One artist’s treasures: At the Blanton, drawings from the collection of Jack Shear


Jack Shear is a lifelong collector. Growing up in Los Angeles, he remembers collecting rocks, stamps, and coins as a kid. His first art purchase — a 20th century Japanese woodblock print from a local antique shop — came at age 15.

Today, the photographer, curator and executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, which honors the legacy of his long-time partner, holds a collection of art objects that numbers in the hundreds. And Shear is eager to share it with the world.

Shear’s exhibited his collection before at Skidmore College and New York’s Drawing Center. And now — following his role in bringing Kelly’s Austin to the Blanton Museum of Art — we have “Drawn: From the Collection of Jack Shear” featuring 91 pieces by artists working in the medium of drawing from the 16th to 21st centuries.

With works by Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and other big names, the show highlights mostly modern, mostly male, mostly White, mostly Western art history but it’s remixed in unconventional arrangements that bring out unexpected associations. (There are a few welcome surprises too.)

“I have no idea why I like this versus that,” Shear says on a recent phone call. He describes his collecting method as “look, don’t think.” Along with gut instinct, Shear is guided by an encyclopedic visual vocabulary, and an uncanny memory for images. He also sometimes purchases works that he doesn’t quite like, only to live with them long enough to see something new in them.

“Things reveal themselves differently over time,” he explains. “One day, you walk by something that you think you’ve never seen, and then all the sudden, [the work] makes sense or it changes.”

Shear’s open-minded collecting style is reflected in the exhibition’s eclectic installation. During the hanging process, “I didn’t have any preconceived ideas, and I didn’t plan anything,” he says. “I brought about 130 drawings down, and I literally played with the drawings in the Blanton.”

Hence groups of works from different artists, time periods, and places are pressed together side by side in tight rows and clusters in the museum’s intimate Paper Vault gallery. One of the pleasures of experiencing the show comes from deciphering the themes behind Shear’s quirky combinations.

Installation view of "Drawn: From the Collection of Jack Shear," Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas, March 27, 2020–August 22, 2021
Installation view of “Drawn: From the Collection of Jack Shear,” Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas, March 27, 2020–August 22, 2021

Another unorthodox move? The pictures are accompanied by QR codes instead of traditional wall texts, so that the visitor is forced to view each drawing without knowing its credentials first. “One of the things that Ellsworth always said,” Shear recalls, “is that when you look at art, you bring everything that you know about the artist, and any painting that you’ve ever seen, and any book that you’ve ever read, to what’s in front of you.”

Shear’s strategy does encourage a more direct encounter with the images, though his atypical arrays also make the checklist feel more essential as a potential source for clues that might connect the works.

The show’s handful of lesser-known artists offer some refreshing discoveries. English Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s sensitive portrait “St. Mary Magdalene the Morning of the Resurrection” (1886) is a delicate study in softness that almost evaporates into the surface it’s sketched upon. Anne Ryan, an under-recognized Abstract Expressionist from the New York School, brings a spark of texture with her layered collage “M1044D #183” (c.1950). And a small, seemingly casual likeness by 19th century German Realist Adolph Friedrich Erdmannvon Menzel, “Studie einer sitzenden Dame mit Hut, Schirm und Geldbörse (Study of a Seated Woman with a Hat, Umbrella and Coin Purse)” (1880), is an economical but masterful knock out, and a testament to what a simple material like pencil on paper can do to convey a specific light, figure, and mood.

Susan Rothenberg, Untitled, 1979, acrylic, vinyl paint, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, 23 x 19 in., Jack Shear Collection, © 2021 Susan Rothenberg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo courtesy of Jack Shear
Susan Rothenberg, “Untitled,” 1979, acrylic, vinyl paint, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, 23 x 19 in., Jack Shear Collection, © 2021 Susan Rothenberg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo courtesy of Jack Shear

Some of the more recognized artists in “Drawn” are represented by works that are pleasantly atypical. Edvard Munch’s curiously cartoon-like “Blondende hjerte (Bleeding Heart)” (c. 1898) contains two brooding, half-colored vignettes that look like preparatory drawings for other works. Executed long before her full-bodied, bright late portraits for which she is now known, Alice Neel’s uncharacteristically thin and gloomy “Requiem” (1928) is a washy seascape edged by a dismembered corpse and a Munch-like ghoul. And Ed Ruscha’s “Two Sheets with Whisky Stains” (1973) — made of gunpowder and Scotch whisky on paper — is an especially ethereal text-free and opinion-free work that channels a sense of near-spiritual calm.

Not everyone can be a collector, but shows like “Drawn” give us access to works that are normally far from the public’s reach, from unseen sketches by famous artists to master works by relative unknowns.

Regardless, drawing itself is an accessible process. As Shear puts it, “Not everyone paints, but everyone doodles, uses a pencil, or at some point in their lives tries to draw something. So everyone understands inherently what’s going on with a drawing.” With “Drawn,” Shear brings the works together, and we determine what’s going on in these drawings.

“Drawn: From the Collection of Jack Shear” is on view at The Blanton Museum through August 22.

Lauren Moya Ford
Lauren Moya Ford
Lauren Moya Ford is a Texan artist and writer based in Austin.

Related articles