What Daniel Johnston’s Drawings Mean Now

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Harry Tafoya
·6 min read
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Before he garnered acclaim as a musician, Daniel Johnston was known in his West Virginia hometown as a visual artist. He was compulsively creative with a mischievous streak, drawing on any available surface and even veering into vandalism when he ran out of paper. His calling card back then was a free-floating eyeball he later referred to as a dead dog’s eye—an image sourced from the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” and cemented in his psyche by a disturbing incident as a teenager, wherein he came upon a hanged dog. Eyes were an ever-evolving constant in Johnston’s drawings, either lying in a tangle of cartoon veins at the margins or staring down upon his hellacious scenes. In the dense personal mythology that grounds his work, eyes were symbols of innocence and paranoia. Jeremiah, the cartoon frog that famously covers his 1983 album Hi, How Are You, is the ultimate avatar of this: His two elongated eyes grew into six over time, as he evolved into Vile Corrupt, Johnston’s figure for ultimate evil.

Johnston’s all-seeing eyes feature prominently across a series of drawings currently on display at Electric Lady Studios in New York, as part of this year’s Outsider Art Fair. Curated by artist and comics legend Gary Panter, Daniel Johnston: Psychedelic Drawings is the first significant exhibition of Johnston’s work since his appearance in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, as well as the first since his passing in 2019. The show offers an opportunity to consider Johnston’s drawings not only in the context of his homespun musical universe but within the broader realm of American art. It is the most extensive collection of his visual work to date.

The exhibition is the product of Panter’s discerning eye as much as it is the enthusiasm of Lee Foster, Electric Lady co-owner. After purchasing a sketch of Johnston’s off eBay in 2019, Foster began a correspondence with Johnston’s brother and executor of his estate, Dick, as well as his former manager, Jeff Tartakov. The resulting friendship led to a business relationship between Electric Lady and The Daniel Johnston Trust, wherein the studio will assist with the sales and licensing of his work.

Psychedelic Drawings continues the estate’s strategy of amplifying Johnston’s art through mainstream commercial projects, which included a short film and a comic book during his last years, and capsule collections with Vans and Supreme more recently. While these endeavors arguably help fuel the ongoing reappreciation of Johnston’s music, they sit at odds with the elite art world’s preference to hoard work from public view, save for a fawning crowd of cognoscenti. The show, which runs physically and digitally through February 7, is pitched by Foster as a more inclusive cross-pollination between art and music that could nonetheless facilitate a critical reappraisal of Johnston’s visual work.

Johnston, who battled schizophrenia and bipolar disorder during his lifetime, has always been tricky to categorize in strict art terms. He was too pop to be true “outsider art”—a contentious genre used to group work by marginalized artists (whether incarcerated, mentally ill, or self-taught)—but too “outsider” to be fully pop. And yet he is the rare figure, “outsider” or otherwise, to have been celebrated during his own lifetime and to have reached a cult audience more mass than most established contemporary artists could ever imagine reaching. For many, Johnston’s visual art is inextricable from discovering his music, whether via Jeff Feuerzeig’s classic 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or the well-loved Hi, How Are You T-shirt worn by Kurt Cobain in the early ’90s.

Regardless of how he’s positioned, Johnston was indisputably working well outside the bounds of conventional art knowledge, honing a singular style of drawing that melded comic book illustration with feverish sketching. He worshipped at the altar of John Lennon and Jack Kirby, using their twin examples to forge his own kind of psychedelic art. “There are a lot of clichés we think of relative to ’60s and ’70s hippie expressions; Daniel’s work is not full of those clichés,” Gary Panter tells me via email. “He invented his own colorful route through the angels and demons of his inner life.”

<cite class="credit">Daniel Johnston’s “Pain and Pleasure” (2001), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust</cite>
Daniel Johnston’s “Pain and Pleasure” (2001), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust

Like the silent, self-taught artist Susan Te Kahurangi King and the janitor-by-day, visionary painter-by-night Henry Darger, Johnston took familiar iconography from pop culture and imbued it with his own passions, anxieties, and deep wells of religious feeling. Recognizable characters like the Hulk, the Beatles, and Casper the Friendly Ghost run up against imagined creatures in confrontations that range from bizarrely funny to deeply disturbing. “Oh Lord Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (2002) finds Captain America on the run from a scourge of winged eyeballs, while “Eternal Punishment!” (1985) depicts Casper flying over the tormented in hell, vengefully exclaiming “it is here, you’ll wait for eternal punishment!”

Many drawings are zany and packed with flashes of imaginative color. But when the currents of Johnston’s anxiety crossed wires with his sexuality, the results could be downright ominous. “My Nightmares” (1980) features a screaming demon head with a curiously phallic body looming over a sleeping Johnston, while “Untitled Torsos & Devils” (1995) depicts an impish Satan watching an army of women’s torsos on parade. Even in these instances, though, his descents into hell are offset by goofy comic touches. The sinister-looking “Great King Rat” (1980) gets knocked down a peg when you notice his skinny legs and flip-flops, and Casper eventually flies up to heaven in the sweetly triumphant “Here We Go, Mary!” (1982).

<cite class="credit">“My Nightmares” (1980), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust</cite>
“My Nightmares” (1980), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust

As a curator, Panter’s process was fairly straightforward: “I chose my favorites from a whole lot of drawings and then tried to choose drawings that were compatible with each other, and also drawings that as a group showed the range of returning characters and motifs he used.” This approach succeeds in highlighting the hallmarks of Johnston’s style and his major emotional themes, but it also underscores the show’s minor weakness. Without offering more context for some of Johnston’s recurrent images (including the complex symbolism of his eyeballs), it might be difficult for the casual viewer to unpack all of this art’s riches, its coded meanings and evolutions.

The exhibition is, however, loaded with Easter eggs for fans of his music. “Speeding Motorcycle” (1984), which shares its title with a track from Yip/Jump Music that plays on loop in Electric Lady, looks like his music sounds, triggering a latent synesthesia that throws the rest of his work into sharp relief. The nursery simplicity and relentlessness of his recording has a clear counterpart in his drawing hand, where pens, markers, and expressionistic shading are deployed to similarly immediate, strangely beautiful effect.

<cite class="credit">“Speeding Motorcycle” (1984), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust</cite>
“Speeding Motorcycle” (1984), courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust

If Daniel Johnston’s music is gripping for how achingly direct it feels, the revelations contained in his drawings stem from his willingness to dramatize the contradictions that many of us have repressed or forcefully resolved to more easily navigate the world. The quiet certainties of a conventional life find a counterpoint in Johnston’s fiery, boundless imagination, the engine that allowed him to create so prolifically. The lack of irony or knowingness feels like generosity rather than frailty, a disarming reminder of what is most meaningful about art, music, and life.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork