New York

Henry Darger, At Jennie Richee. Part one of 216. Little girl between Blengins / . . . Protect a little skittery child from Glandelinians, ca. 1950–60, double-sided watercolor, graphite and carbon tracing on collaged paper, 24 × 107".

Henry Darger, At Jennie Richee. Part one of 216. Little girl between Blengins / . . . Protect a little skittery child from Glandelinians, ca. 1950–60, double-sided watercolor, graphite and carbon tracing on collaged paper, 24 × 107".

Henry Darger

How would the notoriously reclusive, misanthropic Henry Darger (1892–1973) have reckoned with his posthumous success? Today Darger is virtually a household name, thanks to the musicians, librettists, dancers, filmmakers, and authors who have kept his spirit alive in popular culture, creating an entire brand through a froth of Darger-inspired output. (The adjective Dargeresque has become common enough to need no explanation.) He is so familiar that the succinct recent exhibition of the artist’s work at Andrew Edlin Gallery, “The Double-Sided Dominions of Henry Darger,” could be described using the terms elegant, bookish, even reverent—adjectives rarely uttered when the art was first shown years ago, troubling critics with its unabashed violence and ambiguous, possibly sexualized representations of preadolescents.

Andrew Edlin, per the gallery’s website, was “awarded exclusive representation” of this material in 2006 by Kiyoko Lerner, owner of the Darger estate and its copyrights since the death of her husband, Nathan, alongside whom she acted as Darger’s landlord. (Kiyoko’s sudden move to Edlin and her abrupt severing of ties with the gallerists and curators who had been laboring for years to get this work seen and studied were controversial at the time—much like every decision the Lerners made about the estate.) Kiyoko and Nathan were the ones who discovered the self-taught artist’s vast treasure trove, which included thousands of pages of writing, sundry objects, and images: hundreds of sheets of paper covered in carbon tracings of childlike figures sourced from newspapers and magazines, all arranged in different scenarios like paper dolls, layered with pencil drawings and watercolor.

The pieces assembled here shimmered with the sparkle of a finite and rapidly diminishing resource (currently only a handful of works, if any, remain with the estate). Darger historian Michael Bonesteel contributed detailed texts to contextualize the nine recto-verso and often multipanel drawings on display, dated from the 1930s up to 1960. The earliest ones are the most closely affiliated with Darger’s fifteen-thousand-plus-page novel 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 and are populated by the usual suspects, especially the seven blonde Vivian sisters (the virtuous protagonists of the artist’s epic). The later drawings start to wander somewhere else. They are just as fantastical but increasingly less violent—over the last two decades of his life, the artist would cease to reference the Realms characters altogether.

Four of the drawings, some of them many feet long, were mounted in glass and suspended from the ceiling so the viewer could observe front and back. (The two sides usually had nothing to do with each other—Darger seemed to grab anything at hand to draw on while feverishly working.) By now we’re accustomed to the once-shocking iconography: clone copies of nude prepubescent girls equipped with tiny penises that flap in the wind; the repeated motif of a Glandelinian strangling a child slave, her propulsive tongue luridly lolling; and the anthropomorphic clouds that threaten to twist into tornadoes, a weather phenomenon with which Darger had a deep obsession.

In his accompanying texts, Bonesteel leans on the psychoanalytical framework traditionally deployed to explicate Darger, apologizing for the more pedophiliac pictures by insisting Darger himself became “emotionally arrested” during his horrifying childhood. But others have tried to recuperate this complex work from the “art of the insane” rubric. Indeed, the concept of what Darger is, exactly, has been anguished over to the point of muddy exhaustion. He has been championed as a visionary outsider artist, but also as a proto-Pop prodigy, an unwitting postmodernist avant la lettre, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a queer liberationist. “What do we want from Henry Darger?” critic Ed Parker asked back in 2002. The question still rings nearly two decades later.

I wondered about all this while admiring the beauty of the iridescent wings of the shape-shifting creature known as a Blengin; the gentle humor of Donald Duck’s face in a storm cloud; and the absurdity of Darger’s sweet kids, mixing batter in a bowl or blowing up a balloon, all lined up in a row. Dread and monstrosity go hand in hand with sugary delight, and you can’t be enthralled by one without admiring the other—which is perhaps why, alarmed by the proclivities of our own disordered minds, we sink so many anxieties into our projections of Darger.