Treasures from the Vault: Ray Johnson

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Having just finished Ron Chernow’s monolithic biography on George Washington, aptly titled Washington: A Life, as a follow-up to my undertaking his colossal Alexander Hamilton, I’ve lived in the scenes surrounding the American Revolution and its aftermath for a few weeks. Realizing just how many documents, from diaries and personal letters to military missives and political treatises, we have retained from that time period I wondered if we needed visual recordings. The amount of paper paints a picture all its own of the Founding Fathers and their quest to birth a nation; so, do we require the history paintings of John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart?

Painters, both American and European, placed themselves with the prominent figures, like Washington and Hamilton, and places, like the Constitutional Convention, to record the history of our new nation. Years after the war ended, artists continued to depict major moments, such as Emanuel Leutze’s monumental Washington Crossing the Delaware. When we think of the American Revolution, many of these major works come to mind, bringing life to past events in a different approach from words on paper. American artist Ray Johnson put his own spin on American history with his screenprint on paper, Foot.  

A black and white print of a foot holding a pen and John Hancock's signature from the United States Declaration of Independence.
Ray Johnson, American, 1927-1995. Foot. Screenprint on paper, 1968. Gift of G.W. Einstein Company through the Weatherhead Foundation, 1974.08. Ray Johnson, Foot, 1968. © Ray Johnson Estate. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Merging a picture with words on paper, Johnson alludes to an undisputed event in the history of our country: John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. As the first to sign the document, Hancock’s bold signature ensured that King George III of England, who required spectacles, could read it without them. Now an eponym, or informal synonym, for a signature (I need your John Hancock on this document) the president of the second Continental Congress left few other personal writings aside from his flamboyant evidence of treason. An icon of patriotism, Hancock put his quill to paper and then acted as Governor of Massachusetts until his death in 1793; largely falling out of the historical narrative, he is not as venerated a figure like his contemporaries Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams. So why make the print?

John Hancock's signature on the United States Declaration of Independence.
John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. Image courtesy of

Johnson’s work often incorporated fragments from pop culture, and he is considered a pioneer in the Pop art movement that would find its fame under Andy Warhol. An interdisciplinary artist, his 1950s “moticos” anticipated Warhol’s 1960s pop imagery as the small-scale collages integrated celebrity images of Elvis Presley, Shirly Temple, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and more cut from magazines with other cultural references. The “Plymouth Rock” of the Pop art movement, Johnson’s portable artworks found new avenues courtesy of the United States Postal Service. As “New York’s most famous unknown artist”, Johnson founded the Mail Art network, or the New York Correspondence (sometimes Correspondance) School, that promoted a system of mutual exchange between artists through the United States Postal System (USPS). Expanding visual culture beyond the commercial sphere, Mail Art allowed artists to share their work with each other outside the formal exhibition or gallery space. A prescient precursor to the cyber communities on the Internet, artists mailed doodles, letters, and other small mementos through the cheap and flexible channel of the USPS. Exploiting the form of communication that the nation’s Founding Fathers relied upon, Johnson treated various social interactions as types of artistic endeavors; of course, since mail is often opened privately, it placed interesting limits on the usual back-and-forth interaction Johnson elicited with his artworks. Today, one can only imagine George III’s face when he opened the piece of mail from his colonies that included a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence.  

What makes this screenprint different, of course, is the hand holding the pen because it’s a foot. Taking off his shoe and stocking to sign with his foot would probably have counted as indecent exposure in the 1700s but would have matched with Hancock’s heightened sense of drama and flamboyance. Johnson’s attention to detail cannot be faulted, as he even includes the flourish beneath the actual signature; although, he has a pen where there should be a quill. A further snub to their dethroned British ruler if the signers HAD employed the use of their dexterous feet; if I received this print in the mail it would be with a rueful laugh and smile, hopefully around the 4th of July.

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