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Christopher Richards: Henry Darger’s Unadulterated Imagination

September 24, 2013

The work of the prolific outsider artist defies labels.

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Image from Flickr via Insignifica

By Christopher Richards

Museum plaques put a spell on me. No matter how transfixed I am by a painting or installation, if I see informational text poised next to it I can’t help but feel an absence, a hunger for what I’m missing in my own viewing that the explanatory text can fill. But these sirens are like an answer key; once I see an intent or interpretation spelled out I abandon my own ideas about the work, which are often at odds with the plaque. There’s violence in these texts. They declare what the piece is, excising the possibilities that existed before being read. And yet, these explications are multiplying in museums and galleries; the cell phone audio tour has become ubiquitous and it’s not unusual now to see someone google information about a painting while standing in front of it. Nearly five decades after Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” we are still waiting for an erotics of art.

Thus far, literature on Henry Darger has attempted to contextualize his life and work into accessible categories.

The publication of a new biography of Henry Darger, the current poster-child for outsider art, gave me that familiar itch of desire and anxiety. I love a good mystery, and Henry Darger’s life and work constitute one of American art’s greatest riddles. Self-taught and reclusive, he toiled for decades in his tiny Chicago apartment, creating one of longest pieces of fiction that we know of. The manuscript, 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 (often referred to as In the Realms of the Unreal), is over 15,000 pages long, and illustrated with hundreds of watercolors , collages, and drawings that Darger created using images from magazines and children’s books as guides. He never showed anyone his shocking work—shocking in its length, its violence, its imagination, its depiction of girls. After the elderly Darger moved to a nursing home, his art was discovered by his neighbor and landlord, who were cleaning up Darger’s hoarded collections of twine, eyeglasses, moldy National Geographics, and portraits of androgynous children.

Thus far, literature on Henry Darger has attempted to contextualize his life and work into accessible categories. John Macgregor, one of the most dedicated Darger scholars and the author of the first comprehensive biography, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, viewed him through a Freudian lens—which by definition shirks the observable to dig instead for the true meaning beneath. Jim Elledge’s new biography, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, presents him as a queer artist, shaped by childhood sexual abuse and a pre-Stonewall existence. Fascinating as these biographies are, our understanding of Darger’s work remains blurry when viewed through their lenses.

Even before we consider the many problems associated with being labeled an outsider artist, Darger himself complicates our experience of his work. Darger, who died in 1973, left little for a biography to draw on. The fictional world of his art and writing provides much for interpretation and debate, but little in the way of facts. Interviews with people who met Darger don’t help much either. He was reclusive, and few people knew him as more than a passing acquaintance. So much about the artist is unclear that researchers can’t even agree on how “Darger” should be pronounced. Of the thousands of pages of writing left behind, no single person has read all of them thus far—reading In the Realms of the Unreal alone would take years. So a biographer interested in telling his story is forced to construct a life from fragments. It is a violent act: in creating their version of the man, they also bury all other possible Dargers.

We tend to experience his childlike work not as evidence of innocence or simplicity, but something deviant, other.

And yet for biographers, diagnosing his oddness is irresistible. Asperger’s, Tourette’s, Post-Tramautic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Schizophrenia have all been lobbed at Henry Darger.

So, in the midst all of this interpretation, are we getting anywhere with regard to Darger’s actual work? He seems to suffer from the same polarizing social judgments that afflicted Doestoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. We tend to experience his childlike work not as evidence of innocence or simplicity, but something deviant, other. There’s no convincing evidence that Darger actually molested a child, much less murdered one, but discussions of his work in books and magazines obsess over the possibility. Could it be that he was simply different?

Outsider art, the great “other” box we seem to put artists in when they don’t fit into our constructs, challenges how we view and discuss art. Darger doesn’t sit comfortably in the categories of his mainstream contemporaries. Klaus Biesenbach, a curator at MoMA, compares his work to the immersive epic fiction of Tolkien, the childlike collage and talisman-gathering of Joseph Cornell, the pop comics in Lichtenstein, and the obsessive repetition in Yayoi Kusama. But the ignorance and innocence of Darger’s work, the compulsive manner of its creation, and the absence of self-commentary (in his thousands of pages of writing there’s only one known reference to Darger’s self-conception as an artist) make him impossible to regard as a true parallel to these figures.

Taken together, the futility involved in creating an accurate biography of Darger and the failure of our conceptual frameworks to encompass his work pose a formidable challenge. The collective strategy so far has been either to tame the wildness in his work with some of the labels I’ve mentioned or to introduce viewers through his personal story. Outsider art as a category relies on biographical detail to bring an artist within its confines, but considering how problematic it is to pin down the details of Darger’s life, how can we rely on even this broad distinction? With our methods for seeing and understanding artwork of little value in this context, how should we experience Darger’s work? Perhaps it’s time to expose ourselves to these collage-paintings, without the guidance of our placards, literal or otherwise.

Derivative and dependent on scraps of children’s illustrations as these paintings are, they remain overwhelmingly vivid, saturated with youth and action.

Reading Darger’s story again, I’m struck by how alone he was in the world, and how urgently he must have needed his boundless imaginary kingdom to come alive and overwhelm his homemade canvases. With all of our explanations and judgments of the man and his creations, we merely isolate and estrange ourselves from Darger and his work. While our vocabulary for discussing this sort of work remains impoverished, I would encourage a state of open innocence and willful ignorance. Darger’s art creates a dilemma that may show us a way forward. His makeshift canvases are what they are—radiant, independent, and self-actualized. We can simply bask in the alluring strangeness of it all: the collage-paintings, the straightforward autobiography that takes a drastic turn into a disaster-adventure about a tornado dubbed “Sweetie Pie,” the hundreds of diary entries about the weather, and finally, the epic story of a war on a parallel planet to Earth between the Catholic forces of fighting children, and the bloodthirsty adult men who would enslave and destroy them. (Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention the landscapes populated by naked girls with penises.)

Modern and contemporary art have created an appetite for conceptual work, and the ideas behind these works often beg for explanation—see Ai Weiwei’s pile of crabs, or Duchamp’s urinal. Without that little plaque on the plain white wall, many viewers would just experience a pile of toys and a pot to piss in. Darger’s pieces, however, present us with a story, a fantasia of the unadulterated imagination. Derivative and dependent on scraps of children’s illustrations as these paintings are, they remain overwhelmingly vivid, saturated with youth and action. He presents us with a mystery so fantastical and profound that we don’t need to solve it to wonder at the achievement.

Christopher Richards is a poet and playwright from Minnesota. He works in editorial at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and lives in New York, NY.

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