at Worthington Gallery, through December 31

“The real and limited task of the draftsman,” writes German artist Horst Janssen, “is to depict his surroundings.” Later in the same essay he speaks of “looking with a clear eye untroubled by every extraneous thought…looking now, this very second, without attempting to apply yesterday’s experiences to today’s.” While he doesn’t exclude the possibility of depicting the ‘inner world’ or of the imagination bringing associations to the subject, his work is profoundly rooted in physical reality.

Of the 66 works now on view at Worthington Gallery in honor of Janssen’s 65th birthday–watercolors, drawings, etchings, lithographs, books, and posters–the majority of the prints and drawings focus on single, often isolated subjects. For Janssen, drawing is not “a seismograph or interpretation of social conditions,” and some of his most impressive works represent objects of no particular significance.

The drawing Hyacinth Bulb has a white background with just the hint of a table. The bulb’s deep purple is divided by precise black lines girdling it like the longitudal lines of a globe; less clearly delineated leaves sprouting from it at the right and cradling it at the left give the whole an oddly suggestive shape. In the smaller of two watercolors titled Fish Head, the paper itself, stained with whites and grays, is torn at the upper right, neatly mirroring the fish head’s detachment. The head itself is a hulking dark form irregularly stained with splotches of diverse colors; one can almost feel its messy, oily decay.

Shoe presents a subject often portrayed, though very differently, by Andy Warhol. Warhol’s shoes are exotic, almost erotic objects, each a fabulous little miracle–the viewer susceptible to that sort of thing may feel almost transported, as if led to some magical elsewhere. But the viewer of Janssen’s shoe notices first how scuffed it is. Its black exterior is covered with gray and white splotches and streaks as if the color has been rubbed away, and the reddish inside contains similar variations in color–the dark sections may be sweat stains. No flight of fancy is encouraged; one’s mind immediately butts up against these heavily used surfaces, sensing the endless rubs and bumps that brought them to their present state. In Janssen’s physical, tactile art, the eye is stopped by, almost feels as if it’s touching, the objects he represents.

This is equally true of his landscapes. Hollandische Idylle (“Holland Idyll”) bears a superficial resemblance to drawings by German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, whom Janssen admires. The bending tops of a few mostly barren trees blend into lines that suggest a fence; the rest of the picture is mostly white. Janssen’s lines have all the precision of Friedrich’s, even when it’s not exactly clear what each depicts; but they have andeven more solid, physical presence, so that one focuses on the way the trees lead to the fence, whereas in Friedrich the lines would lead the eye to the blank spaces, the invisible beyond.

The hand-colored etching 1 Rest (View Towards Rugen) has an even more solid feel. Whereas Friedrich painted views looking past Rugen’s famous chalk cliffs out to sea, Janssen gives us the cliffs themselves, or perhaps a rocky hill or bluff: a dense network of curved lines enclosing areas of white, gray, black, and occasionally red. Some of the curved lines are almost concentric circles, like the curves on a contour map, and the eye is stopped by these interlocked shapes; this surface is impenetrable, with the hardness of an actual rock face.

Born in 1929 in Hamburg, where he still lives, Janssen entered art school when he was 16. He studied with the rigorous Alfred Mahlau, who trained his students to draw from life–cauliflowers, fish, horses, ships, cranes, by Janssen’s account. Janssen has since achieved considerable renown, with exhibits throughout the world; the Art Institute of Chicago, which has already given him two shows, is considering a third next year. While he acknowledges influences as diverse as Vermeer and Hokusai, the artist that came most often to my mind was Albrecht Durer. In his paintings and prints, Durer delineates ordinary objects with such vivid precision that they seem solid, touchable, with a physicality that’s almost as miraculous as the saints so often at the center of his pictures.

While Janssen has obviously been influenced by movements that came long after Durer–romanticism, with its emphasis on a scene’s emotional implications, and expressionism, with its emphasis on the artist’s inner eye–his works have a palpability like Durer’s rare in 20th-century art. But much of his work is Durer with a big difference: instead of the earlier artist’s solid, certain world of healthy nature and true faith, in many of Janssen’s best works we’re given a world of decay.

This is nowhere clearer than in his self-portraits, well represented in this show. Among them are 4 of the 23 etchings that make up the series “Hanno’s Tod” (“Hanno’s Death”), inspired by the death of Hanno in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. In one of two called 12-15-72 (many of his self-portraits are titled only with the date of their making, so there are occasionally two with the same title), Janssen’s upper left forehead bleeds onto the blank paper while his eye and eyeglass frame appear to be melting, even dripping downward; meanwhile his right eye gazes directly out at the viewer. In 12-17-72 white streaks streaming down the left side of his face, coming from near the edges of his sad eyes, suggest tears or tear tracks; but these bright grooves on a dark face are far more dramatic than any real tears would be. It’s as if the tears have literally etched his face, removing its color and texture: sadness made terrifyingly physical.

Orphaned as an infant, coming of age amid the destruction of World War II, Janssen perhaps has more than one reason to be sad. In a somewhat fanciful autobiographical note, he says he founded a “drinking club” shortly after leaving art school; he also penned a short essay called “Alcohol” (“I booze myself into ridiculousness”). Worthington Gallery’s press release describes him as “65 years old (going on 95),” and gallery owner Eva-Maria Worthington confirms that he has for a long time been “burning the candle at both ends.”

The face in the watercolor Self 25.2.83 is falling apart. Curved lines interlock but without the concentricity of the lines in 1 Rest; rather, clashing forms are held in tense opposition, giving Janssen’s bloated, almost collapsed visage an odd solidity. White, flesh color, brown, and red often overlap, merging in places to a denser and more amorphous brown. The reds on parts of the lips and eyelids also appear on the forehead and above the nose, suggesting raw, exposed, even bleeding flesh.

In an essay stressing the importance of “small things,” little movements, tiny particles, Janssen quotes Napoleon before one of his battles, poking with a stick in the grains of dust at his feet: “The position of all these grains of dust are properly ordered in my mind; should a single one of them be moved out of its position, my star will sink.” Staring at this face on the verge of formlessness, one feels that every tiny line is both in its proper place and utterly out of place: each contributes to the visage’s “perfect” imbalance and asymmetry–Self 25.2.83 is a precise expression of disintegration. Because the eyes, though a bit off center, stare directly outward, this self-portrait has some of the confrontational quality of a cry or a look in the eye from a street beggar. By making visible his own collapsing form, his disintegrating sense of his identity, Janssen gives a universal voice to all the most secret, negative images we harbor of ourselves.