First published in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine.
Henry Darger was an orphan, a janitor, a cranky old recluse. He spent his days poking through trash bins and his nights in a wooden chair. He lived 40 years in a single room on Webster Avenue, but not alone. Obscured by Darger's collection of string balls and Madonna figurines, protected by his fierce isolation and a copious layer of dust, there spun an entire world, one in which delicate girls, aided by dragons, outran ferocious storms and outlived savage battles. It's a world described in more than 15,000 pages of mesmerizingly dense prose and dozens of charmingly eerie watercolors, some as large as 2 by 9 feet. Since Darger's death in 1973, that story together with its illustrations has become known as one of the most—possibly the most—important works by an untrained or "outsider" artist.
Darger's ascent from impoverished oddball to exalted artist has been fueled by the disturbing power of his work, the alluring mystery of his life story, and the quirk of fate that dropped his legacy into the hands of the late Nathan Lerner—photographer, designer and inventor of the bear-shaped honey dispenser—who happened to be his landlord. It also has been aided by the increasing prominence of outsider art. Collectors pay up to $100,000 for Darger's drawings, and a New York museum recently announced a $2 million deal to acquire much of his work. Rizzoli has just published a glossy coffee-table extravaganza that reproduces 125 of Darger's deftly constructed scenes of girlhood grace and dismemberment.
Such glory comes at a price familiar to many Chicago artists: Moving up has meant moving out. Darger's room, kept mostly intact for 27 years, was recently swept clean. Its "armpit-high" collection, by one visitor's measure, of eyeglasses and Pepto-Bismol bottles has been counted, numbered, folded into tissue paper and nestled into archival boxes. While Darger drawings remain in private Chicago collections, the centerpiece of his ouevre has already been escorted in temperature- and humidity-controlled comfort to a storage vault in New York. Next year, when the Museum of American Folk Art opens its new midtown Manhattan building and The Henry Darger Study Center, Darger's masterpiece will finally receive the care and exposure his fans have long felt it deserved. But many in Chicago see it as a loss for the city that largely ignored him, in both life and death.
"We blew it," says Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I'm just sorry that people and institutions in Chicago didn't insist on keeping it here and recognizing it as a really important part of Chicago's art history. But I'm not surprised. It's often the case that people don't recognize what they had until it's gone."
Darger left behind an obsessively detailed record of his inner life—and little evidence of his outer life. But a portrait can be pieced together from the people who remember him as a lurking presence in Lincoln Park, long before his neighborhood went upscale. Henry Joseph Darger, Cook County records show, was born at home at 350 24th St. in 1892. Shortly before his 4th birthday, records show, his mother died in childbirth. According to Darger's 5,000-page handwritten autobiography, "The History of My Life" (almost all of which is given over to a description of a fictitious tornado named Sweetie Pie), the baby girl was given up for adoption. "I never knew or seen her, or knew her name," writes Darger. But, critics say, she haunts every page of Darger's work.
Darger reports that his father, a tailor, cared for him until about age 8, when the disabled Henry Sr. placed his son in a Catholic boys’ home. The younger Henry remembers that he argued with his teachers about Civil War casualties, made strange noises, endured a "pain in the neck" kid named John Manley, was entranced by the weather, and picked up the nickname Crazy. At about 12, he was packed off to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln. "Me a feeble-minded kid!" writes Darger. "I knew more than the whole shebang in that place." After his father died, Darger attempted several escapes, succeeding at age 17. Alone, he made his way to Chicago.
Darger found a job as a janitor—work he would do for 50 years, first at St. Joseph Hospital, later at Grant and Alexian Brothers Hospitals. He is known to have had one close friend, Whilliam Schloeder, a neighbor with whom he formed a two-member club called the Children's Protective Society.
In 1932 Darger rented a room in a brick house at 851 W. Webster. Nathan Lerner, a renowned designer and Depression-era photographer who lived next door, acquired the building along with tenant Darger in 1960. Neighbors knew Darger as the guy who poked through the trash, sat on the stoop and muttered. Whenever he came across art student Andrew Epstein sketching around nearby DePaul, he'd stop and stare, intently. "I always got the feeling he was looking at what I was doing and how I was doing it," says Epstein, now a painter, photographer and designer. "It was clear to me he wanted to draw." Several times Epstein left oil sticks and markers out for "that weird little nebbishy guy." After he'd cleared a safe distance, he could see Darger stoop to pick them up. Epstein was hoping to add a photo of Darger to his collection of "neighborhood crazies" alongside the woman who stashed her cigarettes, wallet and jewelry in her hairdo and the guy who roamed the North Side with a duck under his arm.
Darger had big ears, Scotch-taped glasses, disheveled clothes, a furtive scurry and a cantankerous demeanor. "I was scared of him," remembers Amy Lund, daughter of Nathan Lerner. At about age 4 she was cared for by an elderly German immigrant named Martha who shared the top floor, a bathroom and some sort of companionship with Darger.
"I used to say I was going to the bathroom and sneak in Henry's room," says Lund. "He had this really big clock. It had chains, I'd pull on them." Once, she recalls, "He caught me. He started screaming. He hovered over me, really enraged. I still remember the look on his face. His eyes—there was a fury."
"There was only one living creature he ever reacted to with emotion," says Kiyoko Lerner, who as a young pianist married Nathan Lerner in 1967. "He smiled at our dog with affection."
Darger seldom spoke, and then almost always about the weather. At night he engaged in heated arguments—alone. "He'd carry on these raucous conversations with himself," recalls Michael Lerner, Nathan's son. "He would talk to God and curse. I always thought he was a nut."
Kiyoko Lerner stopped in regularly to change the 60-watt bulbs in the converted gas chandelier. Once she caught sight of a colorful collage. "I said, 'Henry, you're a good artist.'. . . He was very proud and said, 'Yes I am.' "
In retirement, Darger kept a diary that recorded his regular rounds to mass at St. Vincent de Paul, meals across the street at Roma's, and his unending battle with twine balls and piety. "Gone to three masses but today also I'm a cursing swearing Sorry Saint because of trouble pasting comics and tangling of twine and knots slipping loose, not goose," reads the entry from Monday, April 15, 1968. "Tantrums all day. Not sorry. Be going."
In 1972, too weak to climb the two flights to his room, the 80-year-old Darger asked Nathan Lerner to help him find another place to live. Soon the Little Sisters of the Poor, who ran St. Augustine's Home for the Aged at Sheffield and Fullerton, had him bathed, shaved and stuffed into a suit and tie. "It didn't look like Henry," says Kiyoko Lerner. "When he left his room, he left his life."
Lynne Warren, then a neighbor and art student, now a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, visited Darger's room shortly after he moved out. "I distinctly remember going up that narrow staircase and entering a totally new world," she says. "I really felt like I had stepped inside Henry's mind."
Newspaper clippings—most detailing brutalized girls or natural disasters—were tacked to the walls. An "orderly clutter," in Warren's words, filled the space: balls of twine, nylon neatly wrapped to baseball size, jute wound to bowling-ball dimensions; hundreds of bottles of Pepto-Bismol, scrubbed and aligned; piles of newspapers; stacks of books; boxes of decaying rubber bands; packets of maple syrup. All graced by a variety of miniature Madonnas. It appeared the only place Darger could sit, or even sleep, was a broken-bottomed wooden chair accessible via a path cleared through the accumulation. "There was no place two people were going to get through at any one time," says David Berglund, a tenant in the building.
Lerner and Berglund tried to clear out the debris. They filled two truckloads before they discovered, resting on an iron bed, a hand-bound volume of brilliant watercolors too large to open in the room. It looked, according to one visitor, like a book meant for a giant. Recalls Berglund: "I just said, 'Uh-oh. Whoa. Stop.' "
"We were stunned," says Kiyoko Lerner. "We didn't know what to make of it. We'd never heard of outsider art."
Working alone, Darger had developed his own artistic style, technique and universe. The centerpiece of that universe is a multi-volume 15,145-page novel titled "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." Apparently begun in 1910, the dense, action-packed drama describes a war between the Satan-worshiping nation of Glandelinia and its Catholic neighbors on an unnamed planet. Under assault by the evil Gen. John Manley, girls by the millions suffer every possible torture. But the Vivian sisters, seven plucky heroines, survive the ordeal intact, thanks in part to the intercession of Blengins (45,000-foot-long dragons) and Capt. Henry Darger.
"Readers will find here many stirring scenes that are not recorded in any true history, great disasters that are awful in magnitude: enormous battles, big fires, awful tragedies, adventures of heroes and heroines, many of them fatal, great war and storm disasters, and readers will be taken through accounts which they will never, never, never forget," reads a snippet of an introduction to Volume II.
The saga seems to owe something to the fantasy adventures stacked on Darger's floor: "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," "Heidi," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Oliver Twist." And a great deal, no doubt, to Darger's own miserable upbringing.
"I read it out loud to my kids, poor things," says art dealer Phyllis Kind, who one summer borrowed the first volume (no one has managed to finish all 14 or 15). Their commentary?
" 'Eeeeeeeewwwww.' It was scary."
Darger also wrote a sequel set in Chicago, the autobiography, a diary, and a 10-year weather log that revels in the day-by-day inadequacies of the weatherman.
Darger illustrated "The Realms" with characteristic attention to detail. He produced maps, battle flags, portraits of generals and, most magnificently, panoramic battle scenes. Apparently reluctant to draw people, he carbon-traced figures out of dime-store coloring books, comic strips and Sears ads. In the 1940s he began photo-enlarging them to scale at the corner drugstore. Under Darger's influence, the wide-eyed gamines tend to lose their frocks and gain penises, along with expressions of horror. Working with tiny tins of children's paints, Darger watercolored nuanced backgrounds, creating enchanted gardens and ominous storms. The results (technically considered drawings) are startlingly beautiful compositions in which innocence and violence cavort hand-in-hand.
"This is just great art," says Brooke Anderson, director and curator of The Contemporary Center at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. "You just kind of sit in awe of his intuitive talent, the powerful composition and the color. Then we have this wild make-believe world that he enters, that makes it even more fantastic. It's a classic tale. War, love, fighting, it's all present in there."
"Last time I saw him he was dying at the hospital," remembers Berglund. "I came in and said, 'Henry, all that work that you were doing in your room.' He looked at me like I'd sucker-punched him. . . . He looked at me and said, 'It's too late now. It belongs to Mr. Lerner.' "
On April 13, 1973, five months after leaving his life's work, Darger died.
"He basically came from a very traumatic childhood," says Michael Bonesteel, entertainment editor at Pioneer Press. Bonesteel's "obsession" with Darger led him to edit "Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings," published this month by Rizzoli. "He grew up to be emotionally disturbed as an adult. But he was able to save himself, to keep himself functioning, by having this life goal, this creation to live for. His real life was a pale shadow of his creation. That says a lot about the healing power of art in this man's life. Art can save your life."
For years, the mysterious junk-filled room and its amazing cache remained intact. Nathan Lerner tried to drum up interest in the strange and wonderful treasure trove next door, dragging in art students, booksellers, psychiatrists, anyone who might know what to do with, or make of, its complexities. "It could have fallen into the trash," says landscaper and filmmaker Michael Thompson, who since 1973 has safeguarded in his refrigerator a Super-8 film he made of Darger's room. "It fell into the hands of the Lerners."
Word spread. People came. Some stayed for years, pawing through—and occasionally pilfering—-the work, pondering its message, consulting the long-dead Darger. "I would carry on dialogues with him in the room," says Berglund, one of many who spent days and a number of nights there. "I'd say, 'How'd you do that?' The response I imagined," he says, his tone turning mischievous, "is like, 'Ha ha ha ha.' "
In 1977, the Hyde Park Art Center mounted the first Darger show. To hang the work, Lerner sliced apart the bound volumes of drawings. The decision, like everything connected to Darger, has been fraught with controversy. It brought him exposure, but it irreparably divided what is now generally considered a single masterpiece. The exhibit made a splash at a time that outsider art was gaining cachet.
Outsider art is made by artists who are untrained or otherwise outside the art world, such as mental patients. What it lacks in technique, it makes up in raw emotionalism. When Jean Dubuffet, the French painter who championed the idea, addressed The Arts Club of Chicago in 1951, he found an audience already receptive to his ideas. A number of outsider masters have worked here including Joseph Yoakum. Perhaps it is Chicago's relative isolation from the high-art dictates of the East Coast that have freed Chicago collectors, galleries and museums to hang the work of outsiders alongside that made by artists with pedigree. The Chicago Imagists, painters who came out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s, owe much to their frank admiration of self-taught masters. As Darger's popularity has grown he has, many believe, outgrown the category altogether.
Darger has been the subject of numerous shows, most notably "The Unreality of Being" curated in 1996 by the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Darger even shared wall space with his old patron, Andrew Epstein, in an exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum titled "We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens." "Since I got thrown out of college in the 1960s," says Epstein, "we decided I was close enough to being an outsider artist."
But Darger didn't really make it big until 1997, when the Museum of American Folk Art restaged the Iowa exhibit. Reviewers raved. Visitors gaped. It was the best-attended show the museum has ever hung. "People from all over, they were weeping in there," remembers Michael Thompson. "It was a very solemn experience."
"It's interesting to note," says Chicago dealer Carl Hammer, "Chicagoans don't always recognize their own geniuses until they go elsewhere."
Darger has inspired a book-length poem, a rock band called the Vivian Girls, a Web game called Sissyfight, and an opera, "Jennie Richee," opening at the MCA in February.
Darger made between 155 and 300 illustrations. No one ever counted. At first, none were for sale. But in about 1979, the Lerners began selling to collectors, initially at about $1,000 each. "He saw dollar signs," says Michael Boruch, who was hired by Lerner to catalog the contents of the room shortly after Darger's death. "Nathan evolved from, 'These should be protected,' to 'My gosh, people would buy these things and I own them.' " They also donated 30 works to the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, four to the Milwaukee Art Museum, five to the MCA and three to the Art Institute of Chicago. They moved the remaining 100 or so illustrations, and later all the books, into their basement.
Nathan Lerner hoped that much of the collection could be kept intact. But exactly how has been the focus of much hand-wringing. Purists say the artwork should be kept as it was made, where it was made, on Webster Avenue. "Here was a complete environment made by the artist," says Richard Francis, formerly chief curator of the MCA. "It was made in that back room of that house. It seemed to me to be tied to that neighborhood and that environment. I argued this is something that ought to remain in Chicago."
A somewhat less exacting view has it that the work should stay together in a museum, in its hometown. But no Chicago institution showed enough interest, or money, to keep the bulk of the collection here. The Art Institute passed, citing concerns about conservation, storage and relevance to a general collection that spans six centuries. The MCA passed too. Outsider art, says Warren, does not fit comfortably into the academic definition of Contemporary art, which focuses on formal innovation. The most ardent suitor was the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has invested heavily in outsider art. But years of negotiations between the museum and the Lerners yielded nothing. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, founded in Chicago in 1991, would have wanted the collection. "The main issue is, we needed to have like a million dollars, and we just didn't have a million dollars," says director Jeff Cory.
Nathan Lerner died in 1997, leaving Kiyoko to manage the tide of Dargerphiles, requests for movie rights and merchandising schemes, not to mention the unfinished business of settling her old tenant into a museum. In the end, a third option prevailed: Some of the work will stay together—in New York. In a deal announced in October, Kiyoko Lerner sold 22 drawings and donated all the written work and most source material to The Museum of American Folk Art.
"It's a loss for Chicago," says Cory. "But I think it will be a good thing for Henry's legacy."
Michael Lerner, who has become a developer and been dubbed "Chicago's loft king," recently took over 851 W. Webster from Kiyoko Lerner, his stepmother. He is rehabbing the former rooming house into a sleek pied-a-terre for his occasional overnights away from Barrington Hills. Darger's quarters will serve as master bedroom. "It's going to be a new house," says Michael. "And no one will ever know George Washington slept there."
Before workers went at the plaster walls, Kiyoko Lerner had donated the contents of the room to Intuit. "I just couldn't take care of it anymore by myself," she says. The group hopes to re-create the room's compulsive congestion and inspired loneliness at its gallery on Milwaukee Avenue.
On April 14, a day Darger's journal might have described as sunny, unseasonably warm, with 20- to 30-m.p.h. southwest gusts, a dozen volunteers converged, ready to perform a feat of speedy archeology. "Moving day for Henry Darger," muses Cory. "Moving is always a sad experience. You could kind of feel it for him."
Intuit members spent two days packing. They photographed each stack of stuff. Sheathed in white gloves, they tissue-wrapped each grimy paint pot and pencil stub. They pried loose scraps of wallpaper and took rubbings from the fireplace tile. They tried to remember the place where Henry Darger lived, the place where he worked, the place where "The Realms of the Unreal" was real.