In 1958, Johnson was already recognized as part of the nascent Pop generation. In a review of a Jasper Johns’ exhibition, a critic for ARTnews stated: “Johns’ first one-man show (...) places him with such better-known colleagues as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Kaprow and Ray Johnson.” Around 1959, Johnson met Billy Linich (later known as Billy Name) at New York’s Serendipity, and in 1963 Johnson introduced him to Warhol. Billy Name became a key figure at Warhol’s Factory, responsible for covering the Factory walls with silver, which resulted from Johnson bringing Warhol to Name's similarly silver-covered apartment.Johnson was one of the first conceptualists, an heir to Marcel Duchamp whom he may have met in 1961. Johnson shared his enthusiasm for the elder Frenchman’s work with many of his contemporaries. In Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Michael Taylor notes, “The public display of Johnson’s work helped to situate him as a crucial figure in the post-World War II dissemination of Duchamp’s art and ideas, alongside cultural luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns.” Johnson was one of the key artists to incorporate exhortations to the observer to participate actively in the work of art itself. His interest in codes, poetics, and semiotic systems looked back to Duchamp, while anticipating the enlarging contemporary conceptual practices, and the development of appropriation in particular, during the early second half of the 20th century.
Richard Feigen was an early champion of his work, holding one-man exhibitions in New York and Chicago from 1966-72, including I Shot an Arrow into the Air It Fell to Earth in the Ear of an Artist Living in Flushing, New York Tit Show (1970) and Dollar Bills (1970). From 1968-1974, Johnson produced an ambitious body of work, received critical attention on the pages of Artforum, and was featured in several major exhibitions. In 1970, The Whitney Museum of American Art organized Ray Johnson: New York Correspondance School, which served as a major form of cultural validation for Johnson’s practice. Additionally, Johnson had several solo shows at Willard Gallery (New York) as well as Famous People’s Mother’s Potato Mashers (1973) at Galleria Schwarz (Milan) and Ray Johnson’s History of the Betty Parsons Gallery (1973) at the Betty Parsons Gallery (New York), and participated in the group exhibition Post Card Show (1971-72) at the Angela Flowers Gallery (London).
On April 5, 1973, Johnson declared the “death” of the “New York Correspondance School” in an unpublished letter to the Obituary Department of The New York Times but continued to practice mail art under this and other rubrics.
In 1976, Johnson began his Silhouette project, which involved creating over 200 profiles of friends’, artists’ or famous peoples’ faces, which he would often use as the basis for collages. Subjects included “a who’s who of the New York arts and letters scene”: Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso, James Rosenquist, Richard Feigen, Frances Beatty, William S. Burroughs, Nam June Paik, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.
On January 13, 1995, Johnson was seen dressed in black diving off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island and backstroking out to sea. Many aspects of his death involved the number "13": the date, his age, 67 (6+7=13), as well as the room number of a motel he had checked into earlier that day, 247 (2+4+7=13). There was much speculation amongst critics, scholars, admirers, and law-enforcement officials about a “last performance” aspect of Johnson’s drowning. After his death, hundreds of collages were found carefully arranged in his Long Island home. A retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999), which traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts as well as solo and group shows in the US and abroad, including Paris, London, Oslo, Budapest, and Barcelona, began the process of re-introducing Johnson’s work to a broader audience. Johnson is considered one of the major artistic innovators of the second-half of the 20th century within the critical community but his work remains underexposed and underappreciated by the general public."