PRINT September 2001

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The Henry Darger Collection

WHEN HENRY DARGER DIED—in 1973, at the age of 81—he was mainly known to his neighbors as a retired hospital orderly, perhaps a little eccentric but not so much so as to preserve him from virtually total social invisibility. Yet when Darger’s landlord, Nathan Lerner, cleaned out his tenant’s Chicago apartment, he discovered a body of images and writings that are recognized today as the work of one of the greatest—and oddest—of America’s self-taught artists.

Except in their scale and their perversity, both of which can be enormous, Darger’s extraordinarily skillful watercolors (with elements of tracing and often collage) have some of the quality of children’s-book images, and in fact he made them as illustrations for a gigantic fictional work of his own composition, best summarized by the title he gave it: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Last year, the foundation that Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko, established to care for the Darger material sold twenty-two paintings, most of them double-sided, to the American Folk Art Museum and simultaneously donated a large archive; in addition to the 15,000-page manuscript of The Realms of the Unreal, this gift includes a relatively unknown sequel to the novel, an autobiography, diaries (entirely devoted to the weather), and various personal papers, as well as the voluminous files of clippings that Darger used as visual sources. These acquisitions are now the basis of the museum’s Henry Darger Study Center and will be featured in a comprehensive exhibition this winter. “I felt that there could be a great story for the audience if we spell out Darger’s process,” says Brooke Anderson, the show’s curator. “The manuscripts will be on view—they haven’t been exhibited before—and we’re hoping to turn a page a day, so the public can see how the paintings relate to the story.”

“Darger: The Henry Darger Collection” coincides with the museum’s fortieth anniversary and the start of a new life signified by a new name and a new building. Formerly called the Museum of American Folk Art, the institution has effected a small but significant edit to its title that lets a museum dedicated to American art reestablish itself as an American museum concerned with art from around the world. The airy new building, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates, is currently under construction on Fifty-third Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, down the block from both the American Craft Museum and The Museum of Modern Art. The light-filled space is certain to improve on the museum’s current digs near Lincoln Center, however it eventually turns out—and there is every reason to expect it will turn out beautifully.

David Frankel

Dec. 11, 2001–June 2002.