April 21, 2021

Contemporary Austin to open major Daniel Johnston exhibition

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams," will be the first museum survey of Johnston's artwork

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The Contemporary Austin will tap into the legacy of an Austin icon with an upcoming exhibition of artwork by the late Daniel Johnston, the visionary singer-writer and artist, an idol of the artistic underground.

“Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams,” will be the first museum survey of the Johnston’s artwork, the Contemporary announced today. The exhibition will be on view for six months from Sept. 11, 2021 through March 20, 2022.

In addition to a selection of Johnston’s drawings and paintings, the show will include the artist’s home-recorded music and movies and an array of Johnston-related ephemera from concert posters, hand-made tapes, vinyl records to Johnston’s notebooks  and toys from his collection.

Johnston is best known for his lo-fi songs, cassettes of which he handed out on the street when he first arrived in Austin in the mid-1980s. He later catapulted to widespread attention when the delicate, marker-drawn cover of cassette album “Hi, How Are You?” showed up on a t-shirt by Kurt Cobain at the 1992 MTV Music Awards. Johnston later collaborated musically with Yo La Tengo, Jad Fair and the Butthole Surfers among others.

His cartoon drawings, rendered in his favorite Magic Marker pens, have familiar pop culture figures and iconography — the Incredible Hulk, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Captain America — but they’re also filled with Johnston’s anxieties, his vivid imaginings and his deep wells of religious feeling. Critics have often compared Johnston to outsider artists like Henry Darger or sometimes to Romantic visionary William Blake, though it’s reductive comparison. Johnston’s art shares a trajectory with underground comic illustrators like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb.



Johnston’s artwork was exhibited nationally and internationally during his lifetime, and after his death. It was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Recently, an exhibition of his drawings were featured in the Outsider Art Fair in New York.

“I never thought I’d make it with the music that much,” Johnston once told the New York Times. “I thought I was going to be famous as a cartoonist.”

Johnston struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia much of his adult life. He died in September 2019 of natural causes.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston c. 1994. Photo by Yves Beauvais


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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  1. This is fantastic! We had a show of his work back in 1999 at Ironwood Industries in Austin. We showed hundreds of his drawings alongside large-scale paintings by Stephen Tompkins. Plus he performed two sets. It was surreal. Really glad he’ll be recognized at the Contemporary…it’s the perfect venue for his work.

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