Menil Drawing Institute hosts “Jasper Johns: Condition on Being Here”

The new Menil Collection Drawing Institute has chosen Jasper Johns to be the inaugural artist to be featured in its gallery. “Condition of Being Here,” on display through Jan. 27, comprises 41 pieces from 1954 to 2016 and covers a range of mark making, from paint to pencil and even “skin drawings” — where Johns presses his painted body parts onto paper.

The works consist of pieces from and promised to the collection as well as works from Johns himself. The drawing institute is focused on unique works on paper — not prints — but this exhibition stretches the point, with some of the most interesting pieces being acrylic on plastic.

“Periscope” by Jasper Johns

In the case of “Periscope,” 1977, as the ink spreads the image has the feel of the aquatic, as if we are seeing the image through a watery haze. It looks as though the drawing is on the precipice of running off the page.

To be honest, in any Johns exhibition, I find the least interesting paintings to be his iconic flags, which maybe a case of familiarity breeding contempt. But the images in “Conditions” show a playfulness that gives insight into the master’s process. “Flag,” 1979, is quite appealing. The small graphite pencil and wash image is a mass of gray scribbles and gray wash so as to be barely recognizable as a flag. It is precisely that unintelligibility that makes it so fascinating. There is enough, with some squinting, to suggest a flag but it requires concentrated engagement.

“Target With Four Faces” by Jasper Johns, 1958

In 1958’s “Target With Four Faces,” and 1977’s image with the same title, one finds a classic Johns image, but with a twist. The faces are absent, so the drawings requires prior knowledge of Johns’ painted assemblage. It is, therefore, both familiar and unfamiliar. Is there something missing, or is the “missing” element simply addition by subtraction — a new thing quite different from the old? The two images — the first pencil and gouache and the latter in ink and pencil — are hung next to each other, and are completely different from each other, as well as from the source image.

“Bushbaby” by Jasper Johns

There are many other interesting ideas at play. 2004’s “Bushbaby” echoes Matisse, with its bright colors, and

It is always a delight to see shows of drawings, as it often gives the viewer an insight to the artist’s mind that is not always visible in painting exhibitions. It is in the “play” that one sees the artist pushing boundaries and experimenting and trying out ideas. It is here in that private space that the artist truly exists.

“Farley’s Break Down,” 2014, water soluble encaustic and ink, is one of the later pieces in the show. It shows the artist, now aged 88, still pushing the boundaries of his craft, playing with ideas. That is what makes a master — the restless spirit that embraces the playfulness of change.

The Menil Drawing Institute is located at 1412 W. Main St. in Houston. For more information, visit

See my story in ISSUE magazine on the Drawing Institute.

“Flag” by Jasper Johns

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