New York

Daniel Johnston


Daniel Johnston first emerged in the mid-1980s with a series of self-distributed lo-fi audiocassettes filled with songs that sounded like a cross between vintage blues, music made for children, and Bob Dylan as interpreted by Edith Bunker. He quickly became a celebrated figure in the indie-music world; Kurt Cobain once called him “the greatest living songwriter,” and performers from Tom Waits to Wilco to Beck have covered his songs. Johnston was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid-’80s, an illness traced in the recent documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which compares him to similarly troubled musicians Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson.

Also outlined in the movie is Johnston’s gradual emergence as a visual artist, a process that culminated in his inclusion in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The sixty-eight mostly untitled marker and ballpoint-pen drawings from the ’70s to the present included in Johnston’s recent show at Clementine Gallery feature a cast of recurring characters that includes Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Joe the Boxer, and a sci-fi amphibian called Jeremiah the Frog. (In his youth, Johnston was a fan of Jack Kirby, the creator of comic heroes like Captain America, and often said his ambition was to be a cartoonist.) Other appearances are made by Johnston’s dad, a WWII Flying Tiger; Laurie, a girl the artist met during a brief stint in college; and the Beatles.

But despite the literally manic cheerfulness of many of these drawings, they often also betray a dark undercurrent of religious terror that is imaged in numerous battles between good and evil fought by superheroes and humans, aliens and animals. With their idiosyncratic iconography and constant allusions to spiritual conflict, the drawings fit almost too neatly into that problematic and contested category, “outsider art,” particularly as it has been defined since Henry Darger’s work rose to prominence. And in the same way that Darger invented his “Vivian Girls,” foot soldiers in the army of righteousness, Johnston marshals a brigade of imaginary ducks (among other characters) to wage violent battles whose objectives are mysterious but clearly high-stakes.

Yet Johnston is no Darger. In terms of subject matter his work bears a closer resemblance to R. Crumb (both like to render naked-lady torsos) and Raymond Pettibon in its deployment of pop-culture imagery and use of idiosyncratic captions, but it only rarely surpasses the level of adolescent notebook doodling. (Many works are in fact executed on notebook paper or on the back of business stationery.) In keeping with his rough-and-ready musical aesthetic, the drawings are rough and rapidly executed, underdeveloped cartoons. Most of the works include texts that glancingly recall Pettibon’s oracular fragments but are in fact tediously banal: I LOVE YOU; HOPE IS GROWING; KEEP YOUR LOVE ALIVE!; PUTTING ON A SHOW BUT NOBODY CAN SEE IT; DON’T PLAY CARDS WITH SATAN!

Johnston’s post-Warholian mantra in the mid-’80s (one that set him apart from most reclusive outsiders) was the less-than-retiring “Hi, I’m Daniel Johnston and I’m going to be famous.” But his talents—as a musician, sound artist (like Warhol, he often taped conversations and made audio diaries), and Super-8 filmmaker—are better showcased elsewhere, in the documentary and on disc. While the drawings feel ephemeral, the stripped-down poignancy of his music has already influenced two generations of musicians, functioning as “art for artists” in a way that his drawings never will.

Martha Schwendener