networks: Ray Johnson’s Correspondence Art, Miriam Kienle describes Ray Johnson as an artist of “unassimilable oddness’’ (168). Johnson’s correspondence work is funny, silly, poetic, complicated, and often homoerotic. It makes use of recognizable pop-cultural imagery and engages several well-known figures in the New York art worlds of the 1950s and 1960s, enmeshing them in a complex web of wordplay, animal symbolism, mid-century gay cultural references, and personal and professional tensions. The work’s possible meanings and potential interpretations can seem never-ending. One of the pleasures of studying Johnson’s work is its seemingly immutable resistance to straightforward art-historical analysis. It always feels like one is reading too much into Johnson’s work and never quite going far enough at the same time, a bind which stems in no small part from Johnson’s own queerly ambivalent affect and hermetic commentaries on his own work. As Kienle writes, “Johnson’s work is inextricably structured by the queer tactics of plausible deniability, productive ambiguity, and the multitudinous associations he developed to contend with the conditions of normativity and homophobia in midcentury America’’ (19). It is precisely the “polyvalence’’  and inscrutability of Johnson’s correspondence work, Kienle argues, that makes it a valuable object of study.

The art critic Grace Glueck, writing in The New York Times in 1965, described Ray Johnson as “New York’s most famous unknown artist.’’ While Johnson corresponded, collaborated, and exhibited with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, his work has never received the same degree of scholarly attention. Academic and curatorial interest in Johnson’s work has grown over the past decade or so, long after the important posthumous retrospective exhibition Ray Johnson: Correspondences (1999) curated by Donna De Salvo at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Queer Networks is a significant contribution to this body of work. Addressing “the confusion surrounding Johnson’s place in American art and culture’’ (28) is one of Kienle’s aims. Building on ground-breaking queer art-historical scholarship by Jonathan D. Katz, Gavin Butt, Jennifer Sichel, and others, Kienle argues that “the structure and content of Johnson’s work are deeply engaged with postwar discourses of interpersonal communication, social networks, and queer aesthetics’’ (27). For Kienle, Johnson’s approach to correspondence art is inherently queer and has much to tell us about the operations of “the forces of homophobia and heteronormative institutions’’ in 1950s and 1960s New York, and artists’ efforts “to forge new queer forms of attachment and belonging” (18) in resistance to them.

As the book’s title intimates, ideas and theories of networks and the politics of communication are central to Kienle’s analysis of Johnson’s correspondence practice. The first and second chapters examine Johnson’s early mailed collages, known as “moticos,” and his work with and at the New York Correspondence School respectively. Kienle looks particularly at how Johnson’s playful and experimental use of correspondence through mailed collages and interactive projects established new queer modes of communication, ones which echoed new theories of social connectivity and coded communication that were gathering pace in sociological discourse and the emergent queer press in the same period. Johnson’s moticos, Kienle argues, “imagine a community” (74) of participants from diverse backgrounds, at the same time as the artist ‘‘prized indeterminacy and a decentering of identity’’ (68) in his interactive postal collages. In examining these works, Kienle is particularly attentive to Johnson’s personal and professional relationships with women artists, curators, writers, and gallerists, who were frequent correspondents in Johnson’s queer school.

Johnson was developing his correspondence practice at a time when the postal service was heavily policed, governed by strict censorship laws like the Comstock Act. As is now well known, the postal service also unwittingly aided the development of queer networks through, for example, the mailing of beefcake magazines like Physique Pictorial to men across the country. Given this wider context, Kienle is careful not to romanticize the practice of mail art or the postal service that has facilitated it. Owing to the risk of censorship and exposure, she notes, ‘‘rather than a refuge from the culture industry, the post is itself a contested site within that industry’’ (37). For Kienle, drawing on Deleuze’s theories of societal control and Foucault’s writing on heterotopias and discipline, Johnson’s moticos and his New York Correspondence School work are heterotopic. She notes that Johnson endeavored to produce a queer counterpublic in the repressive context of 1950s New York through collage and correspondence in a manner that echoes the highly coded contemporaneous work of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as Katz has shown, but without their interest in exhibition (and saleability).

Kienle expands on her interest in indeterminacy and incompleteness in the third chapter, in which she traces a history of the imaginary Robin Gallery, which existed primarily in correspondence works by Johnson and adverts in the Village Voice. It was, Kienle argues, “‘an attempt [ . . . ] to challenge the commodification of art from within its own network,’’ an act of ‘‘biting wit that exceeded mere in-joke’’ (142). The fourth and final chapter explores Johnson’s sustained correspondence with the curator Sam Wagstaff in the 1960s. Kienle examines this body of work as an example of portraiture through correspondence, focusing on Johnson’s approach as one that reveals the networked and contingent nature of identity.  As a long-running correspondence between two gay men, one an artist and the other a curator, a close analysis of this work also exposes ‘‘how homosexuality operated in the homophobic communication networks of the art world’’ (189) in 1950s and 1960s New York. Johnson disrupted the homonormative networks of the art world by playing with homophobic fears that a queer cabal was running the city’s galleries. To conclude the book in this way is important partly because it ensures that the camp and homoerotic nature of Johnson’s work and the particular experience of being a gay man in New York in this period are explored on their own terms, not only in relation to the broader framework of queer identity. It is a reminder that Johnson’s work comes from deep engagement with the subject of gay identity and experience, as well as being queer in its playful symbolism and redeployment of the highly-policed postal service.

Johnson’s interest in both ephemerality and ‘‘biting’’ art-world critique is perhaps one reason why his work is undergoing a reevaluation in the present after decades of relative scholarly disinterest. Another is the persistent presence of homophobia in both the art world networks in which Johnson lived and worked, and in academia. Queer Networks makes clear that developments in queer theory and queer art history specifically in the past two decades mean the complexity of Johnson’s ephemeral correspondence practice can be understood more fully. Given Johnson’s inclination towards destruction and disappearance and his resistance to completed work and singular interpretations and meanings, any close analysis of his practice runs the risk of overdetermination. Kienle avoids this for the most part by deploying queer art-historical methods that can account for and handle ‘‘the heterogeneous, circuitous, contingent, and opaque relations’’ (82) of both Johnson’s approach to correspondence and the space of the post itself. Kienle draws primarily on Nicholas de Villiers’s work on opacity as a queer tactic. The rapidly developing scholarship on opacity in trans studies and queer of color critique building on the work of Édouard Glissant would have been of value here, not least as a way into analyzing the troubling racial politics of some of Johnson’s work, a postcard to Ruth Asawa discussed in the first chapter being a case in point.

Kienle’s approach is historically rigorous and highly attentive to Johnson’s immediate social and cultural context, including period ideas of the network, but the book is consciously written from the perspective of the socially networked present. This is key to its queer methodology. As Kienle writes in the introduction, ‘‘this book argues that [Johnson’s] correspondence art practice anticipated queer modes of togetherness that present pressing questions about what it means to connect in our networked age’’ (32). For Kienle, these are primarily questions about difference and tension within the queer and artistic communities in which Johnson lived and worked. Social networks and queer connectivity and community are, she notes, not ‘‘frictionless” spaces or practices (31). Drawing on the work of Wendy Hui Kyong Chan and Sara Ahmed, Kienle argues that Johnson’s work represents a queering of the idea of homophily, a term coined in the mid-1950s, revealing instead ‘‘the tensions, blockages, and incommensurate positions of social networks’’ (31) and queer life. In the final chapter, Kienle connects Johnson’s portraits of Wagstaff and his interest in opacity and inscrutability as modes of resisting homophobia to the artist Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–14), particularly the works “Face Cages” and “Fag Face Mask.” Both artists embrace ‘‘tactics like unworkability and inscrutability to withdraw from oppressive representational frameworks’’ (203). Thinking about Johnson’s correspondence work in the present, Kienle suggests, can offer new strategies for thinking critically about identity, community, communication, and ubiquitous digital connectivity today, and might remind us ‘‘of the value of connecting queerly’’ (223).

Fiona Anderson  
Senior Lecturer, School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University