Intuit invites you to visit Henry Darger's Lincoln Park apartment.
When Henry Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, cleared out his one-room apartment at 851 West Webster Avenue just before his death in 1973, what they saw gave them a shock. Buried amid the sea of magazines, balls of twine, paint tins, Pepto-Bismol bottles and other junk that Darger had been collecting for 40 years were hundreds of drawings that soon would make the Lerners’ odd tenant the toast of the art world.
In 2000, when Darger’s apartment was demolished, Kiyoko Lerner agreed to give its architectural features and many of the late artist’s belongings to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Last month, Intuit opened its permanent Henry Darger Room Collection, accompanied by an exhibition of 13 of Darger’s artworks, on view through June 28.
Darger’s collage watercolors—often double-sided and as much as 12 feet long—are illustrations for his 15,145-page novel In the Realms of the Unreal. Set in an imaginary Christian nation, the fantasy epic chronicles the efforts of the seven young Vivian sisters to free children enslaved by atheist Glandelinian soldiers.
Isolating himself in his room, Darger developed his own techniques of appropriation: He traced the Vivian Girls’ Kewpie-doll features from cartoons and filled their brightly colored battlefields with huge flowers, farmhouses and the occasional oil derrick cribbed from coloring books or newspapers. Darger found images of rams’ horns and wings and attached them to the Blengins, allies of the Vivian sisters. (In giving the Blengins the forms of nude, hermaphroditic little girls, Darger guaranteed his work endless controversy and suspicion.)
Curiosity aside, what’s the point of saving Darger’s musty piles of National Geographic? “There was a seamless relationship between Darger’s things…and the imagery he was using in his work,” explains Lisa Stone, who cocurated the collection with Jessica Moss. Since Darger’s home and studio were one and the same, Stone hopes Intuit’s installation will give visitors insight into his unique artistic process.
Stone, who is also the curator of the SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection, emphasizes that Intuit intends to evoke Darger’s room rather than replicate it. But Intuit’s version of the room’s east wall looks much like the original seen in a 1973 photo: Most of Darger’s clippings and devotional images have been saved, two portraits of the Vivian Girls flank the mantelpiece and the room is painted a dusky brown that resembles Darger’s soot-stained wallpaper. The room also contains scrapbooks, Darger’s Remington typewriter and a work table engulfed by his art supplies.
For now, you have to view everything from behind a velvet rope, but according to Stone, this “work-in-progress” will become more intimate: Eventually, visitors will be able to enter the room, and docents will be trained to show them its materials. “You have to walk a fine line between exhibiting the collection in the most accessible way and preserving the objects,” suggests Moss, a curatorial assistant at the Smart Museum of Art, where she organized the concurrent exhibition “Drawn from the Home of Henry Darger.”
When asked whether Intuit’s presentation of Darger’s hoard might contribute to the hype surrounding outsider artists’ mental instability, Stone admits, “I hate the term outsider art.” She wants visitors to see that “Darger was working in cadence with some of the most important artists of the 20th century…[such as] Max Ernst [and] Hannah Höch.” Stone adds, “It horrifies me that people look at the way he put penises on little girls and think he was a pedophile, whereas, if he were a mainstream artist, he would be ‘dealing with gender issues.’ The work he did [was] way before its time.”
Stone and Moss lead a curators’ tour of Intuit’s Henry Darger Room Collection on Saturday 16. “Drawn from the Home of Henry Darger” runs through March 16.