It’s no secret that Ray Johnson’s tongue-in-cheek and often ambiguous style was meant to both highlight and obscure meaning through an appropriation of words and images. His life-long commitment to that practice is visible in a collection of correspondence sent to Robert Rauschenberg between the years 1952 and 1965, which is newly available in MoMA’s Archives. This collection—which includes small collages, newspaper clippings, postcards, and flyers—serves as an excellent example of Johnson’s enigmatic mail art of the 1950s and 1960s.
But as the archivist charged with processing the collection, I was also left with some nagging questions, especially after coming across a tantalizingly unexplained link between the work of these two important American artists. One of the more puzzling features of this archival collection is Johnson’s pervasive use of the word “doublemint.” It appears in 11 of the collection’s mailings after 1959—and yet there is no evidence that Johnson used the word in any of his other art. I was intrigued. Repetition is a common aesthetic device in modern art, but on its own this seemed far too simple an explanation. Johnson’s work may at first glance (and often at second and third glance) seem random, but his choices were rarely, if ever, arbitrary. Why, then, of all things, doublemint?
Of course, doublemint immediately calls to mind the popular brand of Wrigley’s chewing gum whose twins were an advertising sensation during this same period. With the help of the Doublemint Twins, Doublemint gum, like Lucky Strike cigarettes and Campbell’s tomato soup, had cemented its status as an icon of mid-century American consumerism and was therefore a fitting addition into the subversive iconography of the nascent Pop art movement—a movement that both Johnson and Rauschenberg were increasingly associated with. Yet, again, a reoccurring reference to American commercialism also seems too easy for an artist who had mastered the art of the double-entendre. And, perhaps even more to the point: what does chewing gum have to do with Rauschenberg?
A day’s worth of library and archival research didn’t turn up anything definitive, but a post by the late Bill Wilson, a Johnson friend and prolific scholar, on a public online mail art forum from 2002 offered a surprising clue. Wilson suggested in passing that Johnson relied on Doublemint’s association with twinness as a means to reference Rauschenberg’s nearly identical combines Factum I and Factum II (1957). We know that Johnson visited Rauschenberg’s studio in 1958 and viewed the Factum paintings for the first time, so the connection is certainly within the realm of possibility and to be honest, it seems almost too perfectly Johnsonian.
I found Johnson’s allusion to Factum I and Factum II all the more plausible after considering a mailing in the collection postmarked March 1960 in which he stenciled doublemint into two black rectangles on a standard piece of paper that had been cut in half. The rectangular format of this two-part correspondence further recalls Factum I and II, which took the form of two rectangular canvases. The relationship between Johnson’s doublemint and Rauschenberg’s Factums seems solidified by the fact that the correspondence work was made on a piece of Leo Castelli stationary and then mailed to Rauschenberg’s attention at Castelli Gallery—the very space where his twin paintings were first exhibited.
By making an exact replica of a “spontaneous” painting, Rauschenberg offered a satirical comment on the seemingly random nature of Abstract Expressionism with his Factum I and Factum II. In 1999, Factum II entered MoMA’s collection and the press release announcing its acquisition confirms Rauschenberg’s objective: “the pair of paintings made a conceptual statement that countered notions of the artist as a reckless improviser.” Like Rauschenberg, Johnson cannot be taken for a reckless improviser and his repeated use of the word doublemint displays his penchant for word play, free association, and his own artistic intentionality. While I have not been able to discern if Johnson was paying homage or taunting his friend and contemporary, what is certain is that this archival collection of Johnson’s correspondences to Rauschenberg will solicit new and expanded readings of works in the Museum’s collection, which is exactly what museum archives are meant to do.
The collection can be consulted by appointment in the MoMA Archives reading room, Tuesday–Friday, 1:00–5:00 p.m. Appointments can be made through the MoMA Archives contact form.
Read more here:: From the Archives: Seeing Double with Ray Johnson