Jasper Johns show and catalogue raisonné open Menil Collection’s new Drawing Institute

The 88-year-old artist, who gets the institute’s inaugural show, was deeply involved in the publication

Jasper Johns, Untitled (1990) © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Jasper Johns, Untitled (1990) © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

It is the result of “kismet—and a little bit of planning” that the Menil Collection in Houston will open its new $40m home for its Drawing Institute with a solo show of Jasper Johns and release its catalogue raisonné of the artist’s drawings in November, says the Menil’s director of publishing, Joseph Newland. The building for the Drawing Institute, founded in 2008, was initially due to open last year, and the catalogue raisonné’s release date was initially listed as 2016. When the timing shifted, “Jasper asked if they could come together”, Newland says.

The show, The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, a career-long look, is set to inaugurate the space on 3 November and is the Menil’s third solo show on Johns. Meanwhile, the six-volume, nearly 2,000-page Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings of Jasper Johns, edited and published by the Menil, pulls together around 820 drawings from 1954-2014 and is to be released in mid-November.

The Menil’s former director Josef Helfenstein and former curator Berenice Rose approached Johns in 2007 about initiating the catalogue project. The artist was involved throughout the process and “gave his blessing to the copy of the catalogue raisonné”, Newland says. “We worked as closely with him as he wanted to be involved. This is a man who is very aware of his own work and his own legacy; he stewards an awful lot of it himself.”

In addition to providing access to his files and works in his studio, Johns has been going over the physical descriptions of the works, such as the mediums listed, Newland says, and reading the historical remarks. One particularly colourful entry notes that a 1956 flag drawing, now in a private collection, was a gift to the textile designer Lois Long to pay off a $50 poker debt owed by Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

The catalogue, overseen by Eileen Costello with the participation of Kate Ganz, Caroline Gabrielli, Christian Wurst, Kimberly Costello, Rose and Roberta Bernstein, includes five volumes on the drawings and an additional reference volume. It draws on research papers bequeathed by the art historian, curator and former Menil board member David Grainger Whitney, who began working on a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work in the 1980s and left 17 John drawings to the museum. (The Menil also received promised gifts of 15 drawings by the artist from the collections of the trustees Janie C. Lee and Louisa Stude Sarofim in 2016.)

It was an ever-growing project: when Newland arrived at the Menil in 2011, 660 drawings were listed, and “a year later, we figured 750 drawings—now there are around 820”, the director of publishing says. After the sequence and numbering of the five volumes of drawings was set, two more drawings materialised, he says—“One of the things you learn in a project like this is how often things show up when you think they’re finished!”—and were added to the reference volume. The catalogue also takes note of a missing drawing and one that was destroyed.

When the Menil’s publication project was launched, Bernstein had already begun working on a catalogue raisonné of Johns’s paintings and sculptures, published last year by the Wildenstein Plattner Institute. The Menil “coordinated with her and with Jasper in the very beginning to set up these projects so they would essentially be parallel projects by two different institutions”, Newland says. Bernstein’s five-volume work, a collaboration with Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Caitlin Sweeney and Betsy Stepina Zinn, and the Menil’s catalogue are “a harmonious pair”, Newland says, both documenting work from 1954 to 2014, and even using the same format and graphic designer, Porter Gillespie.

“To me, the interesting thing is that Jasper Johns's work really is of a piece—that there are all these themes and relationships within the different media that will become more apparent once the full body of work is side by side,” Newland says—for instance, recurring motifs like the target. “When you have the two together, you really will see the interrelationship of his work in all different media.”

Both catalogues were printed by the same Verona-based firm, Trifolio. Its co-founder, Massimo Tonolli, visited the Menil Collection and Johns’s studio to inspect over 150 drawings to customise printing processes for the drawings catalogue. The printers added some special colours to the CMYK process, such as a silver-black for graphite or fluorescent orange, and captured the matte nature of black ink on paper through a second printing-run.

The Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings of Jasper Johns “does not include the totality of Johns’s artistic output”, Newland says—the 88-year-old artist is still making work. The Drawing Institute show, which focuses on gifts to the Menil and loans from the artist and was organised by David Breslin, who advised on the catalogue raisonné, includes a drawing from 2015.