Henry Darger's Private World

Where did acclaimed outsider artist Henry Darger draw inspiration for his dreamlike murals? A new exhibit reveals his personal art collection for the first time.

Arguably the most famous and influential outsider artist of the 20th century, Henry Darger has been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions, has been the subject of several books and a documentary, and has been collected by museums worldwide. The latest exhibition, The Private Collection of Henry Darger, which recently opened and continues through September 19 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, offers a unique look at the works Darger made for himself and displayed on the walls of his studio.

Born in Chicago in 1892, Darger lost his parents at an early age and spent his youth in a Catholic home for boys and an asylum for the "feeble-minded." After escaping the asylum in 1908, he found employment as a custodian in a Catholic hospital, where he worked for the next 50 years. His life’s secret pursuit was writing and illustrating an epic tale about a battle to free children from slavery, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which was discovered by his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, around the time of Darger’s death in 1973.

Click Image to View Our Galley of Henry Darger's private collection

The Private Collection of Henry Darger, which was curated by Brooke Davis Anderson, offers 40 cardboard collages and large-scale works on paper, as well as two wall-size blowups of Lerner’s photographs of the studio. The collages, which have never been exhibited, could be called ephemera. However, considering that they were the pieces that Darger hung as personal artworks, surrogate family photos, and inspirational imagery, they deliver a powerful punch. These are the things the artist lived with and viewed for years. Although they show their age from being made with found and cheap materials, it’s amazing that they still exist.

Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography & DesignConstructed from cutout pictures of children, animals, and religious icons that were culled from magazines, newspapers, and coloring books, Darger’s personal pieces display all of his concerns and desires. Untitled (Two Young Girls and a Dog Sitting in the Garden), which could be a study for similarly sentimental elements in many of Darger’s larger works, shows traced and painted variations of the same girl with a dog in a field of flowers. The collage Untitled (“In Times Like These...”) mixes newspaper photos of orphans, which references Darger’s unfulfilled wish to adopt a child, with a coloring book cutout of a baby and newsprint pictures of a sultry model and a sulking Joe Namath, who he may have considered the ideal parents.

A precursor to Andy Warhol and the Pictures generation of 1970s and ‘80s artists, Darger used repeated appropriated imagery in his work from media sources. Two versions of Untitled (Child with a Glass of Milk) in the show use altered newsprint images of a youngster with a hearty glass of milk, while Untitled (Shirley Temple with Colored Eyes) utilizes a portrait of the popular movie star, who often played the role of an orphan, with colored eyes. Like the ephemera displayed last year at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Francis Bacon retrospective, these bits and pieces of ephemera have links to the artist’s masterworks.

Darger also provides a quirky take on the display of art by choosing to present many of the works surrounded by Christmas seals or covered in wax paper, which is held in place by medical tape. These crude simulations of framing and glazing of artworks exhibit Darger’s desire to make a real collection and hanging of his favorite pieces. In the process, it shows that it doesn’t take a lot of money to be an art collector—you only need a rich imagination.

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Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, a contributing editor at Flavorpill.com and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.