Henry Darger

The American Folk Art Museum looks at what inspired the posthumously famous artist.



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Curator Brooke Davis Anderson sees the self-taught painter and author Henry Darger (1892–1973) “not as an outsider, but as an artist,” and she hopes to make her case in the upcoming exhibition “Darger-ism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger.” Filling three floors of the American Folk Art Museum, the show will embed Darger in a web of aesthetic influence by featuring a dozen of his large-scale watercolors, selections from his typewritten manuscripts and voluminous collection of ephemera, and pieces by 11 contemporary artists (including Trenton Doyle Hancock, Yun-Fei Ji and Justine Kurland) who name Darger among their inspirations.

“People think of outsider artists as pure, uninfluenced by anything,” says Anderson, but Darger was immersed in American history and popular culture. For instance, his 12-volume epic novel of childhood slavery redeemed by war, known as In the Realms of the Unreal, draws heavily on Civil War history. His illustrations for the text—watercolors measuring up to nine feet in length—incorporate tracings and collages culled from newspaper photographs of both World Wars, as well as printed images of prepubescent girls. Apr 15–Sept 21

Though operating in isolation, Darger, working in the ’30s and ’40s, prefigured methods later adopted by both Pop and appropriation artists, giving life to his deeply personal visions. He would often trace the outlines of figures from printed sources, then drop off his copies at a corner drugstore to be shipped to Kodak for photographic enlargement. Blown up to 11" x 14", the schematic figures suited the enormous scale of Darger’s watercolors and could be transferred directly into the paintings using carbon paper.

Conserving Darger’s collection poses a real challenge because coloring books and news clippings are made from the most delicate kinds of paper. One of the first steps involves sheathing each scrap of paper in its own acid-free polyester sleeve without damaging the material. Archivists normally wear cotton gloves to shield fragile items from their hands’ natural oils, but in this case gloves can do more harm than good by making it awkward to insert pages into protective coverings.

In preparation for the exhibition, Anderson’s curatorial team is combing through Darger’s source material for a representative sample that spans the full range of the collection’s media, subjects and dates. Curators will also have to select works that will not be damaged by exposure to even low-level light. But the most important goal will be to show audiences how self-taught artists always belong fully to their times and places.

In 2000, the Folk Art Museum was given more than 3,500 individual items that were found in Darger’s rented room on Chicago’s north side. Amassed by the artist from the 1910s to the 1970s, this motley collection includes 70 volumes from Darger’s personal library (The Wizard of Oz and the Bible are among the well-worn tomes); Catholic prayer cards; paper dolls; thousands of pages ripped from comic books, magazines, newspapers and coloring books; and four manuscripts typed on 30,000 sheets of reused paper, bound with twine between covers made from fragments of wallpaper and bedding.

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