The complicated legacy of Daniel Johnston’s art

At the Contemporary Austin, an exhibition gives a glimpse into a vivid visual world and the life of an artist. Both deserve to be celebrated, however uncomfortable that may be


Like it did with the popular Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) exhibition in 2016 (which also ran through SXSW), the Contemporary Austin is presenting another artist who straddles genres and befits Austin’s status as a music city.

On view through March 20, 2022 and organized by the Contemporary, “I Live My Broken Dreams,” is the first museum survey highlighting the visual art of Daniel Johnston (1961-2019). Known to many as a singer-songwriter and musician, Johnston practiced art from an early age.

Johnston was born in Sacramento but was raised in West Virginia. Despite a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, he self-nurtured pop culture passions such as monster movies, television variety shows, and comic books. Poring over Marvel comic strips Johnston taught himself to draw by emulating cartoon style and copying character figures. His curiosity in art history and art making continued through high school and he attended an art school at a branch of Kent University briefly.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston, “It’s Over,” 2009. Pen and colored marker on cardstock. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust.

Legend has it that in the 1980s Johnston came through Austin as a carnival worker and simply decided to stay. He got a job at a McDonald’s in Dobie Center (aka Dobie Mall) on The Drag — a strip of Guadalupe near the University of Texas — and began recording his music on cassette tapes, custom designing covers with his drawings, and distributing them to various folks around town.

Befriending all walks with his outwardly earnest personality and beguiling songs, Johnston was known for his self-introduction, “Hi, I’m Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous.” His prediction manifested when he appeared on an episode of MTV’s “The Cutting Edge,” shot in Austin. And yes, his association with even bigger star, Kurt Cobain, was probably the tipping point. In 1992 Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston, “Hi, How Are You?” t-shirt (from Johnston’s 1983 self-released music cassette-album) to the MTV Music Awards. The next year the “Hi, How Are You?” (aka “Jeremiah the Innocent”) mural depicting Johnston’s frog with antenna-like eyes and salutatory message went up on the Sound Exchange store (formerly Record Exchange) at Guadalupe and 21st streets.

Word spread and now music’s hippest wanted to work with Johnston. Collaborators included the Butthole Surfers, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Mark Kramer of the band Bongwater to name a few. The even longer list of those who covered his songs includes, Beck, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Jad Fair, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and TV on the Radio.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston, “Grievance Retired,” ca. 1980-82. Pen and colored marker on scrap paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of Lee Foster, New York. Image courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust.

Johnston’s music and visual art are inextricable, addressing the same themes. Most of the drawings on view in the Contemporary’s exhibition are done with pen or marker on 8 ½” x 11” paper. Whereas Johnston’s drawings began as imitative, they evolved into a complex matrix of iconography, exceedingly personal and visually contagious. Motifs include: ducks, eyeballs (in multiples, or disembodied), human heads bursting open at the crown, skulls, female nudes, especially torsos (limbless and usually headless), as if from sculpture, his lost love Laurie, Captain America, and Casper the Friendly Ghost, who is usually used in relation to religious ideas — the battle between good and evil — horned devils and Jesus figures.

One drawing depicts a Jesus-type figure in multi-color-striped robe, hands outstretched in a magician’s pose. With text reading “Jesus as Vampire,” and speech bubble reading “Al La Kazam!” Johnston connects art, religion and magic. Johnston mischievously seizes on the acts of the prophets as magical, presenting miracles as mysterious tricks.

Like Picasso and his bulls, Johnston repeated in countless drawings familiar symbols representing important aspects of his psyche. The free-floating eye comes from the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” lyric (“Yellow matter custard, green slop pie, All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye”), as well as an unimaginable incident in which Johnston witnessed a dog hanging from a swing set. Eyes became stand-ins for innocence and fear. The reference to the symbol as “dead dog’s eyeball” emerged as the title of a 1990 album in which Kathy McCarty richly reinterprets Johnston’s music.

Chock-full, some of the artist’s drawings cram in motorcycle riders, super-heroes and skateboarders, moving in every direction and showing tell-tale signs of horror vacui, while others allow brilliantly colored figures to forcefully jump off a clean white page.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston, “Speeding Motorcycle,” 1977. Pen and colored marker on paper. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust.


Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston, “Belief Makes me Strong,” ca. 2000. Pen and colored marker on cardstock. 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Artwork © Daniel Johnston. Courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust. Image courtesy The Daniel Johnston Trust.

Johnston’s art could be classified as naïve in that he is primarily self-taught, and his colorful comic book style could be considered childlike, although his images are direct without sacrificing detail. While naïve artists presumably are educated and possess an awareness (although sometimes exaggerated) of their position as an artist, they can be obsessive in their approach to artmaking, driving them to be unusually prolific. Another classification for Johnston’s style might be visionary, in that much of his work transcends the visible world, illustrating his own spiritual struggles.

Along with the demands of his intense faith, Johnston suffered extreme bouts of depression. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in early adulthood and entered mental institutions a number of times. Some research suggests that compared with the general population, artists show a disproportionate rate of manic-depressive or depressive illness. But buying into the “tortured artist” myth is problematic especially when someone’s tragic circumstances contribute to fame, or when the stress of fame exacerbates a health condition

The Contemporary rightly addresses the seriousness of Johnston’s illness in QR-code text verifying an event in which the artist was hospitalized after having delusions, and exhibition text that states:

“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.’  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.”

Daniel Johnston
A still from the 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Photograph: Jeff Feuerzeig/Sony Classic

The exhibition offers up old photos, a wall installation using items from Johnston’s room, in addition to recordings and video of his music. Programs included a screening of the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005) to flesh out an understanding of the artist’s work.

But the seemingly futile endeavor of separating Johnston’s artwork from his biography makes reviewing the exhibition tricky. The artist’s enthusiastic fan base and cult-like status can be daunting. And as a native Austinite who grew up blocks from the Drag and frequented the McDonald’s where Johnston dispensed his tapes, the period, the scene, and its regulars, including known homeless people and those suffering from mental illness, are familiar and instilled in me a yet-to-be-defined bias when I approached this show.

The Contemporary doesn’t promise to tackle problematic narratives attached to creativity and mental illness and it doesn’t have to. When I went on opening weekend, the exhibition was remarkably crowded even with COVID-19 protocols requiring reservations. The show’s popularity and merry audience — while slightly less than the tale of the hanging dog — nevertheless leave me squeamish.

But when in conflict, go back to the work.

Johnston is widely collected, has been recognized in galleries around the world and was included in the Whitney Biennial (2006). His pictures show a strong aptitude for color and an unbridled energy. They give us a glimpse into a vivid visual world and a life of an artist which yes, however uncomfortable, deserve to be celebrated.


“Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams” is on view through  March 20, 2022, at the Contemporary Austin Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.


Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

Related articles