Jasper Johns declared himself an artist more than six decades ago when he began exploring the human condition through drawing. Over time, his works have been associated with abstract expressionism and pop art. This month, a compilation of his drawings spanning from 1954 to 2016 will be the inaugural exhibit at the new Menil Drawing Institute.
The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns takes viewers on a journey of what it means to be human—both physically and emotionally.
“We tend to think about drawings as pencil or pen on paper,” said Kelly Montana, assistant curator at the Menil Drawing Institute. “These drawings are also oil on canvas, ink on plastic. … You can see that the ink kind of does what it wants. … It stops of its own volition.”
Johns’ half-century fascination with the human body and curiosity about the human mind are evident in his sketches, which are reminiscent of figure studies by Leonardo da Vinci and the abstract works of Pablo Picasso.
“For Johns, skin was a container, it was a material, … a way to think about the body,” Montana said. “The skin holds everything in and is part of this world.”
In the studio of his Connecticut home, Johns covered portions of his body in oil to create Study for Skin I. Once the oil was applied, he rubbed his body onto a sheet of drafting paper and went back over the oil with charcoal to find impressions of his body to visualize the three-dimensionality of the human form on a flat surface.
“This concept of transferring the world into a flat surface is an idea that has longevity in art. Think of the Renaissance,” Montana said. “How do we make the world seem like the way we see it on paper? It requires an understanding of vision, but also a complete reorientation of depth.”
In Green Angel and an untitled drawing from 1973, Johns rearranges the human body. For the untitled piece, human body parts were cast and traced onto canvas with oil paint and graphite pencil. In an interesting twist, Johns did not place the tracings to recreate the human form, but jumbled them on the page.
“A subtle disorientation of the viewer is behind each of these works,” Montana said. “He has taken the elements of the lips, moved the lips and he’s moved them into this square configuration.”
Johns also explores the emotional toll of life in his drawings. From his depiction of an anguished soldier returning home from the Vietnam War to more domestic drawings made from the vantage point of his bathtub, Johns conveys the subtleties of mood and circumstance.
“The way his life transpired in the mind’s eye concerned him, so he went to see a psychologist,” Montana said of the artist, now 88, a Georgia native who was raised in South Carolina. “The psychologist called this ‘racing thoughts’ and said that they are very normal. There are lots of different things in [this drawing]—it’s the bathtub, it’s a weird sign in German—things that are major moments in your life mixed with private moments and these moments that stand out to you for some reason.”
Ultimately, Johns’ work is suggestive, even subjective, which gives viewers a chance to pull from their own experiences and draw their own conclusions.
“I think [humanity] fascinated him,” Montana said. “I think that if Johns wasn’t such a masterful draftsman, I think in a lot of ways he would have been a philosopher.”
Badger Honor Flight made its first departure of 2019 early Saturday morning, traveling from Dane County Regional Airport to Washington D.C. https://t.co/GcYMc6slE7 via @WKOW
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Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Air Force Veteran Richard Heh. Richard flew bomber missions in Europe during World War II and was captured as a prisoner of war. The Pittsburgh native joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and attended training to be a B-17 navigator in Louisiana. After completing training, he was stationed in northern England with the 351st Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, and 8th Air Force. On May 11, 1944, Richard’s crew was flying a bombing mission over Leige, Belgium when his plane was hit with shrapnel, causing a leak. The plane soon exploded and Richard was blown out of the plane unconscious. After falling nearly ten thousand feet, Richard was able to become alert and open his parachute and make a relatively safe landing on the ground. Initially, he was assisted by citizens in a small town, but was soon captured by German soldiers. Richard was taken as prisoner, and was one of only three people in the crew of ten to survive the crash. Richard was taken to Stalag Luft Ill, Sagan, Germany, an officer camp, as a prisoner of war. In January 1945, they were forced to escape the camp due to the advancing Soviet Army. They were then transferred to the Nuremburg camp, where the prisoners survived many bombing runs from the Royal Air Force. While Richard was once again being transferred to another camp in the spring, he and a friend managed to escape as they were marching through a small Bavarian town. After some time, they were captured again. Captivity would not last long, however, as the Third Army of General George Patton liberated their camp. Richard returned to Paris to be reinstated, and spent his remaining time in Europe touring Paris before returning home in October 1945. Richard retired with a Purple Heart, Air Medal, Victory in Europe medal, and Prisoner of War Medal. He then went on to finish a degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and pursued a career in electrical engineering until retirement at the age of 75. Richard passed away at age 86 in April 2008 at his residence in New Jersey. We honor his service.
In celebration of #EarthDay2019, the @UTexasSPH Student Association hosted a behind the scenes look at UTHealth’s sustainability activities and features. See photos from the event: https://t.co/WBfK0NeHnw #EarthDay #sustainability https://t.co/YNU5aBvHqp
What is the Pegan Diet, and is it healthy? https://t.co/jVUgTWEj0H
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.@DARPA has awarded a $14.2 million grant to a team led by professors at @TAMU to develop a way to quickly detect which bacterial pathogens are present in a soil or water sample. https://t.co/XbmFWrWgDt #TAMUHealth
Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Air Force Veteran Richard Heh. Richard flew bomber missions in Europe during World War II and was captured as a prisoner of war https://t.co/oUgyjFWA36
RT @bcmgcprogram: Interesting article about @bcmhouston faculty member Dr. Jim Lupski! https://t.co/UJv3Yy4GJA
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RT @UHhousing: Check out these events happening on campus @UHouston April 22-28. 🐾🗓 https://t.co/jAXKTwb4ld