Inaugurating the Menil Drawing Institute’s new building, The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns follows both chronology and recurrence in the art of Jasper Johns (b. 1930). Motifs such as a target or a flag, for example, might appear, then recur decades later. Spanning 50 years of Johns’s career with works from 1954 to 2014, the exhibition maps introductions, continuities, and breaks among motifs, rather like the separate but parallel tracks that age and memory follow.
The title of the exhibition comes from a notebook entry Johns made in 1968: “Remove the signs of ‘thought.’ It is not the ‘thought’ which needs showing. The application of the eye. The business of the eye. The condition of a presence. The condition of being here.” Johns described his now-canonical paintings of flags and targets as of “things the mind already knows.” By making, or re-making, things the mind already knows, the act of making reveals how both perception and presence are constructed and formed.
41 drawings in graphite, ink, charcoal, watercolor, colored pencil, acrylic, water-soluble encaustic, pastel, powdered graphite, gouache, and oil stick on surfaces ranging from paper to plastic reveal the diversity of means at play and show the artist’s technical mastery. Johns reveals the very possibilities of what drawing can be.
The Condition of Being Here includes gifts promised to the Menil Collection by Janie C. Lee and Louisa Stude Sarofim, works from the bequest of David Whitney, and select loans from the artist. Added to the one drawing collected by the de Menils, the Lee, Sarofim, and Whitney gifts make the Menil one of the largest holders of the artist’s drawings in the world. The catalogue raisonné of the drawings of Jasper Johns is in preparation, and it will be published under the auspices of the Menil Drawing Institute.
Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1990. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper. 39 1/4 × 28 1/8 in. (99.7 × 71.4 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Bequest of David Whitney. © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Whether or not you go, the exhibition catalog, The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, gathers nearly 40 of Johns’s drawings, spanning 60 years of his illustrious career, beginning with 1954, and the start of his mature practice. Johns has been a leading advocate of drawing as an artistic genre in its own right, rather than as a preparatory medium for other works. This book encompasses his most famous recurring motifs, including flags, targets, and numbers; the essay by David Breslin contextualizes this reiterative aspect of Johns’s career. Exquisite reproductions reveal the touch and process of this master draftsman, imparting to the reader a feeling of being in close contact with the artist himself. As this intimate book shows, Johns’s work, at once matter-of-fact and enigmatic, is above all a meditation on the world around him, a constant investigation of what he calls “the condition of being here.”
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