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American Folk Art Museum: Henry Darger

March 30, 2009
Untitled ("We will slam them..."). Henry Darger (1892-1973), Chicago, Illinois. Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing and collage on pieced paper, 24 x 106 1/2 in. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

Untitled ("We will slam them..."). Henry Darger (1892-1973), Chicago, Illinois. Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing and collage on pieced paper, 24 x 106 1/2 in. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

This Sunday I attended a Vassar College Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center organized tour of the MoMA and American Folk Art Museum. I have never been to the Folk Art Museum before so I was really excited for the trip. It turns out, the Folk Art Museum is now one of my favorites in New York! Not only is the building really unique (it is a converted townhouse that now looks like a steel monolith out of The Fifth Element), the exhibits were intimate, thoughtfully presented and just big enough to get you excited but small enough to remain focused and leave you wanting more.

The one exhibit that really interested me was “Up Close: Henry Darger” a small presentation of the Folk Art Museum’s extensive collection of the works of Henry Darger, an outsider artist who practiced in Chicago until his death in 1973. The first interesting thing about this art is that the artist never intended for it to be seen by anyone other than himself. He worked as a janitor and did other manual work around a hospital in Chicago and spent almost all of his disposable income on his passion – illustrations for his never ending novel of an epic battle between good and evil (as inspired by the American Civil War, which he studied in depth). His novel ended up being more than 15,000 pages long and the illustrations filled volumes and volumes of accompanying books. As an untrained artist with probably only a high school education, Darger began “drawing” by carbon copying or tracing images from magazines and newspapers. His first illustrations are elementary and lack a sense of perspective and look almost like collages or playing with paper dolls on a stage set. {See below}

AT JENNIE TURNER CHILDREN TIED TO TREES IN PATH OF FOREST FIRES. Henry Darger (1892 - 1973). Watercolor, pencil, colored pencil, and carbon tracing on pieced paper. 18 x 47 1/2 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Carl Lobell and Kate Stettner in honor of Frank Maresca.

AT JENNIE TURNER CHILDREN TIED TO TREES IN PATH OF FOREST FIRES. Henry Darger (1892 - 1973). Watercolor, pencil, colored pencil, and carbon tracing on pieced paper. 18 x 47 1/2 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Carl Lobell and Kate Stettner in honor of Frank Maresca.

As he further developed his skills, his urge to create transcended what was readily available. The scale of magazines and catalogues no longer served his purpose and he began bringing his clippings to the corner drugstore for enlargement, spending all his disposable income on shipping them to Kodak so they could come back the desired size for his tracings. (The inspiring and enthusiastic curator, Brooke Davis Anderson, tells us that the Folk Art Museum has his pay stubs and the envelopes from Kodak to prove it). His later works are richly detailed layers of coloring book images and other sources (including nursery catalogues for the wonderful flowers) that seem to extend forever into the horizon. Darger didn’t limit himself to a sheet of paper, instead he combined sheets that he scavenged from the streets to create huge panoramic views of the world of his imagination.

henry-darger-4

"175 At Jennie Richie..." Henry Darger (1892-1973) Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing and collage on pieced paper, 24x108 1/4 in. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

"175 At Jennie Richie..." Henry Darger (1892-1973) Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing and collage on pieced paper, 24x108 1/4 in. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

His illustrations (the curator pointed out that they aren’t “paintings” but illustrations because Darger created them with his novel in mind), are so absorbing and you can get lost inside the details. At first they look like children’s book illustrations since one of his main sources was coloring books, but the more you look at them, the more disturbing the images become and you realize the children are always fighting off an attack, dodging bullets or hiding from an aggressor. One thing that is very interesting about his work is the way he combines the conventional (well known, commercial images) with the unconventional (his wild imagination). It is both the nostalgia and cookie cutter appeal of his figures and the strange details (little girls with penises, talking frogs, butterfly winged angels) that create his work’s magnetic appeal. It reminded me of Murakami and his workshop, where beautiful panoramic views of a fantasy world are created with stock, graphic computer images combined in surprising ways. The images used by Murakami are instantly recognizable (as were Dargers to the viewer of his time) since they are so integrated into our pop culture, while the bright colors and black outlines convey that same sense of a child’s color book world – and yet, upon further observation, Murakami’s themes can be violent or disturbing as well.

Tan Tan Bo Puking-a.k.a. Gero Tan. Photograph: Collection Of Amalia Dayan And Adam Lindeman; Courtesy Of Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin; Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd

Tan Tan Bo Puking-a.k.a. Gero Tan. Photograph: Collection Of Amalia Dayan And Adam Lindeman; Courtesy Of Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin; Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd

But what was most inspiring about this exhibit was Darger’s drive to create for no one (apparently) other than himself. I imagine him coming home from mopping floors all day, excited to trace yet more of his newspaper and magazine clippings onto his pieced together paper to create layers and layers of his story and finally color them in and see a beautiful world that was so much in contrast to the world he knew. In his diary he said, “January 1, 1971. I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now…. I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am.” It is so inspiring to think that he could still create something so beautiful despite the trials he faced in life.

If you want to learn more about Henry Darger, take the interactive tour of his works courtesy of PBS, here.

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