Don't miss the mural featuring Daniel Johnston's art, commissioned by The Contemporary and installed on the south-facing wall of its Jones Center location at Congress Avenue and 7th Street in downtown Austin.
Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams
Organized by The Contemporary Austin, Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams is the first-ever museum survey of works by the visionary musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston (1961 – 2019). Best known for his music, Johnston was also an accomplished artist who exhibited his comic-inspired drawings during his lifetime. Yet, apart from his iconic “Hi, How Are You?” mural, painted in Austin in 1993, his abundant visual art remains little-known to most audiences. This exhibition will provide a rich presentation of Johnston’s work across disciplines, enabling visitors to explore the intricate connections between his prolific corpus of music and visual art. In addition to a selection of Johnston’s drawings and paintings, the presentation will include the artist’s home-recorded music and movies, as well as documentary footage of him rehearsing and performing. Rounding out the presentation with an array of ephemera and material culture—from concert posters, hand-made tapes, and Johnston’s notebooks to vinyl records, comics, and toys from his vast collections—the exhibition will delve into the artist’s process and his work in context. In conjunction with the exhibition, The Contemporary will also present collaborative public programs and performances, offering ample opportunities to explore Johnston’s legacy in depth.
Johnston first gained public attention as a musician in the mid-1980s through his fledgling self-promotion on the streets of Austin, Texas. He landed in the city in 1984 when the carnival he was working for stopped through, and he stayed. Johnston got a job at a local McDonald’s and made himself known as a musician by personally handing out home-recorded tapes, featuring his illustrations on the covers, to anyone who wanted one. He earnestly introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous,” and this prophesy would soon enough come true. His emotionally honest, enchanting music and intimate performance style quickly gained him an avid local following. By 1985 Johnston also attracted national attention, first through an appearance on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, in an episode about Austin’s “New Sincerity” music scene. In 1992 he gained his widest exposure to date when Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston, "Hi, How Are You?" t-shirt to the MTV Music Awards. The following year Johnston painted a commissioned mural of the “Hi, How Are You?” image on the exterior of Sound Exchange, the record store formerly located at the intersection of Guadalupe and 21st Street on “The Drag” across from The University of Texas. Over the course of his career Johnston collaborated with the likes of Butthole Surfers, Jad Fair, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Mark Kramer of the band Bongwater and independent record label Shimmy Disc.
Public recognition for Johnston’s visual art came later in his lifetime. He began exhibiting his work in the 1990s, first in niche art galleries in the United States and Europe and culminating in the inclusion of his drawings in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s prestigious Whitney Biennial in 2006. Johnston attended art school at Kent State University for a couple of years but did not finish the program. Beyond this, his artistic practice was mostly self-taught, as he developed themes and characters in his drawings that intertwined with the narratives of his music. As a teenager he spent endless hours playing and recording music, drawing, and making Super 8mm films, both solo and in collaboration with his siblings and friends. He looked to comic books for inspiration. In particular, he emulated the graphic style of Marvel superhero co-creator and illustrator Jack Kirby, whose depictions of Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, and other crusaders informed recurring characters in his drawings as well as in his music. His drawings resonate with contemporary underground comic illustrators and artists using the aesthetics of comics like R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Kerry James Marshall, Joyce Pensato, Raymond Pettibon, Yoshitomo Nara, and the Chicago Imagists, including Austin-based artist Sarah Canright.
The characters of Johnston’s music and art represent an elaborate personal mythology that he developed in his creative practice throughout his lifetime. He grew up in West Virginia as the youngest of five children in a Christian household. In his work he combined influences from his early education in the revelatory and apocalyptic images of the bible with his interests in superhero comics and popular culture, reflecting the clashes between good and evil often present in these sources. His distinctive iconography includes redemptive characters like Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Jeremiah the Frog, the figure anchoring his landmark “Hi, How Are You?” mural. He also counterbalanced these heroes in his work with monstrous forces, including Lucifer, Satan, and “Vile Corrupt,” the artist’s evil, multi-eyeballed version of Jeremiah the Frog. As Johnston once said, “Vile Corrupt is what the innocent frog could become if he developed more eyes. I think it’s evil to see more sides of something at once.”1 Other central elements of his iconography included a roving eyeball, a lightbulb man, ducks, figures missing the tops of their heads, and female torsos. Alongside the figures of his drawings Johnston often included simple inscriptions about life, love, and his own states of mind, such as: “There’s Still Hope,” “I Only Wanted To Be Loved,” and “There Was Madness in Me at That Time,” unfettered statements that also speak to broadly-relatable human experiences.
The critical reception of Johnston’s work has often been overshadowed by the mythology surrounding his biography, particularly as he wrestled throughout his life with sometimes-debilitating effects of his mental and physical illnesses. He received a dual-diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in the mid-1980s, and acute episodes occasionally occurred in the public eye. Together with the distinctive imaginative and confessional style of his work, as well as his experimental, do-it-yourself approach to recording, Johnston’s mental health has contributed to the popular image of him as a “pure and childlike artist” or “tortured genius.”2 This exhibition complicates this portrayal through an interdisciplinary presentation of his work that shows the cohesiveness of his vision as well as the lifetime of work he devoted to developing and presenting his art and music. Collaborative partnerships and programs will offer additional contexts and perspectives for understanding the artist’s creative practice.
The exhibition’s title, I Live My Broken Dreams, references the song that Johnston performed on MTV in 1985 as part of an episode recorded live in Austin. In addition to marking one of his breakout musical performances, the song also reflects on his artistic journey, referencing both the challenges of his life and the act of self-determination that brought him to Austin.
And now I’m here,
and here I stand,
with a sweet angel holding my hand.
I live my broken dreams…
This exhibition is conceived by Heather Pesanti and Robin K. Williams and organized by Robin K. Williams in close collaboration with The Daniel Johnston Trust. The Daniel Johnston Trust is Dick Johnston, Executor; Lee Foster, Curatorial Advisor; and Donny Veloz, Administrative Manager.
Daniel Dale Johnston (b. Sacramento, California, 1961; d. Waller, Texas, 2019) was an American singer-songwriter and a significant figure in the indie music scene of the 1990s. Johnston produced over twenty albums and as many singles within his lifetime to an ever-growing international audience. His influence as a songwriter and musician is evident in the numerous musical icons who have covered his songs, including Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, Beck, Phoebe Bridgers, Jeff Tweedy, and Lana Del Rey. In addition to his success in music, Johnston was celebrated for his visual art and showed his work at museums and galleries internationally, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Whitney Biennial in 2006. Several books and documentaries have been made about his art, music, and life, including the award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). Today, the Hi, How Are You Project, created with the support of Johnston and his family, generates awareness and ongoing dialog about mental health in Daniel's honor.
Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams is presented by Vans + No-Comply. The exhibition is made possible through the generous cooperation of the Daniel Johnston Estate and Story of an Artist, a project of Electric Lady Studios.
1 Tarssa Yazdani and Don Goede, The Life, Art & Music of Daniel Johnston (San Francisco: Last Gasp Publishing, 2006), 50.
2 David McName, “The Myth of Daniel Johnston’s Genius,” The Guardian, August 10, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2009/aug/10/daniel-johnston.