Berkeley Art Museum Gets Its First Collage by “New York's Most Famous Unknown Artist”

Man O' WarMan O' War

​​Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Last fall, Larry Rinder found himself standing before artist Ray Johnson's Man O' War in Manhattan's Richard L. Feigen Gallery. Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, was transfixed by Johnson's collage. At the same time, BAM/PFA Chief Curator Lucinda Barnes was in the throes of planning an exhibition highlighting Johnson's work (among other things) yet the museum owned none of his pieces.

Johnson (1927-1995) is remembered as “New York's most famous unknown artist.” He founded the “Mail art” cultural movement in the 1960s, wherein visual art is sent through the international postal system. He was closely connected to major artists at the time, including Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. He participated in performance art as part of the Fluxus movement, and many still speculate his suicidal leap off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island, was a final realization of his work.

Barnes believes Johnson remained in the shadow of his better-known contemporaries “because of the very nature of his art-collage, mail art, and performance.” She sought to rectify this through the acquisition of Man O' War, now on display in the exhibition “Tables of Content: Ray Johnson & Robert Warner Bob Box Archive/MATRIX 241.”

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