What Daniel Johnston’s Drawings Mean Now

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The cult singer-songwriter’s posthumous exhibition at Electric Lady Studios—the largest showing of his visual art to date—channels the same weird beauty as his homespun musical universe.

Daniel Johnston surrounded by his own artwork
Graphic by Drew Litowitz; drawings by Daniel Johnston and photo courtesy of The Daniel Johnston Trust

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.

 

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