“When you fall out of the rectangle of paper and into depression and decide that all art can go to hell, or, what amounts to the same thing, plan to do mean and violent things with it—because you feel sad or empty—then it’s good to remember before it’s too late that the real and limited task of the draftsman is to depict his surroundings.
“At this point certain unquiet spirits will certainly protest that they do not feel comfortable within such limitations. The reply to them is that they can add to the outside world a potential inner world; one requirement for which, however, is that the artist be detached, not only from his drawing but, particularly, from himself. . . . And besides, one’s potential inner world has to be just about as clearly present as the outer one. On second glance, seated before your motif, the limitations hem you in even more—we never confront our subjects alone; there is always a long-dead crowd of draftsmen breathing down our necks. When you pull back to get more distance on the subject, you get entangled with these ghosts, and if you come up too close to it, it blurs before your eyes; and if you leave the one possible vantage point by retreating full speed ahead, the motif ends up behind you and you’ve got nothing left at all...
“Let us assume it’s a tree you are dealing with; what helps here is the simple thought that it is not the same tree now as it was back then, and that you are not one of the dead. And when you look at it just as intently as they did, you will sink so deep into your own contemplation that the dead will be forgotten and their images will dissolve.
“When you come up to the surface again, you will discover some aspect in your drawing that no previous draftsman could have noticed. Variations of this kind make up art history—if only up to those pages of the volume where the artists float off into some supernatural vacuum or other.”
—Horst Janssen, On Drawing from Natura
In the late winter of 1980 I was sixteen years old and had a habit of wandering the Art Institute of Chicago, looking for dead friends and teachers. I had read my mother’s college art history textbooks; I thought I understood the basic idea, which was progress; each generation of artists improved upon and contradicted the artists that had come before them. But as I roved through the dim galleries of Impressionist masterpieces I didn’t feel capable of joining that conversation, which was over long ago. The contemporary galleries full of Minimalism and Conceptual art did not speak to me. Medieval altarpieces fascinated me but the religious impulse that inspired them did not.
One day in the Prints and Drawings gallery I was confronted by a drawing of a dead rabbit. The word CHICAGO was written above it. The paper it was drawn on was old and patched together. The rabbit hung upside down. The hand that had made the drawing was loose, bold, foreign; the rabbit was observed closely but the lines were not fussy. I went into the gallery and found the artist I had been looking for.
Horst Janssen was alive in 1980; he lived and worked in Hamburg. I never met him, but it was a pleasure to know that he was out there drawing and making prints, that there would be new Janssens that I had not seen yet. I never discussed him with other artists; his art was a private passion for me, and I learned a great deal about drawing from looking at his work. Later I found that a few other artists felt the same way.
Jay Ryan and Elizabeth Ockwell were two artists working in Chicago whose work has been informed by Horst Janssen’s. All three of us have learned different lessons from him. We have subsumed his work into ours.
This exhibit was an experiment in making this underlying influence overt. It might have been doomed, collapsing into Janssenian cliché. Perhaps it was too self-conscious. Horst Janssen died in 1995; this was not a séance, but simply an homage from three artists whose inner worlds bordered his.