by Kristin Sancken
Very few artists have done more to define and transcend the parameters of Outsider Art than Henry Darger. Admittance into important public and private collections paralleled by soaring market values, has made him one of the eminent American self-taught figures of the 20th century. Along with this recognition, a singular question has arisen amongst dealers and scholars: “What is the importance of Henry Darger?” Everyone has a different answer.
Darger, the genius recluse who worked as a janitor while creating his 15,145 page illuminated manuscript, In the Realms of the Unreal, died in 1973. Shortly thereafter, his extensive oeuvre was discovered, gaining instant notoriety thanks to roughly 300 watercolor paintings and over 1,700 tracings and collaged images depicting an original mythology—the history of an epic war fought between the evil empire Glandelina, a nation of evil adults that practices child slavery, and seven innocent, prepubescent Vivian sisters who helped to free the kidnapped children.
To many, the detail, depth, and artistic foresight in such an extensive body of work is what makes Darger different. In his book Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, Michael Bonesteel suggests “[p]erhaps it is not so much a matter of whether or not Darger belongs in the Outsider Art category, but whether or not the category can truly contain him.” Klaus Biesenbach in his essay American Innocence offers, ““Why is Darger so relevant today? Perhaps it is because his focus on war and violence, belief and despair, and the heaven and hell of human interaction seem all too contemporary and speak to the deepest anxieties of our media driven society.” Finally, Jane Kallir, the director of the Galerie St. Etienne, writes in The New York Times, “Darger was an unwitting postmodernist, though he couldn’t have conceived what that was. He saw behind the facade of mid-century prosperity and propriety. He deconstructed those cutesy images and saw the sexuality and truth behind them.”
As a longtime fan of the genre, I became disillusioned by these esoteric though justifiable reasons as to why Darger is sovereign of the self-taught. Thus, the appeal of Darger to the non-expert. After an afternoon spent looking at pictures of Vivian girl tattoos on Instagram, I wondered what are the reasons behind his rampant cult following? Why can I bring my friends to a Darger retrospective under the impetus of free booze and watch them leave as fans? Has Darger replaced Warhol as the collectible of the art world? If pop-culture is America, then Darger is art.
To define the importance of Darger today, the answers proposed by art world friends,colleagues, professionals, and Darger-knowledgeables contained several commonalities. Sexuality, obviously, was number one. While it is not possible to paint a portrait of an entire generation, it is common knowledge that sex today is not just a trend, it is a way of life. A generation raised with the threat of AIDS, feminism, readily-available contraception, and media wrought with suggestive imagery has forced a growing emphasis on sexual openness in America. Sex has become the medium to understand and engage with the world around us. Even Darger, a man who may have never seen a woman naked let alone engaged in intercourse, examines the fundamentality of sex in human behavior. Sex, like the reality in which he lived, was vastly different for him than for those of us who cannot imagine a can of Coke being sold any other away. Darger’s mental connections and cultural references are completely foreign to a 21st-century mindset yet he still manages to depict our animalistic thoughts of sex with a childlike innocence. As graduate student Michelle Woo puts it, “Young people are almost numb to the notion of sex. We see it everywhere. Sexual propriety is non-existent. Sexual rebellion is acceptable. This kind of work is neither of those things.”
A further consideration concerning the burgeoning interest in Darger’s work are his indiscriminate depictions of degenerate behavior that flout all social norms. From the pedophilia taboo to little girls with male sex organs, Darger caters to a youth culture obsessed with sex, war and violence. His work remains shocking even to a generation over-saturated with sensationalized media imagery. In Darger’s case, his innocence, married with his ability to create extreme illustrations, resonates with the viewer as a means of ameliorating guilt associated with an interest in moral anathema. Regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or political orientation, Darger allows for an exploration into eroticism, brutality and the human psyche. His violent refusal to submit to patriarchy serves as a direct reflection of current youth revolt against poverty, a shifting economy, and educational disparity. Instead, he serves as an untainted inspiration compelled to create an entire world without the desire of recognition or money. In essence, Darger relates to the Western cultural idea that the human spirit should be allowed to depict and interpret its reality. His work has gravitas because you can see the pure human artist in him and that plays into the narrative of what we need and want art to be.
Lastly–beyond his obsessions, compulsions, and narrative biography–Darger was simply gifted. His complex process and reliance on found materials and characters sourced from published materials made him the original appropriator of mass media. His extraordinarily unusual scenery, rendered in watercolor and collage, incorporate hand-traced figures and landscape elements, referencing the entire compass of early twentieth century pop culture. Finally, Darger’s panoramic images employ dense color compositions, a non-perspectival yet cinematic quality, scaled subject matter, and maintain a consistent yet varied style, diverse enough to make every work both recognizable and unique. Above all, the artist approached his fictional world as an historian, serving as an important cultural bearer, presenting inadvertent documentation on the social concepts and ideas of his times, through the discernment of his mundane human existence.
Like many Outsider Artists, Henry Darger’s world was a complicated one but not necessarily an unclassifiable. Extremes such as normal and crazy, outsider and insider, heaven and hell, black and white, were commonplace terms as opposed to the ambiguity that exists in today’s world. Globalization, though commonly thought of as an economic or political issue, is a cultural subject. With the evolving absence of marginal societies, younger generations seek individualization and personal subsistence that exists outside of the context or framework of being “normal.” While art world professionals and scholars readily recognize that Darger is the ultimate “crossover” artist bridging the gap between Contemporary and Outsider art, many view his work as an exploration of mental eccentricity. The relationship between youth and religion is even more obscure harkening an even greater curiosity on his on-again off-again relationship with God. Essentially, a defiance exists that allows young people to admire the aberration of Darger’s work through an art historical perspective that an elderly patron may find distasteful.
After recognizing that emerging culture is not restricted to popular or sub-culture, it can be noted that the only common expressions of a generation are their underlying philosophical bearings. While casual sexual barriers, an obsession with moral transgressions, globalization, and artistic ingenuity certainly play a role in the younger veneration of Henry Darger’s work, I think the most essential element he provides is an intimate discovery narrative to all of his viewers. Thinking back to the first time I encountered Darger’s work, I recall feeling as if I was the only person who had ever seen it. Thus, there was an inherent need to learn about him and harbor his energy as if somehow I was the sole protector of his legacy, concealing a gigantic secret unbeknownst to my contemporaries. Instead, I had come in contact with one of the most singularly-referenced phenomenon in popular culture. Nevertheless, in my mind, Darger belonged to me. I can only assume that others have this transcendental experience with his work, believing they uncovered an enormous enigma when in fact it was quite the opposite. From my experience, Darger may be mainstream enough in the art world to serve as a sound investment to baby boomers but to Generation Y his work remains enough on the outside to remain…cool.
Kristin Sancken (kristinsancken.tumblr.com) is a New York City based writer and curator. She is contributing art critic for Highbrow Magazine and various other publications. Her essays on Gabriele Orozco, Jose Damasceno, Richard Aldrich, and Piotr Uklanski have been published in several major auction catalogues. She has recently curated the selling exhibition Watercolors at Phillips de Pury & Co. as well as a public collection for Diaspora Community Services. Kristin holds a MA in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. For requests or proposals please contact her through the above website.