‘The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns,” now on view at the Menil Collection in Houston through January 27, 2019, would look spectacular anywhere it was displayed. But this survey show is seen to optimum effect in the new Menil Drawing Institute, where it was tailor made for the adaptable rectangular exhibition space it inaugurates. For the venue’s debut, freestanding partitions have been added, the lights are dimmed, and the windows hidden behind other walls.
The Menil has long collected several artists in depth, displaying their treasures in intimate spaces throughout its quiet, leafy 30-acre campus. There you’ll find the sublime Rothko Chapel as well as the glorious Cy Twombly Gallery. And now there is the Menil Drawing Institute, a 30,000-square-foot full-service drawings center, designed by Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee, that is an important repository for studying Johns.
Of the 40 works in the current exhibition, 34 belong to the Menil or are promised gifts (the other six were lent by the 88-year-old artist). Between 1954 and 2016, they were executed on various supports, including drafting paper, tracing paper, and even paper towel, as well as on mylar and other plastic surfaces. There are sterling examples from different periods of the painter’s career, which has spanned more than six decades. But don’t expect studies and variations on many revered masterpieces.
Instead, the drawings on view represent a sampling of the media as well as the styles that Johns has explored, a fitting approach to the work of a man who decades ago famously wrote in his notebooks, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” You get to see what the artist did to flags, maps, numbers, targets, body parts, vases, stripes, and all sorts of fragments using colored pencil, charcoal, gouache, oil stick, crayon, pastel, watercolor, graphite pencil, graphite wash, graphite powder, metallic powder, acrylic, printing ink, body oil, water soluble encaustic, photocopy collage, and objects. If the art world had the equivalent of a Guide Michelin, Johns would be cited as a three-star master chef based on his prowess with ingredients and gift for presentation.
Neither this show—nor the multi-volume catalogue raisonné being published by the Menil Collection by the end of the year—can be confused with a how-to-make a drawing manual. Viewed in-depth, Johns’s works on paper affirm his stature as a virtuoso draftsman. Whether a study for a painting or an independent work in its own right, his drawings dazzle.
Because “The Condition of Being Here” is not arranged chronologically, you can enter through either of two doors and circulate to the left or right as you see fit. There’s only one directive to heed: you need to get close to the drawings to appreciate their intricacies. This is an art measured in inches, not feet.
Within these parameters, Johns has retained the intimacy and grace of Old Master works on paper, and in postwar modernist circles his skill as a draftsmanship is sui generis. Consider this: while his one-time partner, contemporary, and fellow disruptor Robert Rauschenberg also executed great drawings—who doesn’t admire Rauschenberg’s suite on Dante’s Divine Comedy?—his most important work in the medium is Erased de Kooning (1953), a clever conceptual ploy.
Johns is a sublime mark maker, and his “touch” is uniquely his own. He knows when to press down and when to just dab lightly. Unlike the seductive colors and encaustic brushstrokes of his paintings, not to mention the inks that animate his prints, his drawings work best in black and white. They’re also labor intensive. Johns is a maximalist who thrived in an age defined by minimalist strategies. When you look at his drawings, you don’t see artists who inspired him. Instead, you’re reminded of painters like Brice Marden and Sol LeWitt, whom he influenced.
Many of the most enthralling works are drawings with recognizable images Johns treated abstractly. The flags, stenciled numbers, and maps of the United States are as rudimentary as they seemed to be when we were introduced to them in elementary school. However, Johns could not be more sophisticated in the way he renders the grounds surrounding the objects we identify with our childhoods. He captivates us with things we’ve known all our lives.
Unlike an Old Master, Johns is not depicting objects with descriptive outlines and shadows. He’s intent on our merely identifying something so that we can see what he’s done to it. Besides the astonishing networks of strokes he utilizes, there’s the exciting way he pools fluid media. Intrigued by the ghost-like figure in a study for Skin I (1962), you may be oblivious to the mineral oil he applied to someone’s face and hands before he pressed their visage and palms down on drafting paper to make it. The engaging subject grabs you first. On the other hand, color works best when a drawing is abstract; it’s allowed to become its most assertive self. Corpse (1974–75)—a collection of red, yellow, and blue hatch marks—is a ravishing example of this. And as he has grown older, geometry has become more important, in the form of curves and as a means of dividing a surface into parts. One complication after another ensues.
Over the course of his long career, Jasper Johns has given viewers a chance to marvel at objects in a world they often might take for granted. At the Menil Drawing Institute, we find an artist in command of infinite variation.