Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 17 News List

The pet of the underground

Tormented and talented Daniel Johnston found fame with his art, but his family accuses some collectors of taking advantage of the bipolar artist

By Randy Kennedy  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WALLER, TEXAS

In their crusade to take the pulse of contemporary art every two years, the curators of the Whitney Biennial often stray from the art world's beaten paths. But rarely have they strayed quite as far as this small farming town near Houston, along a road that leads to a beige-brick ranch house where a middle-aged man named Daniel Johnston lives with his elderly parents.

The road goes past a grain elevator and a Pentecostal church with a sign on the side announcing a "Holy Ghost Revival." If you drive too far, you end up at a trailer house with foil-covered windows and a rooster preening in the yard. The other day, when a reporter finally found Johnston's house and rang the bell at 1pm, his father, Bill, answered the door. "Dan's still asleep," he said. "I'll go get him up. He just got out of the hospital, you know."

Hospitals are familiar places for Daniel Johnston: the Austin State Hospital in Texas, several times; the Weston State Hospital in West Virginia, for long stretches; even Bellevue, where he ended up in 1988 not long after his arrest for scrawling Jesus fish inside the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But the most recent stay was different. Something, possibly the medication he uses to manage his serious bipolar disorder, caused him to develop a kidney infection and lapse into a comalike state for several weeks. In fact, on Nov. 30, when the Whitney announced its artists for this year's Biennial, Johnston was completely unaware that he had been chosen and that the prediction he had made to so many strangers over the years -- "Hi, my name is Daniel Johnston, and I'm going to be famous!" -- was coming true yet again.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that next month is Daniel Johnston Month in New York. The Biennial begins March 2, with more than a dozen of Johnston's recent hallucinatory pen and Magic Marker drawings on view. On March 16, an exhibition of his artwork stretching back to the 1970s opens at the Clementine Gallery in Chelsea. And on the last day of the month, an award-winning documentary about him, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, will have its premiere in New York and Los Angeles.

Johnston has had this kind of news media moment before, as a musician. A certain substratum of indie fans reveres him for his sweet and frighteningly honest songs, most primitively self-recorded and sung in a voice like that of a heartsick Jerry Lewis. His music has been covered by, among others, Beck, Tom Waits and Wilco and has even inspired a contemporary ballet. But his visual artwork, produced with the same wild confessional intensity over the years -- there are easily thousands of drawings in existence -- has not been nearly as well known.

That is all about to change. So are the prices for his work, which Johnston used to give away or barter for comic books whenever he found a sympathetic store clerk behind the counter in Austin, his longtime home. Now, even some of his dashed-off drawings are selling for more than US$1,000 apiece. And with this sudden rise in his market, he finds himself in the middle of an art world tug-of-war, one that raises questions about the ethics of profiting from the work of a man mostly unable to manage his own affairs or sometimes even to get out of bed.

Madness, creativity and a lot of love

On one side of the fight are Johnston's father and brother, Dick, his managers and fierce protectors. On the other are two collectors: Jeff Brivic, a Los Angeles dealer who over the last five years has assembled probably the largest group of Johnston drawings, and Jeff Tartakov, Johnston's former longtime manager and an Austin music-scene fixture, who has amassed a few hundred. The Clementine Gallery on West 27th Street, which has courted all three parties and will sell work from each, recently entered the fray, trying to referee and establish a stable market for the work, which is now available mostly on the Internet.

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